HBO's True Detective returns for its third season on January 17, and fans of the noir anthology series should be pleased with the series' latest outing. After a sophomore season that was poorly received by both critics and audiences, True Detective comes back with a significantly different structure and tone, while simultaneously revisiting certain elements of its first breakout season. That, plus the addition of an actor as well-suited to the series’ bold, yet contemplative nature as Mahershala Ali, makes for a refreshing, yet familiar third season.
The action unfolds over three different time periods in the life of Ozarks detective Wayne Hays (Ali) in what’s both the major structural difference from and callback to previous seasons. Season 1 also took place over three different points in time, but in a less regimented fashion and featuring less overall character development as the years went on. Not so in the case of Hays, who’s at vastly different points in his life as we hopscotch between them. We meet him in 1980 as a Vietnam vet-turned-homicide detective assigned to the case of two missing children with his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff). The action covers their initial investigation in the '80s, catches up with the prominent players ten years later in 1990 as new developments in the case arise, and the skips to 2015. The story taking place in roughly the present features a retired Hays who’s taking part in a trendy true crime documentary about the case while simultaneously dealing with what appears to be the onset of Alzheimer’s or dementia.
Both the crime and Hays’ relationship with partner Roland West are also callbacks, intentional or otherwise, to Season 1’s Cohle/Hart relationship and their string of missing girls and murdered prostitutes. Hays’ and West don’t have nearly as dramatic a trajectory as Cohle and Hart, but their relationship is still a crucial part of Hays’ story. And and while Hays’ marriage isn’t as vexed as Marty and Maggie Hart’s, his relationship with Carmen Ejogo’s Amelia Reardon is still given the same amount of attention, if not more. Given Season 2’s four separate protagonists, personal relationships weren’t given as much room to stretch in the face of explaining the massive conspiracy at work in Vinci, so Hays’ comparatively chill marriage represents a breather in the face of the drama that’s preceded it.
But despite seemingly returning to some structural totems of Season 1, Pizzolatto, who remains showrunner and sole writer on the show (with the exception of David Milch, who co-wrote the fourth episode), has created something original in True Detective's overall body of work. Speaking at a press conference in Beverly Hills this December, Pizzolatto revealed that this season was less about the crime itself, and more about telling a man’s life story through a single case. While Hays’ dogged pursuit of the truth (and sometimes its dogged pursuit of him) is what drives the action, the story lies in how the case affected his personality, his relationships, and eventually his life’s trajectory. In short, Season 3 is less about the mystery and more about the man trying to solve it.
In addition to this shift in focus, there’s also a shift in tone from the nearly dystopic atmosphere of the first two seasons to something akin to (gasp!) hope in the third. Hays, while at different times cynical, mercurial and tortured, remains a far less acutely tragic protagonist than any the show’s focused on before. We get a sneak peek at the end of his life in Episode 1, an arc involving a close relationship with his son and grandkids to dote on. He’s a widower in 2015, but maintains a reverence for his wife that speaks to the fact that their marriage was probably more good than bad. While things are far from perfect considering he’s wrestling with crippling memory loss, the cynicism True Detective’s known for is comparatively muted because regardless of his potential decline, he’s still done better in every category than Cohle, Hart and virtually anyone at the end of Season 2.
Hays’ character never reeks of the despair and hopelessness that followed around Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro or McConhaughey’s Cohle. In fact, the show's general depiction of humanity is a little more palatable. Scoot McNairy plays the distraught, alcoholic father of the kidnapped children, but his story is ultimately more redemptive than harrowing. While there are certainly unlikable characters working within the judicial system, and occasionally against Hays, there’s no grand conspiracy or organized corruption (at least in the first five episodes) on the scale of what we saw in the fictional Vinci or Louisiana bayou politics. And while Hays and West’s friendship suffers ebbs and flows, we’re nowhere near Maggie Hart seducing her husband’s best friend to procure a divorce territory.
Largely, it works. What’s so gratifying about Season 3 and renews faith in Pizzolatto as a writer and showrunner is its ability to remain compelling by ditching sensationalism rather than doubling down on it while still coming up with something on brand. Though, to be fair, much of that credit goes to Ali. Hays is a different character during the three periods of his life we get to see, and that makes him a perfect vehicle for Ali’s subtlety and meticulous attention to detail. The actor finds deft ways of showcasing Hays’ evolution from a war veteran adjusting to life out of the jungle, to a husband and father struggling with marital conflict and a disappointing career, to a man reflecting on his life with the urgency that he could lose the memory of it soon. Ultimately, this season is the story of Hays’ life, and in the hands of the wrong actor could’ve been significantly less effective (read: a train wreck).
Ultimately, Season 3 is successful in reproducing the noble yet macabre journeys that feature in 1 and 2, while evolving itself in structure and tone. It’s not flawless -- Carmen Ejogo is great, but Amelia and Wayne’s marriage never quite earns the amount of time spent on it, and because it’s ultimately subordinate to Wayne’s story, details about the case unfold at a sometimes frustratingly slow pace. It also moves far enough afield of the cynicism of the first two seasons, it's difficult to say whether this season could be properly termed “noir.” And the pacing and tonal shifts might turn off some acolytes who gravitated to the show’s initial sense of ambition.
That said, in a broader context, True Detective is about battling darkness and Hays certainly does that. He might be more successful at it than his previous counterparts, but they’re all still fighting the same fight.