SPOILERS follow for the third season of True Detective. Proceed with caution.
Walking into the third season of True Detective was like stepping into the great unknown. With such conflicting precedents set in the show’s first two seasons, nobody knew what to expect after an extended four year hiatus. Airing its first two episodes together, both of which were directed by Jeremy Saulnier, it quickly became clear that this season would be much more confluent with the show’s first season. Set in rural Arkansas, the new season took on much of the dark and brooding atmosphere that defined its highly regarded original run that starred Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in Louisiana. The new season also borrowed the idea of following two detectives through multiple timelines spread decades apart, showing how a case would come to define both of their lives. While the first season ended with a big showdown featuring our hero Rust Cohle (McConaughey) coming to blows with the “Yellow King” himself, our new season went out with a much greater focus on the characters themselves as the case seemingly evaporated with a whimper.
The case begins with the abduction of two children in 1980, the first of our timelines. The bulk of the early episodes take place here as the two detectives work the case and bond over its stranglehold on their lives. We learn important tidbits about both of these men, like Roland’s (Dorff) compassion for others and Wayne’s (Ali) experience in Vietnam. Small details like this and others would waver in their importance during the initial working of the case in 1980, but would come to define everything about it in the years to come. Wayne’s service in Vietnam, for example, was something that was only briefly touched on in the early stages of the season, but would circle around to become a defining theme of the show in its closing seconds. More important threads are introduced in 1980 like the children’s parents and the schoolteacher Amelia, who Wayne would later marry and she’d become inherently woven into the fabric of the case itself and into Wayne’s state of being. By season’s end, we learn that the case was closed in 1980 by pinning it on Brett Woodard, a local man that creeped out the townspeople and killed a ton of them as well as himself in a massive shootout of self defense. In the final episode, it is made clear that Wayne left the force in light of Amelia publicly criticizing the handling of the investigation and Wayne being forced to choose between defending the police department and defending her.
The second timeline is set ten years later in 1990, when the case is opened back up in light of a mysterious call from the little girl who had been abducted, apparently having just recently escaped captivity. Roland, who is doing quite well for himself at this point, brings Wayne back into the fold as they try and return to the case together. Many points are explored here, especially Wayne’s complicated relationship with Amelia, who has become a successful author off the release of her book on the case. The two detectives become incredibly sucked into the case once again, getting in over their heads with the mysterious Hoyt family, culminating in Wayne ultimately backing away from the case after the lives of him and his family are threatened.
Our final timeline is set in 2015, with a brief foray into 2005, where we see a happy Wayne and Amelia working at the local university. In 2015, Amelia has seemingly passed away from an illness, and Wayne is rapidly deteriorating as he is suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s. He is being interviewed by a true crime investigator looking into the case. Here, his relationship with his son is explored, as well as his mind’s ability to recall the major events of the last thirty-five years. Because of this, there was much speculation that Wayne could turn out to be a faulty narrator for the show, but that ultimately didn’t take effect. Instead, Wayne and Roland wound up working the case one final time as Wayne realized new details from the true crime investigator. In the end, they would learn that the case had already more or less solved itself and they could live out their final years in the comfort of having each other.
There are so many details to mull over with this series that it can be overwhelming. Because of this, there was a substantial amount of exposition done in the final episode, featuring a character close to the crime explaining word for word to the two detectives what had actually happened. This was a very unfortunate look for the finale and I could actively feel myself detach from the scene as it was happening. The slow build of the season and the feelings of dread and impending doom that it instilled were incredibly successful, so seeing the payoff in the final episode feel like the air being slowly drained from a balloon was fairly disappointing. However, upon further reflection, the character work that the finale cements can be seen as the main takeaway from the season and is what it will be remembered for.
The first season walked the line between the intrigue of the case and the development of the two main characters in a better and more satisfying way. Still, the new season was a major return to form after the lackluster second season. We were introduced to a couple of detectives that we will never forget. The performances of Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff were absolutely on par with the standard set by Harrelson and McConaughey. Fresh off winning his second Academy Award for his performance in Green Book, don’t be surprised to see Ali on stage accepting an Emmy in five months for his work as Detective Wayne Hays. With that, Carmen Ejogo’s portrayal of Amelia Hays was one that provided a different look for this season in relation to the first as she turned out to be a major component of the series and her onscreen rapport with Ali became a focal point for the show and the finale. It remains to be seen what this show will be going forward, but it is good to know coming out of this season that it is a show with more to offer and is something we hope to see more of in the future. Season 3 will certainly be remembered for its controversial and somewhat uneventful finale, but it will also be remembered for the radiant performances of Carmen Ejogo and Scoot McNairy, the brilliant turns from Stephen Dorff and Mahershala Ali, and the transcendent character work from Nic Pizzolatto throughout. While the finale may have left us feeling cold and unsatisfied, the season as a whole beautifully provided both comfort and intrigue.