Review: ‘True Detective’ Season Three Takes the Series Back to Basics and Delivers A Great Season

After three seasons of watching True Detective, I think I’ve finally figured the show out. Nic Pizzolatto isn’t really interested in telling stories about murders or big conspiracies (although he certainly loves putting them up as window-dressing). No, he’s much more concerned with institutions and the people that crime happens to. After watching all 8 episodes of season 3 of True Detective, and seeing the “mystery” come to a rote and expository conclusion, it’s clear to me that True Detective works best as a delivery system for top-class performances from top-class actors and less so as a conspiracy/murder-mystery story.

The case of True Detective is a fascinating one. The crime anthology launched in a 2014 breakout first season starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson that garnered massive attention for HBO and creator Nic Pizzolatto. It was followed up about 16 months later by a second season that was filled with nonsense plot developments and razor-thin characters.

After a lengthy four year hiatus, True Detective and Pizzolatto are back with a third season that seeks to right the ship and bring the franchise back to relevance. With a cast led by two-time Academy Award-winner Mahershala Ali along with Carmen Ejogo, Stephen Dorff, and Scoot McNairy, season 3 is certainly a step in the right direction for the beleaguered franchise.

Season three of True Detective follows Arkansas State Detective and Vietnam veteran Wayne Haynes (Ali) as he investigates the disappearance of Will and Julie Purcell across three different time periods (1980, 1990, and 2015). The investigation begins in 1980 when the children go missing and is revisited again in 1990 when a major break reopens the case.

Finally, in 2015, an elderly Hayes is asked by a true-crime producer to look back on the entirety of the case. At each stage in the investigation, Wayne is confronted with all kinds of corruption, paranoia, and his own deteriorating memory as he tries to get to the truth of Will and Julie’s disappearance.

From the get-go, it’s obvious that season 3 of True Detective is Ali’s show. He delivers a heartbreaking and memorable performance as Detective Wayne Hayes. Across the three different time periods, Ali’s performance transforms with each era. In particular, his turn as old-man Wayne in 2015 is so convincing you’ll forget you’re watching a 45-year-old actor, I promise.

As Wayne’s mind slowly falls apart, he is desperately trying to uncover the truth of what happened to the Purcell children who went missing in 1980. Also caught up in the case is Wayne’s partner Roland West (Dorff), his wife Amelia (Ejogo), and father of the missing kids Tom (McNairy). All three characters (along with fantastic supporting turns by Michael Greyeyes and Mamie Gummer) deliver layered and emotional performances that make it feel like there’s more to the season than just Ali’s performance.

One key reason that season one of True Detective was so well-regarded was that the entire season was directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga. His direction brought a consistent visual style to the entire season that you just wouldn’t get from multiple directors. Unfortunately, the show hasn’t been able to capture that same visual consistency since. Season two had a variety of directors and while season 3 was supposed to be helmed by Jeremy Saulnier, he departed the project after two episodes.

That said, season three comes the closest to keeping that consistency thanks to only having two other directors in Pizzolatto and Daniel Sackheim (who has directed many Game of Thrones episodes).

I can’t rave about the performances this season enough — they were my sole motivator for watching. The mystery of Will and Julie, while a compelling catalyst for the season, soon proved to be nowhere near as nefarious and complex as the various red herrings would have you believe. In fact, the entire case is explained via a 10-minute monologue in the final episode. Understandably, many fans felt slighted by the rather pedestrian resolution to the case, but that just wasn’t the point of the story Pizzolatto was telling.

Ultimately, season 3 of True Detective was about a man who lost himself both to war and to his own mind, and all the lives that this one case consumed. One of the season’s best scenes occurs in the finale, “Now Am Found,” when Wayne and Amelia realized that their entire relationship is “tied up in a dead boy and a missing girl.” In the end, the two choose the leave the case in the past and forge ahead with their love and their family intact.

It’s an affecting moment that nicely summarizes the entire season. It’s easy for one thing to worm its way into our lives and dominate every aspect of it. Obsession is a dangerous thing as Wayne no doubt learned over the course of his life. Despite all the doom and gloom in the air during the season, it all ultimately has a rather hopeful ending, which I won’t go into here for the sake of not spoiling anything.

When the credits rolled on season three of True Detective, I came away satisfied because the show was able to populate its story with interesting characters played by incredible actors (something season two wasn’t able to do). Some may be disappointed by how the mystery wraps up, but if you’re in the mood for watching some top-tier acting, then you can’t do much better than this. If HBO wants to keep giving Pizzolatto money to keep making this show and hire actors like Ali, then I’ll gladly watch whatever comes next.

All three seasons of True Detective are available to stream on HBOGo.

3 thoughts on “Review: ‘True Detective’ Season Three Takes the Series Back to Basics and Delivers A Great Season

  1. Your take on Season 3 has me rethinking how I felt about it. Maybe I should just concentrate on the acting and not get discouraged by the plot line dragging at times. The acting was A+ – Ali was great. I guess nothing will ever come close to Season 1 for me.


    1. It’ll be hard for Pizzolatto to ever top the surprise that season 1 was. No one knew what to expect, which was part of its appeal.

      It’s just become clear to me over all 3 seasons that plot isn’t really his strong suit. I think he crafts excellent characters and gives actors great material to play but he just isn’t good at plotting a story over multiple hours.

      This “mystery” barely had enough plot for 3 episodes, much less 8.


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