Thursday 20 June 2019

True Detective season 3 premiere review: 'Back on track with a riveting return'

4 stars

Stephen Dorff and Mahershala Ali in True Detective season 3. PIC: HBO
Stephen Dorff and Mahershala Ali in True Detective season 3. PIC: HBO

Pat Stacey

One of the problems, in some people’s minds, with season two of True Detective was that a lot of the time it didn’t feel like True Detective. It felt like an entirely different show.


In retrospect, it was courageous of creator/writer Nic Pizzolatto to try to take it in a different direction, even if that direction sometimes led to frustrating dead ends.

I haven’t changed my opinion that season two had some good things going for it, including strong performances by Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams, or that some of the most hostile reviews (which put the future of the series in genuine doubt) went way over the top.

Mahershala Ali in the first trailer for HBO's third season of True Detective
Mahershala Ali in the first trailer for HBO's third season of True Detective

At the same time, though, juggling four lead characters meant that Pizzolatto’s scripts never succeeded in pulling the various strands into an entirely cohesive whole. True Detective 2 was sometimes as tangled and confusing as the LA freeways that featured in multiple overhead shots.

Last night’s double-episode opener of season three initially suggests Pizzolatto, stung by the criticism, may have back-pedalled a little too far in the direction of the original.

Once again, the protagonists are two cops with very different personalities. Detective Wayne Hays (Oscar and Golden Globe winner Mahershala Ali), nicknamed ‘Purple’ Hays during his army days in Vietnam, is the quieter, more introspective one.

His partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) is the brash, gravelly good ol’ boy type — although he doesn’t have the same toxically reductive view of women as Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart in season one.

Once again, the setting, Arkansas, allows for plenty of muggy Southern Gothic atmosphere. And once again, the story unfolds over multiple timelines — three this time.

In 1980, Hays and West investigate, with the help of schoolteacher Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo), the disappearance of 12-year-old Will Purcell and his 10-year-old sister Julie, who went riding their bikes to the playground and never returned.

Hays discovers Will’s dead body, his hands folded as though in prayer, in a cave. In another nod to season one, he’s surrounded by what appear to be occult symbols — straw-faced dolls rather than stick figures.

Later, the Purcell children’s parents Tom and Lucy (Scoot McNairy and Mamie Gummer), who have been drifting apart for years and are constantly at one another’s throat, receive a cut-up letter from the kidnapper/killer saying that Julie is in “a good place”, and that they’re not to go looking for her.

Flash forward to 1990 and Hays, now in a desk job, is married to Amelia. They have two children of their own — a boy and a girl. Amelia has just written a book about the Purcell case that’s about to be published and will become an acclaimed bestseller.

Hays is deposed by the feds, who suggest the wrong person may have been convicted of Will’s murder and make him run through his recollections of 1980. They eventually reveal that Julie, missing for a decade, is alive. Her fingerprints have turned up at the scene of a robbery.

In 2015, we learn Hays is now a widower and is being interviewed for a true-crime documentary about the Purcell case.

The structural similarities with season one are overwhelming at this point. But Pizzolatto has a trick up his sleeve. The final moments of episode two deliver a real kick-in-the-teeth surprise with the sudden revelation that Hays is suffering from Alzheimer’s, which throws his account of everything that’s happened since 1980 into doubt.

If you need a sign that True Detective is back on track, there’s none surer than the poignant final shot of the elderly, confused Hays suddenly finding himself in the middle of the street in the middle of the night, dressed in his pyjamas and dressing gown. A riveting return.

Read more: True Detective season 3 premiere – the US reviews are in and it's a mixed bag


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