DVD Review: True Detective: The Complete Third Season
True Detective burst onto the television landscape six years ago with a highly acclaimed first season, while its sophomore effort was roundly viewed as a disappointment. I’ve been a bit of a contrarian for both of these earlier seasons, as I thought that Season One was a solid effort that was anchored by a pair of bravura performances, but was too weighed down by overfamiliar tropes and a refusal to tie together all of the plot threads to warrant the “Best. Series. Ever.” accolades it was receiving from many quarters. Similarly, I found Season Two to be competent yet mediocre, as it abandoned the multi-setting timeline structure and mysterious, potentially-but-not-definitely supernatural elements that made the first season often memorable and intriguing. It was an underwhelming effort, as the entire second season seemed to retread ground covered many times before by other shows, but its averageness came from it standing on the shoulders of men of average height, and it didn’t deserve much of the vitriol it received.
The phrase “return to form” was often used in descriptions of Season Three, and for the first time, I find myself largely joining in with the critical chorus on True Detective. Season Three is an imperfect entry in the series whose reach sometimes exceeds its grasp (much like its predecessors), but like Season One, it’s blessed with superb acting and a palpable sense of dread and menace fueled by human darkness. It’s almost always good yet its imperfections are blindingly obvious. Back is the multiple-timeline structure. What made the characters of Season One all the more interesting was the fact that we knew that something changed the characters at some point in their lives, but the catalysts for change were only revealed slowly as the series progressed. The atmospheric setting of the Louisiana bayou, coupled with cinematography and lighting that made the air on-screen seem thick, humid, and murky, added to the sense that the local environment may have been haunted by evil, though it wasn’t clear if it was human villainy or something supernatural.
Season Three is set between 1980, 1990, and 2015. The main character, Detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali, in top form) is shown first as a young man struggling to find his place in the world, then as a man uncomfortable in his personal and professional positions, and then as an elderly man beset by dementia and trying to make sense of his remaining memories before they fade away completely. Along the way, we see the developing saga of a double child kidnapping, where a brother and sister vanished one day, leaving their already broken parents completely shattered. The mystery is compelling, and the human costs of the crime are affecting, yet for all the powerful moments, there are gaps in the storytelling that weaken the entire structure of the narrative.
There are a lot of ideas that are introduced to no significant payoff. Much is made of Hays’ service in the Vietnam War, and this bit of background information is used to strong effect when presenting his skills as a tracker. But afterwards, the infrequent references to his wartime experiences fall into Vietnam veteran stereotypes, and a closing scene which implies that his time as a soldier was the defining character experience of his life feels out of place. A revelation about Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy), the father of the missing children, is introduced with subtle foreshadowing, but vanishes with no impact on the narrative. Some characters, like Jon Tenney’s district attorney, are dropped from the storyline with insufficient explanation. The results of a lawsuit, the background of a documentarian, and the cover-their-own-rear-end corruption of the police force are also not addressed in proportion to their presence in earlier episodes.
The dangling plot threads have unfortunately become a hallmark of True Detective. Numerous intriguing points in the first two seasons would appear, only to never be mentioned again. There are characters who you think will play major roles who only appear in one episode, critical developments that are mumbled in a single line of dialogue, and most commonly complained about, the ending is often rushed and leaves as many questions as it answers. I realize that in real life, solutions to crimes are rarely neat, cut-and-dried, and wholly satisfying. But in a stylized fictional world, too many unanswered questions and ambiguities wind up marring the narrative power. One of the taglines for Season Two was “We Get the World We Deserve.” The viewers of True Detective deserve a fictional world with more thorough answers.
Many of the major facets of the third season work well. The Ozarks are a far more effective setting than the sun-baked southern California urban jungle of Season Two. Hays’ fading memory provides a level of urgency and an affecting poignance, as he gradually comes to realize that he might have to perform penance for sins he can’t even remember. Carmen Ejogo is terrific as Amelia Reardon, Hays’ love interest an later wife, who wrote a book about the case at the heart of the narrative. Stephen Dorff is also fantastic as Roland West, Hays’ partner and friend, and Ray Fisher is quietly compelling as Hays’ son Henry, who wants to protect his father, and who may be affected by the ways that both of his parents were inextricably linked to the case of the missing children. Ultimately, the male characters of all three seasons of True Detective manage to be more complex than their female counterparts, as the men are all flawed but propelled by their feelings for other characters and a zeal for the truth. These aspects are more muted in the prominent female characters, who lack the intensity of the men, whose friendships with their allies and feelings for their families form the emotional cores of the stories.
Season Three has at least made some progress in fixing one shortcoming: the introduction of the killer. Seasons One and Two acted as if they only realized they needed a perpetrator once work began on filming the final episode, and they hurriedly picked a random character with ten seconds of screen time as the killer. Season Three at least introduces people connected with the crime early enough to make it seem like we’re not just suddenly meeting the murderer, and it’s a stranger. It’s not a perfect reveal, and I can’t help feeling that True Detective would work better of the murderers were characters we met in the first episode, and who have a significant presence in the entire unfolding narrative.
There’s a revelation in the final episode that provides a possible but not conclusive alternative solution for the case. Which is the truth? The bleak, depressing ending; or the hopeful, happy twist? Personally, I was fine with allowing viewers to pick their own ending, but due to certain unproven answers and other ambiguities, I was struck by the fact that the “official” solution might just be a coverup for something bigger, connected to the dark and unresolved secrets of the first season.
On a couple of occasions, a character hints that the case in Season 3 may have been connected to the conspiracy at the heart of Season 1, which was never fully investigated or explained. There were so many unanswered questions with Season 1 that I was delighted and hopeful to see them potentially being addressed again in Season 3, only to see many of them largely bunted again. It made me wonder if the confession of one character was actually a smokescreen used to cover up darker secrets. True Detective has never been my favorite series, but it’s one that I’ve often appreciated, and if future seasons are ever filmed, I rather hope that they all tie together eventually, culminating in revelations that shed new light on the crimes at the center of each previous season.
The great irony of True Detective is that by the end of each series, we’re never entirely sure what’s true, other than the emotions the main characters feel for one another. True Detective Season 3 is marred by the narrative incompleteness of its predecessors, yet it’s fueled by real emotion, wistfulness, and actors wrestling with questions of virtue and the role of memory. At times I get the sense that the attempt to be epic damages a story that was meant to be told in miniature, and on alternate occasions I feel if each season provides only a limited glimpse at a complex story of human iniquity that is only just beginning. True Detective is a deeply flawed series, but its better aspects allow for the possibility that the future can resolve the problems of the past. Each season focuses on the worst the world has to offer, and ends with a few minutes that provide hope in various ways. Ultimately, the greatest hope that True Detective provides as a series is that given the opportunity, it will eventually reveal the greater truths it’s been struggling to unearth for three seasons so far.
True Detective Season 3