True Detective: Season Three Review

A flawed season that fails to capture the heights of the first.

Fans were eager for a follow-up after the roaring success of True Detective season one. Even in the face of a new cast of characters, viewers couldn’t wait to see what the show had in store. Unfortunately, season two came and went without making much of an impression. season three seemed to promise more, and look set to deliver. An Oscar-winning actor and a setting reminiscent of the first season. Despite the rural backdrop and the best efforts of the leading actor, season three still fails to recapture the magic.

True Detective season three is aided by some great performances. Scoot McNairy provides great turn as the traumatised father of the missing Purcell children. Mahershala Ali unsurprisingly delivers a wonderfully downbeat but evolving performance as Detective Wayne Hays, across three time periods. It is difficult to fault performances in True Detective as no member of the cast stands out as performing poorly but this season’s characters do come up short. The actors appear to be doing their very best with what they are given. Unfortunately, characters like Wayne’s love interest Amealia (Carmen Ejogo) and his partner Roland stand out as characters let down by a lack of depth.

The lack of depth extends to the main character too. Wayne is often reserved but he’s ruthless when push comes to shove, a clear reflection of the mentality he needed as a veteran of the Vietnam War. However, beyond the occasional references to Wayne’s time in Vietnam, we rarely see the character wrestle with the issues that have led to his emotional detachment. True Detective has always provided nuanced characters. In season one, Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle was similarly a character of repressed emotions. We saw the consequences this personality had on Rust, the case, and the people around him. In Wayne’s case, his character doesn’t change a whole lot and consequences are often just alluded to in the background as we traverse the time periods of his life. The lack of deeper emotional exploration is prominent across almost the whole cast of characters in season three.

One of the most enjoyable parts of this season of True Detective was the relationship between Mahershala Ali’s Wayne and Stephen Dorff’s Roland West. The darker take on the “buddy-cop” dynamic has echoes of McConaughey’s and Harrelson’s relationship in season one, creating a tighter focal relationship for Season three as opposed to the more ensemble-like dynamic in Season two. We get numerous scenes of Wayne and Roland driving from location to location discussing decisions they are making in the case; the interactions range from brotherly to outright fiery.

Unlike Ali’s Oscar-winning outing in the Oscar-winning Green Book, True Detective season three often takes a more measured approach to issues of race in the South of the USA. Race relations rarely take centre stage in the relationship between the two cops. When race is addressed it often shows Roland as a character removed from the views of neighbours and his upbringing, sympathising when discovering racism that Wayne faces. Roland is quick to drop this demeanour when he and Wayne argue later in the series, demonstrating the fragile nature of allyship.

The key relationships in this season also fall victim to a notable lack of depth. Many struggles between characters are often just alluded to. While “show, don’t tell” storytelling is a key element of great exploratory storytelling, the show often fails to do either. The relationship between the Purcell parents is demonstrated as fraught from the beginning but little is done to provide a mental picture of the unhappy household that the show’s characters often allude to out loud.

The failure here is no more present than in the relationship between Wayne and his family, particularly between him and Amealia. The series doesn’t spend a significant amount of time with the Wayne and Amealia but when it does it often involves the characters arguing about the case. The arguments often end in reconciliation after some drawn-out back-and-forth. The show fails to dig deep into the relationship between the two characters. Amealia’s motivations for her whole character, let alone how she responds to Wayne’s actions, are never touched upon. When moments of angst appear to be causing an irreparable rift between the characters, they find common ground. The common ground is often absent of reason. When Amealia forgives Wayne, following her discovery of him in a compromising position, the reconciliation feels similar to that of the infamous Martha scene in Batman vs Superman Dawn of Justice. The two characters have significant discrepancies in their world view and the show fails to spend enough time with their relationship to explain why they can’t help but come back together.

Part of the failure of character and relationship development in this season appears to come down to its use of three different time periods, which often mean we only get a sneak peek at what is to come for the characters. Series creator Nic Pizzolatto made clear in a press conference ahead of season three that this move was aimed at making the season much simpler. “It’s telling you everything that’s going to happen before it happens. I wanted to be able to do that–to not play any cheap games with the viewer [..] but still reward them with revelation and reversal.” Unfortunately, something seems to have gone drastically wrong in the implementation of Pizzolatto’s new approach.

The show now seems to choose to abandon providing much reason for the shifting situations between the time periods. season three often alludes to Wayne’s fraught relationship with his daughter. However, the fracturing of the relationship seems to play out in between time periods; we rarely see it in action. Pizzolatto’s version of not playing cheap games while still rewarding the viewer with revelations seems to have translated badly to television. The creator has removed smartly woven story-telling and chooses to then dump a huge pile of exposition in the finale. Rather than use the separate time period to sow seeds of intrigue, Pizzolatto has created a season which skips over important character development and removes much of the mystery from the central case. Even more frustrating is the fact that this mistake failed in Pizzolatto’s stated purpose for it. Towards the end of the season, keeping track of what happened last time you saw the previous time period becomes increasingly difficult, the change far from makes the show more straight-forward.

The criminal case as the centre of season three feels like the simplest crime the “True Detectives” have had to tackle across the series. However, similar elements do crop up. A conspiracy is hinted at but isn’t fully explored. We even get a shout-out to the first season when the recurring element of paedophile rings being involved in the crime is introduced. This where the comparisons end though. The case doesn’t stray too far from simply being about missing children, few strange elements crop up and the officers rarely explore more existential questions about the whys and wherefores of the crime as the other seasons do. The best part of the case from a storyline point of view is seeing how the Purcell kids’ father copes with the atrocity.

Once again, Pizzolatto’s desire to provide a simpler narrative seems to be a curse. The creator seems to show little interest in trying to have the audience really stew over the elements of the crime this time out. Instead, he dumps the conclusion to the case in the finale in a flashback-laden monologue. The solution to the crime would’ve served the story much better had it really had anything to do with the episodes that preceded the finale. Beyond some tenuous links, it felt like an afterthought.

One of the more significant failings of True Detective season three is that it just doesn’t really feel like one whole story. Episodes often seem disjointed, without many running themes across them. If season one of True Detective was about loss and existentialism and season two was about dealing with grief and self-loathing… I can’t tell you what season three was about. season three includes elements of loss, distrust, and obsession but not a significant degree. The show also doesn’t feature the trademark gloomy and thoughtful atmosphere of True Detective. Season three nails the quiet dialogue that often means you have to lean in or rewind to make sure you don’t miss anything. However, the show doesn’t leave an impression. I don’t think you’ll be pondering this season long after its conclusion.

While I enjoyed season two more than most, season three felt like a sure-fire return to form for the series during its run. Looking back, I’m not so sure. The show is enjoyable for large parts. The performance by Mahershala Ali is remarkable and he’s supported well by the rest of the main cast. Yet, as a whole season, something is missing. The show feels hollow. Nic Pizzolatto wanted to provide a season that less-convoluted than the others, but it feels like his stripped out the elements that make viewers care, elements that leave a mark.


Updated: Feb 28, 2019

Get involved
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum
True Detective: Season Three Review | The Digital Fix