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Mahershala Ali soars, but a third True Detective can’t escape the show’s past

Mahershala Ali stars in True Detective.
Photo: Warrick Page
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A prospective Oscar frontrunner stars in an HBO mystery directed by a festival-circuit hotshot, about a murder in a small town in the American South. But it’s about much more than that, this tale of the lone-wolf detective who drinks too much and investigates the same crime across multiple time periods. It’s sort of about time itself, and the stories we keep rolling over and over in our heads—and maybe something about a vast conspiratorial scheme with potentially supernatural connections, too.

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Was the preceding text written in 2014 or 2019? Is history repeating itself? Is time, as it was once put forth by a barstool philosopher with a Big Hug Mug, a flat circle?

There’s a new True Detective on your screens. It’s a lot like the old True Detective, but not like the old True Detective. The third season of Nic Pizzolatto’s anthology series centers on Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali), a Vietnam War veteran and Arkansas police dick who can’t shake the case he caught while he and his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) were sniping rats in a junkyard on the day Steve McQueen died. Wayne omits the former detail while being questioned about the disappearance of Will and Julie Purcell in 1990; in 2015, when he’s interviewed for a documentary about the case, troubled by dementia, and still played by Ali, the McQueen thing remains, but little of Wayne’s other memories do. The season flits between all three timelines, often leaving Wayne disoriented within his own remembering.

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Circling the Bullitt star’s demise on the calendar borders on self-parody, but while it’s not exactly “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper?, it still signals the season’s back-to-basics nature. When Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson combed the gnarled Southern Gothic landscape for Dora Lange’s killer in True Detective’s first season, they were also investigating the death and the dishonesty of the tough-guy American masculinity exemplified by McQueen and Cooper. The true mystery of season three is in the subtext, too, and the time-hopping structure and the depositions mirror that of the Lange case—though here the middle of the story plays out simultaneously with the beginning and the end, Detective Rustin Cohle’s most famous words put into storytelling practice.

If the chronological acrobatics feel a little more gimmicky this time around, it could be because Westworld, Legion, and Maniac (the last helmed by prodigal True Detective son Cary Fukunaga) made them de rigueur in the time that passed between Frank Semyon’s dusty farewell and the introduction of Wayne Hays. The novelty factor has diminished, enjoyable as it is to watch the meta-narrative of True Detective echoing its first, lauded season. Burrowing deeper into self-awareness, documentarian Elisa (Sarah Gadon) represents the contemporary true-crime obsession that bubbled up during True Detective’s hiatus; she’s given a literary nonfiction predecessor in Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), a schoolteacher who assists in the initial Purcell investigation before marrying Wayne and authoring her own In Cold Blood about the case.

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Mahershala Ali and Carmen Ejogo star in True Detective.
Photo: Warrick Page (HBO)

But taking all of that into consideration, there’s the gnawing sense that there’s less to what’s going on around season three’s Billy Pilgrim routine, a whodunit haunted by some distinctly American boogeymen (Vietnam, Jim Crow, the Satanic panic, corruption of the justice system) and populated by a whole lot of stock characters. It’s boilerplate murder-mystery stuff, helped in no way by a pace that has to make slack in order to accommodate a trio of present days. The third season of True Detective is a show that gets some poignant TV out of depicting Wayne and Amelia’s courtship side by side with one of their marriage’s rockiest passages, but it’s also a show that asks Scoot McNairy and Mamie Gummer—playing Will and Julie’s parents—to shout their way through some awfully flimsy Ozark misery porn.

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Of his inspirations for season three, Pizzolatto told Entertainment Weekly, “I was thinking about a couple people close to me who have been touched by this affliction and I was wondering if it would be possible to tell a man’s life story in the form of a detective story,” and while the detective part of that equation falters, the man does not. Ali has such command of all three Waynes that he practically steadies the over-ambitious enterprise by himself. This True Detective still vibrates at Pizzolatto’s particular, hard-boiled frequency, but the low hum of Wayne’s default state is its lead melody: cool and collected, making any emotional spikes matter that much more. Especially in the two-part opener directed by Jeremy Saulnier, the terrors confronting Wayne are most effectively registered in Ali’s reactions: the palpable shock upon the discovery of a corpse, the bewilderment when 2015 Wayne finds himself at his son’s dinner table one instant and the run-down former site of the Purcell house the next.

He also rises to the role’s extremely high degree of difficulty, finding distinct facets and personalities in Wayne at all three ages while still selling the notion that they’re all the same person. They’re connected by an ever-present simmer, the heat of which is generated by young Wayne’s doggedness, old Wayne’s confusion, or all the Waynes’ professional and personal experiences in a setting where the racism is always there—it just wears different faces depending on the decade. It’s a stunning and complex portrayal, its extremes demonstrated in interviews and interrogations: good cop Wayne making meme-ready lightsaber noises to calm Will’s Star Wars-loving school chum, bad cop Wayne pouring gallons of menace and spite into some prison-rape imagery that’s even too intense for his shit-kicking partner.

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Ali sculpts a full, tragic figure in a relatively short amount of time and from a fairly limited amount of raw material. Even as the story’s focal point, Wayne is underwritten, a character more notable for the way he’s played and the extraordinary circumstances he finds himself in than for, say, his past as an army tracker or his off-duty boar-hunting hobby. The lack of personality pervades the scripts: The supporting characters are propped up by uniformly strong acting from the above-the-line-cast, but the suspects are nothing but red herrings and cannon fodder, and the authority figures are largely indistinguishable drawls issuing from nondescript suits.

Mahershala Ali stars in True Detective.
Photo: Warrick Page (HBO)
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Nobody’s carving out can men, nobody’s walking around in a bird mask. Whereas season two took the Gospel of Rust Cohle and blew it up into the pure camp of Vince Vaughn monologuing about being locked in a basement or character-definition-by-way-of-Rachel-McAdams-knife-play, season three tones down True Detective’s eccentricities. There’s an additional timeline to juggle, but Pizzolatto is more judicious with his writerly indulgences and the snippets of dialogue—“You know how many times rats almost ended civilization?”—that are the verbal equivalents of this photograph. If the presence of David Milch cranked up the poetic-bullshit quotient for the fourth episode, “The Hour And The Day,” it goes unheard; that installment mostly casts a sinister pall over the local Catholic church, pits Wayne between his race and his badge, and sets up a shoot-out for the following week.

And while there’s a renewed emphasis on atmosphere and eerie hallucinations, this is the series’ least visually striking entry to date. Saulnier establishes a nocturnal palette of sickly blues and greens in the premiere, but then he’s out. With so much common ground between this season and the first, it’s all the more apparent that Cary Fukunaga’s direction was the key ingredient of The Yellow King’s alchemy. When that aforementioned shoot-out goes down, the tension’s there, as are the pyrotechnics, but it’s missing the verve and the daring of Fukunaga’s famed six-minute “Who Goes There” tracking shot. The memorable image of a silhouetted Ali crossing a blown-out threshold—the jagged lumber making it look like he’s climbing into the mouth of a monster—is marred by the lily-gilding tatters of stars and stripes.

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The True Detective franchise is, at this point, similarly battered. Ali’s performance is an example of what the show can be, but the third season as a whole remains as a disappointing reminder of what was. As is the curse of all auspicious debuts, it’s a show that will forever be defined by its past—measured against the highs of its first season and the lows of its second. The following are all true: True Detective is great, True Detective is terrible, True Detective is rolling out new episodes on HBO. Same as it was in 2014, 2015, and now, in the year of Mahershala Ali Doing Jedi Mouth Sounds.

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