HBO's 'True Detective' season three, starring Mahershala Ali, reminds fans what made the first season great

The new season feels trimmed back — the excess flights of fancy have been toned down — but its world remains a relentlessly dark place.
Mahershala Ali and Carmen Ejogo are a strong match in the third season of "True Detective."
Mahershala Ali and Carmen Ejogo are a strong match in the third season of "True Detective."Warrick Page / HBO
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By Ani Bundel

In entertainment, like in life, good things happen when we learn from our public mistakes. At least that seems to be the moral of the story for Nic Pizzolatto, the driving force behind HBO’s “True Detective” anthology TV series, which premiered the first two episodes of the third season on Sunday, January 13. After a humiliating response to the show’s second season, Pizzolatto’s third effort recaptures the magic of the first season while adding a new layer of brutal nihilism. “True Detective” lands with a lean and mean vengeance, and a renewed sense of societal chaos that we can't bear to look at — even if we sense its presence.

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When “True Detective” season one premiered in 2014, it was a welcome jolt for HBO. The cable channel was riding high on the success of “Game of Thrones,” but had little else to fill out its portfolio. It was also a highlight of what TV critics like to refer to as “peak TV,” series with short seasons and A-list talent. Auteur directing from Cary Joji Fukunaga paired well with the acting of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, creating a heady mix of time-traveling storylines, detective clichés and southern noir. It was a winning formula; the show’s first season landed 11 Emmy nominations, of which it took home five and later added three Golden Globe nods.

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“True Detective” lands with a lean and mean vengeance, and a renewed sense of societal chaos that we can't bear to look at — even if we sense its presence.

Then came the crash of season two, with Pizzolatto seeming to misunderstand most everything about why the show worked in the first place. Gone was the auteur director, the Oscar-winning talent, and, by moving the action to Los Angeles, the southern noir. By season’s end, it was being called one of 2015’s most disliked shows. HBO was rumored to have agreed to both a second and third season, but instead the show disappeared for a couple of years. It wasn’t until mid-2017 that HBO confirmed a third season would take place, and then it took another 18 months for the series to materialize.

Fans who have stuck around will be pleased to find that “True Detective” season three mostly returns to form, starring Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali as Wayne Hays, who we meet over three time periods: 1980, 1990 and 2015. Much like season one’s McConaughey, Ali plays an aging detective, once again revisiting a cold case he never solved. This time, it’s the story of two children, Will and Julie Purcell, who rode away on their bikes one afternoon and never came home. The show has also returned to the south, with the Arkansas mountains serving as the backdrop for what I might term “Ozark noir.” The only thing missing is an auteur director. (Jeremy Saulnier was originally supposed to direct, but clashed with Pizzolatto and left after the first two episodes — which are some of the best in the bunch.)

But other than Saulnier’s departure, change has worked in the show’s favor. Pizzolatto’s past fascination with a type of poisonous masculinity the show seems to trumpet instead of condemning has been notable, even as it rots his lead characters to the core. Some of this is still there. (The opening episode mentions Steve McQueen's death so many times, it borders on accidental comedy.) But season three chose to make Ali’s wife his true acting foil, not his detective partner, as has been true in the past.

This is not a criticism of Stephen Dorff, who plays partner Detective Roland West. But Ali’s true equal is clearly Carmen Ejogo, playing Amelia Reardon, who over the three eras transforms from a local school teacher to the bestselling author of a book about the unsolved mystery to the ghost of a memory hanging over her widower. By making them the central pairing, the show focuses for the first time on male-female power and investigatory dynamics. It doesn’t solve the show’s perceived problem with women, but it does make an effort to balance the dynamic in a way the first two seasons never did.

It doesn’t solve the show’s perceived problem with women, but it does make an effort to balance the dynamic in a way the first two seasons never did.

Race is another subtle theme this season, with Hays' white partner embodying the casual racism of America's past. (Compare this to interviewer Elisa Montgomery (Sarah Gadon), who sometimes feels like parody of the millennial generation. “I’m interested in the intersectionality of marginalized groups within authoritarian and systemic racist structures,” is a thing that comes out of her mouth. But most of the time, she seems to serve as a reminder to Hays of how different the world — and white people — became when he wasn’t looking.) The show only directly addresses race occasionally, like when Hays complains West needs to be the spokesperson to their (white) superiors because “they listen to you,” or when West moves up the command chain in later years, and Hays does not. “True Detective” does not shy away from letting the unspoken divide hang over them.

Mahershala Ali ages dramatically during the third season of "True Detective" with the show taking place across three different eras.Warrick Page / HBO

Nor does it flinch when depicting the way aging takes a toll on the human body. From the very first scene, the show emphasizes how Hays’ memory is not what it once was, painting an eerily accurate portrait of the early stages of as-yet-undiagnosed dementia. This foreshadowing adds to the show’s gathering sense of foreboding, as Hays is constantly jolted by memories that ambush him, sometimes violently.

But while the show feels trimmed back — the excess flights of fancy have been toned down, the forward motion of the plot rarely stops to consider if time is a flat circle — its world remains a relentlessly dark place. The woo of season one’s Yellow King may have been replaced with less mystical, but still-creepy cornhusk dolls, but the terror of trying to find order from chaos is once again front and center. This is, after all, what drives much of the cultural obsessions with mysteries. Season three’s ending, however, is reminder the chaos often wins, even as we struggle to avoid being hemmed in by the madness of modern life.