True Detective Season 3 (HBO)
Written by Nic Pizzolatto, David Milch, and Graham Gordy
Directed by Jeremy Saulnier, Daniel Sackheim, and Nic Pizzolatto
In 1980 two children go missing in a small Arkansas town. The detectives assigned to the case are Wayne Hays and Roland West. Hays is a stoic and determined investigator having spent his tour of duty in Vietnam as a tracker, wading deep into the jungle often alone. West is a more boisterous personality, a hard drinker, and a man who knows how to navigate the political game that makes up policing. The two men find themselves going down a rabbit hole of dead-end leads as they race against the clock to locate the children. In 1990, after the case is rushed to a close by the district attorney a new lead emerges that brings Hays back from a desk job. These new revelations confirm doubts Hays had about the person ultimately charged. However, they also create a whole new host of questions and confusion about what happened to the kids. Finally, in 2015, Hays is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and the passing of his beloved wife, whom he met back in 1980. Hays’ son has worked with a true crime television series to have his father sit down and be interviewed about the case that has haunted the old man for so many years. As Hays’ mind slips away his hold on the present begins to crumble and soon finds himself pinballing across decades in his brain, finally intent on uncovering the truth.
True Detective Season 3 is a masterpiece of television. It’s very rare for a series to come along and build up this much of an emotional impact in only eight episodes. Often, it would help if you had multiple seasons to endear characters to an audience, but showrunner Pizzolatto has delivered something extraordinary here. Continuing its tradition as an anthology series True Detective tries to reorient itself after the critical failure of the second season. From episode one, the audience will see the DNA of season one present in the storytelling. Again we have a Southern rural setting with a decade-spanning crime of childhood innocence stolen.
Front and center through every moment of this season is actor Mahershala Ali as William Hays. Ali gives a command performance and takes a character that could be performed as a cliched “man of few words” and gives him layers and nuance. Even more impressive is how Ali completely loses himself in the seventysomething 2015 version of Hays, aided by some of the best old age makeup I’ve ever seen. Ali carries over the mannerisms, body language, and speech cadence of the younger depictions of Hays and then shows how the ravages of time have worn the detective down. His eyes become deeply expressive, cueing for the audience when he is having an episode and has forgotten where he is at and why he is there. These come at dramatically critical moments but never feel exploitative; they are moments of high stress when a fragile mind would become most vulnerable to Alzheimer’s.
Supporting Ali are Stephen Dorff as his partner Roland West and Carmen Ejogo as Amelia, a schoolteacher who becomes Hays’ wife. Dorff is fantastic exuding a cool guy charisma that we learn over the course of the series is a facade hiding away deeper pains. We notice a limp in 1990 that is explained near the end of the series during a flashback to 1980. We see him meet a woman, much like Hays with Amelia, see the two of them together in 1990, and then have the sad reality of the relationship eventually discuss in 2015. All along the way, West wants to protect Hays, continually telling him he needs to realize that political reality that comes with policing. West eventually develops friendships with people involved in the case while Hays becomes more and more distanced.
Carmen Ejogo brings incredible depth to Amelia, who authors a book based on her husband’s case. She ends being both a rock that holds Hays together in his darkest moments but also an independent figure, resentful of Hays’ constant escape from their relationship into his case. By framing the children’s disappearance and the effect on the community in her way she presents the events in a new light. It’s not until 2015 after she’s passed on that Hays even cracks open a copy of the volume and suddenly has details illuminated in ways he never expected.
There’s a theme throughout the season on how true crime media often exploits victims and communities with little regard for what happens to them when public interest has waned. Amelia’s book is a significant point of contention in her marriage with Hays. The television crew that interrogates the elderly Hays has dredged tangential material that the detective sees as disrespectful to the families. The interviewer also doesn’t seem to show much empathy towards Hays’ condition wanting to press him harder and more intensely as they get into the weeds of the case. Pizzolatto is not against true crime, but you can see him saying that a higher level of sensitivity is needed when dealing with such a tragic loss.
In many ways, Season 3 feels like a more mature retelling of Season 1, though I hold that first series of episodes in very high esteem from a stylistic and storytelling point of view. Season 3 has arguably more vibrant and more developed characters. The complexity of Hays’ relationships with Roland and Amelia is engrossing and sometimes to the fault of veering us away from the case. By the end of the season, the audience will get some powerful moments regarding the two children who vanished and an unexpectedly upbeat conclusion. I never thought I’d see True Detective deliver a story that I’d consider life-affirming.
Throughout these eight episodes we encounter characters who have given up, succumbed to their guilt, and they want another person to pull the trigger and to punish them. Sometimes they get what they wished for and end up dead on the floor, the burden of their pain now transferred to the executioner. The closer we get to the finale the less we see this until Hays and West ultimately leave one character to deal with his sins. They are no longer going to take the burdens of the guilty on their backs and play the game they were being coerced into. It’s this moment that marks a tonal and thematic turn when Hays comes to terms with the guilt he has over the rocky relationship between himself and his wife. We’re left on a note of beauty, of the promise of a story that lasts forever, that only has new beginnings and never endings.