After a largely disappointing second season, the third season of “True Detective” is a refreshing return to form. Writer Nic Pizzolatto has proven that the series was more than a one-hit wonder, and can sustain a high level of quality across multiple stories. While this new season isn’t quite as groundbreaking as the first, it’s still a story told with the same sense of mystery, darkness and strong character work that made fans love the show in the first place.
This season revolves around Wayne Hayes (played by Mahershala Ali), a retired detective from Arkansas who has spent decades of his life being both defined and haunted by a case he never solved — one involving a dead boy and his missing sister. The story is told out of order through three different time periods of Wayne’s life — 1980, 1990 and 2015 — and details the massive impacts, both good and bad, that the case has had on Wayne’s life and character.
While most of the season’s cast is relatively unknown, excellent performances are delivered on all counts by supporting actors Stephen Dorff (Detective Ronald West), Carmen Ejogo (Amelia) and Scoot McNairy (Tom). The season would not be what it is, however, without the haunting lead performance from lead actor Mahershala Ali, who gave us a character that felt so real and deep he’s sure to be remembered as a series favorite. Between the three time periods of his life that we see, we get a more expansive view of a character than we’ve ever gotten before in this series, and the story is able to divide up his life in a way that doesn’t feel too derivative of the first season. By the end, we get to truly feel like we know this brooding, stubborn Vietnam veteran at the deepest level.
The season moves at a slightly slower pace than previous ones, but manages to do so in a way that doesn’t irritate our attention span. Its significant moments are big, yes, but much of its strength lies in the small, intimate scenes. In these moments, we’re immersed into the lives of the characters while simultaneously trying to string their timelines together in our heads.
But the season also draws strength from its central mystery, as any good detective story should. By the end of the season’s incredible first episode, “The Great War and Modern Memory,” we’re left dying to know what happened to the Purcell children and why. Every subsequent episode manages to tease out just enough new information about the case to make us impatient for the next chapter, and the season efficiently uses its eight-episode run to concisely reveal its mystery.
On the whole, “True Detective” has been saved by this third season. It tells a beautifully haunting and deep story that fixes all the problems plaguing Season 2, and has hopefully shown HBO why it’s good to not rush its writers. The show has finally earned its place as an anthology rather than as a miniseries, and a fourth season — whenever it comes — will certainly be welcomed with open arms.
Contact Isaac Vaught at ivaught ‘at’ stanford.edu.