Sometimes, to progress you must go back to your essence and channel it again.
In the matter of True Detective, ain’t it the truth: The first season arrived exactly five years ago on HBO with a bang. A murder mystery of grave intent and profound depth, it was immediately called the best drama of 2014, which indeed it was.
In surface appearance a buddy drama about two cops, ill-matched partners, working to solve a murder case of gothic intensity, it was in fact a brooding depiction of moral decay. It was a masterpiece of insight, in part because, playing the two cops, Matthew McConaughey (as Rust Cohle) and Woody Harrelson (as Marty Hart) were superb. The latter as a good cop gone to seed in middle age and the former as a well-read, thoughtful man descending into terrifying cynicism.
The second season, arriving in the summer of 2015, and again written by creator Nic Pizzolatto, started as a gorgeous, quietly disturbing murder mystery, emboldened to avoid having likeable characters and uplifting moments. But it then sank under the weight of it own bleak pretensions. With Colin Farrell playing the lead detective and Vince Vaughn as his nemesis, and both characters deeply disturbed men, the series had an emotionally inert quality that made the first season look even more sparkling. Both seasons were also criticized for what one critic called “a woman problem.” That is, its depiction of the misogynist male view was seen as a fatal flaw, not as part of its essential pessimism.
The third season of True Detective (starts Sunday, Crave/HBO, 9 p.m. ET) comes to us now when the previous renditions are more distant and the comparisons less sharply defined. It’s very, very good, done with some of the precision and perceptiveness of the first season. And that’s mainly because it broods again on moral decay, the fragility of memory and the elusiveness of verifiable truths about events that are soul-destroying. It is about a murder case and the aftermath on those it affects, and it is about the corrosion of a culture.
Again it begins with two cops tasked with a difficult case. But really it becomes about one of them. (I’ve seen the early episodes, not all eight.) He is Arkansas state detective Wayne Hays, and he’s played with a rare, thrilling confidence by Mahershala Ali, who won a best-supporting-actor Oscar for the movie Moonlight. There are three overlapping time periods. In 1980 Hays and partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff, shrewdly underplaying) investigate the disappearance of children William Purcell and his sister Julie, two kids who go for a bike ride in their battered Ozarks town and never come back. In 1990 the case is reinvestigated when new forensic evidence reveals something unanticipated. Still later, in 2015, Wayne is being interviewed for a true-crime documentary about the case and, while elderly and fearing dementia, reliving the case yet again.
This technique of using multiple time perspectives on a crime and its investigation was at the core of the slowly revealed depth of the first season. And there are other techniques and themes repeated. Hays is a damaged man, clearly still suffering PTSD from his time serving in Vietnam where he usually worked solo as a tracker, spending weeks alone in the jungle. He is black and noiselessly but acutely aware of racial discrimination. He is a single man in 1980, and in 1990 is married to Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), a sophisticated schoolteacher he meets while first investigating the case. In 2015 he’s a widower. He is first alone and lost, then fulfilled when tethered to a loving partner and then alone again and very afraid. He is closer to Rust Cohle than Marty Hart but lacks the macho indelicacy of both of them.
Just as in the first season, the sprawling mystery becomes lodged for a time in clues about the kids’ disappearance that point to occult beliefs and rituals. There are many, many suspects too. But the narrative is really focused on one cop’s deep emotional entanglement with the case and what it did to him, his wife and his life.
There are elements that seem less than fully formed, on the evidence of the first few episodes. The relevance of the true-crime documentary is unclear. (Canadian Sarah Gadon plays the documentary maker with aplomb, but the pertinence of her character’s scholarly approach to the murder mystery is obscure.) Possibly, the importance of some narrative threads will emerge by the final episode.
What remains glowingly good is the unfussy stillness of it; the silences and restraint, the time given to let characters develop and evolve. Also the visual beauty of it, from the long, quiet scenes of fog and creeping darkness on the landscape, to the lingering concentration on impassive male faces. Further, it takes place in a very recognizable place. There are no strikingly beautiful people. This is the United States of Springsteen songs, of working people in cheap plaid shirts. This is the U.S. of pummelled hopes and future dreams that have already been trammelled by lost jobs, cheap booze and drugs.
This season, it seems, will not reach the heights of the first season’s powerful and affecting treatment of men slowly destroying themselves. But it does have the same admirably wistful quality of pessimism and romanticism – about its characters who are more complex than the mystery and about the decay of the place in which it is set. True Detective has returned to its essence, just not with the same dazzling, controversial force.