By Manik Sharma Jan. 28, 2019
True Detective’s third season roars back to form with Mahershala Ali. A world intoxicatingly on the other side of reality, inconsistent and whimsical, True Detective can, at times, forget what genre it is. Because it’s always busy making up its own.
When True Detective first arrived on HBO back in 2014, it was a revelation. The first season warped into film and noir the way only cinema on the big screen was deemed capable of at the time. Told across three timelines, it debates religion and existential theories alongside its main plot. “Time is a flat circle,” says Det. Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) as he and partner Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) search high and low, past and present, for a serial killer. True Detective could quote Nietzsche and seamlessly transition into the gritty details of a murder, all while chronicling the journey of Cohle and Hart – the former a cynical realist, the latter a cynical dreamer.
Even in the shadow of network epics like Game of Thrones and tautly written crime shows like The Wire and The Sopranos, True Detective was groundbreaking. It spoke in poetry instead of prose. Unlike other television shows made for the age of binge-watching, True Detective, refreshingly, existed in the present, refusing to throw shadows around every corner, or give any hint of the future.
And after a disappointing second season of underwhelming performances and a terribly disjointed script, True Detective’s third season sees the show roar back to Season 1 form.
Season 3 brings back the multi-timeline structure, and replaces the duo of Cohle and Hart with Det. Wayne Hays, played immaculately by Mahershala Ali, and his straight-shooting partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff). Hays investigates the two cases of missing children – the first in 1980, and the second in 1990 – and tries to reconstruct the crimes for an interview three decades later. Few shows can build a mystery like True Detective at its best, and even fewer can mine such a rich universe from fucked-up, philosophical detectives in the unforgiving Ozark Mountains.
Told across three timelines, it debates religion and existential theories alongside its main plot.
Hays is a Vietnam war veteran who has a knack for tracking patterns, spotting the unseemly – someone West calls “a pathfinder”. Here, West is the cynic, and Hays the intellectual. In a scene from the first episode, the two sit idle in a junkyard, shooting at scrap, when Hays stops his partner from shooting at an animal. Evidently, Hays is the more measured cop, which is especially notable because he defies the stereotype of the trigger-happy, fun-loving Black cop.
There’s no denying that the casting of a Black lead has raised the stakes, and brought True Detective squarely into 2019. Besieged by bigoted superiors, Hays must not only navigate the voices clamouring inside him, but those that declare judgment from the outside as well. In a poignant scene, Hays listens to a Native American talk about his isolation with eyes that empathise. In another, he tells West, “I know who I am in a way you never will.” Even when it’s set in the past, this world is eerily reminiscent of present-day, Trump-ruled America and the space it offers its minorities.
Maybe that’s why True Detective’s focus this time around is on relationships. Hays’ pursuit of Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), a local teacher, is mapped across the show’s various timelines, and gives a unique glimpse into how he’s grown over the years. Though the show retains its fondness for the mystic and ritual arts, it has significantly toned down on the verbose Cohle-isms of the first season. Hays, by contrast is plain-spoken, yet still a deep thinker. He observes more than he says, as if the show is making the comparison between the liberties that a white and Black detective can take.
And this new acknowledgement of the world it’s now telecast in is perhaps the most notable upgrade in True Detective’s third season. Besides its exploration of racial identity, the show has a found an ability to leave viewers on their toes. Though still not as bingeable as some of the crime webseries out there, the new season knows when to pull the blinds and keep you coming back for more – not just for the case, but also for a deeper delve into Hays’ life, his waning memory, his relationship with his children, and the trauma of each of his experiences.
There are some issues with True Detective still, especially its blind-spot for writing substantial women characters.
True Detective has never been a whodunit. The case, eventually, becomes secondary, merely the thread that helps us connect broken pieces together. There are some issues with True Detective still, especially its blind-spot for writing substantial women characters. That said, the show has always soared through an absurd world where brooding detectives wax poetic and discuss verses with high school teachers while on duty. A world intoxicatingly on the other side of reality, inconsistent and whimsical, True Detective can, at times, forget what genre it is. Because it’s always busy making up its own.
Manik Sharma writes on Arts and Culture.
He tweets at @Manik1Sharma