Haunting, both in tone and familiarity, Season 3 of HBO’s crime anthology treads familiar ground with a new, promising cast.
This recap of the True Detective Season 3 Premiere, “The Great War and Modern Memory”, contains spoilers.
The rise of the anthology style series is one of my favorite trends of the past few years. From the various Ryan Murphy ventures to American Crime, there is something captivating about a series that reinvents itself each season, often relying on the same repertory company of all-star players. True Detective, returning for a delayed third season after an extended hiatus, falls into this category, though the strengths of its first season may prove to be the undoing of its success as an anthology.
Created by novelist Nic Pizzolatto, Season One’s (2014) nonlinear dive into Louisiana noir exemplifies why this format exists. Too long for a movie, too contained for more than a single season, the dark tale uncoils as a harrowing narrative, fueled by Matthew McConaughey’s shattering performance as Rust. It probably also helped that McConaughey was having a moment in 2014, the same year he would win an Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club. Gaunt, his handsome charm gnawed away, we saw that McConaughy had some serious chops, though I would argue that Woody Harrelson was criminally underappreciated as Marty. The pair electrified the screen, making up for the sometimes languid pacing.
Then came 2015’s Season Two. The cast certainly had the capabilities–Rachel McAdams (rejecting her pretty girl persona), Colin Farrell, Taylor Kitsch, and Vince Vaughn helmed, this time situated in California. Unlike other anthologies, the creators brought back none of the original cast and even seemed to purposefully work against the elements that succeeded in the first installment. Therein lies the struggle–try to repeat the original and be called uninspired, or mindfully go in the opposite direction and hope to recreate magic. Personally, I don’t hate Season Two as much as many critics did (it was on several Worst of 2015 lists). It’s beautifully shot, albeit predictable, and attempts to take some risks. Which brings us to True Detective Season Three. Initially, it seems the series is selecting the first of the options above–retreading the familiar–but smart casting and subtle shifts allow for a potentially strong season.
Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) is a retired, widowed detective preparing to be interviewed for a documentary in 2015. As with Season One, the story relies heavily on flashback, whirling through three separate timelines, beginning with aged Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) flashing back to 1990, ten years after he worked the Purcell case, a 1980 case where two children disappeared. Within these two opening cuts, 1990 Hays is questioned about his memory as the Purcell case is reopened; 2015 Hays tells himself in a voice recording to hide any memory struggles from those coming to interview him. From the get-go, we have been set up to question the reliability of Hays as our narrator.
The original case begins on a November afternoon (the day Steve McQueen died, as several people mention) when the Purcell children, Will, age 12, and Julie, age 10, fail to return home from riding their bicycles. Early on they are shown riding through the town, passing by various residents who may or may not be sinister. At this point, everyone is a suspect and True Detective has trained us to suspect red herrings most of all. Hays and his then-partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff, looking oddly like he’s dressed up for Halloween as Ewan McGregor) are called in to investigate when the children’s father, Tom Parcell (Scoot McNairy), reports them missing.
Hays’ involvement, of course, extended beyond that first investigation, including his wife publishing what would be the definitive book on the case after it was reopened in 1990. As Hays notes, his life became Before the Case and After the Case. Whatever happened damaged him more than his time in Vietnam, his previous life-altering event. As an audience, we know that someone was convicted of one murder, though it is initially unclear who either victim or perpetrator might be.
At the Purcell house in 1980, Hays and West discover several heartbreaking cliches–the distant, hard-partying mother (Mamie Gummer), broken marriage, and a spy hole drilled into the little girl’s room, evidently left behind by a dirty uncle. While the others decide to wait until daylight, Hays continues trying to track the children through the darkness, to no avail, despite his prowess as a military tracker. Investigating the disappearance the next day leads nowhere, even in questioning those red herrings shown earlier, high school senior Freddy Burns (Rhys Wakefield) and his friends, and a local Native American called The Trashman (Michael Greyeyes). In meeting with the teenagers, Hays also makes the acquaintance of teacher Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo) who will eventually not only become his wife, but the writer of the definitive Purcell text.
“The Great War and Modern Memory” ends with two big reveals. First is the discovery of Will Parcell’s dead body, shortly after he goes missing, his abandoned bicycle nearby and a trail of corn husk dolls leading to the cave where he is posed, his hands steepled across his chest as if in prayer. Julie is nowhere to be found.
Until the second big reveal. In 1990, Julie’s fingerprints turn up as part of a Walgreens burglary. Case reopened.
True Detective Season 3 maintains the previous incarnations’ gloriously atmospheric cinematography. Bringing the show back to the south suits its tone, though that, paired with the construction of Hays’ character, make it vaguely reminiscent of the first season. As with Rust, Hays is a damaged man, his past and present weaving together into a patchwork of despair. However, Ali’s performance, particularly as an aging man filled with remorse and battling the early stages of dementia, minimizes concerns that this is just a reboot of Season One. Instead, we are asked to question the constructs of memory, particularly how it sculpts our darkest experiences. It’s an intriguing invitation and one I am eager to accept.
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Amber is a doctoral candidate in Language, Diversity, and Literacy at Texas Tech. She holds an MA in Literature and History and a BFA in Theatre. A Texas-based mother of two, she is an Associate Professor of English and History at Howard College.