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True Detective season 3 shakes off the misfire of season 2 in a return to form

Mahershala Ali and a stronger story make the new season a great watch.

True Detective
Stephen Dorff and Mahershala Ali play the central two detectives in season three of True Detective.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

When the first two episodes of True Detective’s third season premiere on HBO on January 13, 2019, it will have been three years, four months, and five days since the show’s season two finale aired on August 9, 2015. In that time, a new president has been elected and taken office. Season one star Matthew McConaughey has seen his “McConnaissance” mostly sputter out. And the fad of anthological TV miniseries — shows where every season presents a new story from some of the same creative team, whose popularity True Detective helped touch off — has waned.

To be sure, the big names in the format are still rolling along. American Horror Story arrives every fall, and the second installment of American Crime Story (The Assassination of Gianni Versace, which aired in early 2018) earned wide acclaim. But True Detective and Fargo, which both launched in the first half of 2014 and left TV critics and fans raving over their debuts, later stumbled (Fargo’s polarizing third season aired in early 2017), and subsequently took extended leaves of absence from our TV screens.

True Detective, especially, was hurt by its second season, a confusing mishmash of storytelling ideas that never fully coalesced. (It also wasn’t helped by a wave of press around showrunner Nic Pizzolatto that made his ego seem inflated even by Hollywood standards.) Season two has its partisans (I have received emails and tweets from each and every one of you, I think), but for the most part, whenever I mention that I’ve seen five episodes of True Detective season three, people tend to wince, look concerned, and ask, “Is it at least okay?”

But after watching those five episodes, I’m ever more certain that True Detective didn’t just disappear for a long time to try to wash off some of the stink of season two. It disappeared so that Pizzolatto could come up with a story as compelling as the one he told in the show’s first season.

And I think he’s done it.

In some ways, True Detective season three is a baldfaced redo of season one. But maybe there’s nothing wrong with that.

True Detective
The season’s most important relationship is a long romance, played out between Wayne Hayes and Amelia (Carmen Ejogo).

I’ve been telling people that season three, at least so far, is my favorite season of True Detective, which seems to stymie them a bit — whether they’ve seen these five episodes or not.

My thoughts on season two are well-documented, but I was also a bit of a skeptic around season one, enjoying its frantic, swampy midsection but finding the air to leak slowly out of it the later into the season it got. The conclusion was ... fine, but seemed to arrive from a different miniseries altogether.

So it’s probably worth noting that I haven’t yet seen how season three will end, and it could do so disastrously. But the five episodes I have seen take the best stuff about True Detective and finally wed it to a story that proceeds in a mostly satisfying fashion.

The series has always been bedeviled by having too little story to fill eight hours with (season two simultaneously had too much and too little story), and season three is no exception. The central mystery — the disappearance of two kids in 1980s Arkansas — is better paced than season two’s mystery, especially when it comes to the unspooling of big reveals, but it never quite escapes the shadow of season one’s central mystery and its suggestions of a grand, cosmic horror unfolding just offscreen.

Or, put another way: The five episodes of season three that I’ve seen are generally tighter and faster-paced than the episodes in True Detective’s first two seasons, but I still groaned when I saw that one was well over an hour long, because Pizzolatto hasn’t entirely lost his taste for indulgence.

In many ways, season three feels like season one with the latter’s more idiosyncratic edges sanded off. There are hints of some terrible horror lurking in the heart of Southern rural America (in this case via the form of strange dolls that keep turning up at the scenes of children’s murders and disappearances). There’s a fascination with how systemic corruption approaches the level of Lovecraftian horror (which I’ll discuss further below). There are long, philosophical ramblings in cop cars.

There’s also the endless obsession with time that most defined True Detective’s first season. Like that season, this one takes place in multiple time periods, unfolding in 1980, 1990, and 2015. But where season three eclipses season one is in its willingness to give the audience just enough information to go on to start to fill in the blanks. The mystery remains obscure, but the descent into a preoccupation with solving it that the main character undergoes is front and center across all three time periods.

This makes Pizzolatto’s central point more clear — all of our lives are marked by events beyond our control that nonetheless can grip us with a kind of all-consuming mania if we’re not careful. The characters at the center of True Detective across all three seasons come in contact with dark, evil things, find themselves marked by that contact, and watch as their lives fall apart because of it.

But season three is bolstered by centralizing just one character instead of a duo. As Wayne Hays, Mahershala Ali commands the story’s center — he’s the one character who is consistently presented across all three timelines — and creates a mesmerizing portrait of a man cracking apart under his glimpses at true inhumanity.

Meanwhile, when choosing a central relationship to explore over time, season three ingeniously opts not to focus on the one between Wayne and his partner (a very good Stephen Dorff) but on the one between Wayne and his romantic interest, Amelia (Carmen Ejogo). Over the course of the season’s decade-plus timeline, Amelia goes from school teacher to true crime writer, and through her, Pizzolatto both explores a different side of investigating crimes and creates a relationship that grows both deeper and much more complicated with time. As a result, True Detective season three paints a portrait of relationships between men and women that’s much stronger than anything from the first two seasons.

Where season three most improves upon the seasons preceding it, though, is in how it crystallizes something True Detective has always been about.

True Detective’s vision of crumbling American institutions that are barely able to stave off all-consuming darkness feels better realized than ever before

True Detective
Mahershala Ali is magnetic in the main role of season three.

I keep referring to True Detective as Pizzolatto’s series, and it is. But season three is ably helped by writing from TV legend David Milch (the creator of Deadwood and NYPD Blue, among other things), as well as directing from Jeremy Saulnier. (Saulnier, who previously directed the darkly prescient 2016 horror film Green Room, was initially signed on to direct more than two episodes of True Detective season three, but he left the project after creative conflicts with Pizzolatto, which seems to happen a fair amount to Pizzolatto.)

Yet what unites this season most with the other two seasons of True Detective is an overriding thematic concern that influences all of Pizzolatto’s work: America is crumbling, and its institutions are barely enough to hold the darkness at bay. The world is full of evil, and all that can stop that evil are the actions of the handful of good men left to stand in the breach.

Season three is both the most mature exploration of this theme — in that it constantly pokes and prods at that idea to find holes in it (a Milch specialty), but also in that it makes ever more clear that whatever good America used to stand for, it’s since been subsumed by far darker portents.

This is where True Detective’s Lovecraftian overtones most come into play. In season three, the world is full of horrific religions and cults, just waiting to abuse and exploit the innocent — but that’s not so very different from the ways our institutions and other cherished organizations, ones meant to protect or edify us, stand idly by and let that abuse and exploitation happen. There are still good people within these institutions, but the overall effect is like the implacable Old Ones of H.P. Lovecraft’s horror fiction, who cared little for human beings and simply wanted to be fed a constant string of appeasing sacrifices.

In the world of True Detective, you can fight against this tendency within our society, to be sure, but to pretend that it doesn’t exist is to turn a blind eye to the howling chaos at the heart of a country and a species. The season’s smartest move is to make Wayne embody both of those identities in different timelines, working to combat evil in some periods and working to preserve his other relationships by pretending the world isn’t tumbling off a cliff in others.

This is, of course, what all of us do — we are aware of the world’s shortcomings at times and we try to pretend they don’t exist at others, the better to focus on other parts of our lives. And in 2019, after a relentless onslaught of news designed to underline the world’s horrors, it’s always tempting to take a break, to look away from the dark. True Detective insists that taking a break and looking away might be necessary to preserve one’s sanity and one’s relationships, but it’s always, on some level, a moral failing.

It might have taken me three seasons of True Detective to finally understand what the show is trying to say, but I can’t dismiss the idea that all those years it took off might have bent the planet more toward its dark and cynical worldview than even its creator might have feared possible.

True Detective season three debuts Sunday, January 13, at 9 pm Eastern on HBO.