Time is a flat circle, and here we are again, back at the start of it, revisiting the fabric of True Detective that turned its 2014 debut into a cultural phenomenon and speeding quickly past the creative missteps of the much-maligned second season of the HBO series.
But Sunday night’s two-hour True Detective Season 3 premiere—the first two episodes, “The Great War and Modern Memory” and “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” aired back-to-back—proved that the famous line is an example of perfect writing tortured by actual execution. Time may metaphorically be a flat circle, but in practice it is a dizzying maze of curlicues and spirals, perhaps purposefully complex but, at least at this current juncture, not exactly gratifying to untangle.
(Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS from Sunday night’s premiere lie ahead.)
This go-round sees Mahershala Ali standing in for Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson (both stars retain executive-producer status), tracking back and forth across decades to revisit and relitigate a gruesome case that has seemingly haunted his character for a lifetime.
The viewer, then, is jostled like a rider on a particularly rickety wooden roller coaster. At this turn, you’re engrossed in the mystery and breakthroughs of the initial investigation in early flashbacks, then whiplash-shocked by details revealed about the case in scenes set 10 years later, and finally left woozy while ruminating on the ways it all has crept into the soul of a family that has been preoccupied with this story for decades during yet another timeline set 25 years after that.
All the while we’re meant to wonder what to extrapolate thematically from a show’s laundry list of narrative landmines: Vietnam, PTSD, dementia, the Deep South, race, cults, memory, and, uh, murdered children. Your typical Sunday night on HBO.
But as the second hour cuts to black with Ali’s retired police detective Wayne Hays, elderly and suffering from dementia, standing on the corner of Shoepick and Briarwood gazing startled at the remains of an overgrown lot wondering why he’s there and what it could mean, we’re left wondering the same.
Are we invested enough to tune back in and find out? Our answer to that: a shrugged, sure, we guess. Not exactly the most passionate endorsement of the show’s new mystery. But given the series’ spotty track record, we move cautiously forward. (Time may be a flat circle, but that doesn’t mean we have a lot of it.)
True Detective Season 3 establishes its three timelines and the central facts of the case with a clever breathlessness. Within the first five minutes, we travel back and forth between 35 years.
It is November 1980 in a sleepy Arkansas town, and young Will Purcell and his sister Julie go for a bike ride at dusk, never to return. Wayne Hays (Ali), a Vietnam War veteran notorious for his tracking skills, and his partner Roland (Stephen Dorff) are put on the case, soon discovering Will’s body left in a cave, his hands staged as if he is praying. Julie is still missing, though presumed dead.
It is 1990, and Hays is now married to a teacher named Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), whom he first met while investigating the case 10 years prior. She had become so consumed by the saga that she actually wrote a book about it. Brought back in for a deposition, Hays learns that, despite there (apparently) having been a conviction in the Purcell case, there’s new evidence that could lead to it being opened back up—something that also seems to re-open old wounds for Hays, who had clearly had doubts about what initially happened.
It is 2015, and Hays is in the throes of dementia, visited by a Making the Murder-style investigative camera crew that is going to litigate the case again, requiring him to jog a failing memory and once again surfacing long-lost horrors when he does.
Anything straightforward-seeming about this “missing kids” case is upended throughout those first two episodes as the audience learns a handful of shocking clues and twists in each of the timelines: The children may have been targeted by somebody who likes to send ransom notes and lured with creepy dolls made out of brush (1980), that Julie Purcell is actually alive (1990), and something happened between Julie and her father Tom (Scoot McNairy) that the camera crew producer finds suspicious.
Throughout, we meet a handful of suspects—a war vet who trolls the neighborhood picking up garbage, a local pedophile, the Purcells’ cousin, a group of teenagers—but none seem, at least over the course of the first two hours, like more than a handful of lazily placed red herrings.
Ostensibly, the point of this double premiere was to pique interest and raise big questions about the rest of the season, so here are ours:
- What is behind those weird dolls?
- What happened between Wayne and his daughter, who seems to be estranged?
- What is the incident between Tom Purcell and Julie that the producer keeps referring to?
- Did Wayne suspect that Julie was alive?
- What bar is Mamie Gummer hanging out at?
- Does Wayne’s Vietnam PTSD affect the case somehow?
- Who was ultimately convicted in the 1980 timeline? Is it going to be overturned?
- Are those teenage suspects setting up a West Memphis Three-inspired storyline about the falsely accused?
- What pretentious philosophical lessons about life and, more important than life, ~~masculinity~~ are we supposed to gather this time around from Nic Pizzolotto’s writing?
- What caused Wayne to leave the PD?
- Will there be a TV moment in 2019 that tops Mahershala Ali making a lightsaber sound effect with his voice?
- What was at the empty lot that we see at the corner of Shoepick and Briarwood at the end of the episode?
That last scene was particularly confusing, and not in a fun, cliffhanger way. I had been in a panic that I was supposed to know what building was on that empty lot. I asked around and the general consensus is no, we’re not supposed to know. Which, while we all could be wrong, means I didn’t miss anything important. I just didn’t care about the reveal! Oh well!
That said, as thinly drawn as the characters are, I’m in love with all of them. Wayne is so damn sweet I’m already angry about whenever we inevitably find out he did something bad or wasn’t nice to his daughter and/or perfect wife played by Carmen Ejogo. Carmen Ejogo is so good! Also great: Stephen Dorff! And Scoot McNairy! (That mustache!) Mamie Gummer as Lucy seems like she was beamed in from another planet with the out-of-place energy of her performance, but it is wild and I am here for it.
And, duh, I want to see what the hell all this is about Julie actually being alive. I mean, excuse me?! (There are many articles that will meticulously dissect the symbolism and profundity of every line, frame, and clue in True Detective. As you may have learned, this is not one of those pieces.)
But what the new season, at least with its engrossing enough, so-so start illustrates is something pop-culture aficionados learned 34 years ago, talk about time being a flat circle and all. There’s only so much to gain by going back to the future.
HBO believes in this franchise enough to do another installment despite the failure of its second season, and ruled that following almost the exact blueprint of what made the first work so spectacularly would fix all of the franchise’s problems. But the result is a facsimile of that greatness. Nothing’s been destroyed or particularly bastardized, but there are things about it that just feel not right. Almost like it was a poor idea to meddle at all.
That we’ll probably tune in for more? That’s a testament to the immense powers of Mahershala Ali, capable of elevating material to heights that make viewers and critics—and even awards voters (cough, Green Book, cough)—betray their best judgment.