TRUE DETECTIVE Season 3 Review: Mahershala Ali Is Phenomenal In An Impressive Third Act

The first five episodes are so good you'll forget season two ever happened.

For better or worse (okay, much worse), True Detective season two actively fought against what made the first season of HBO’s crime drama such a profound hit. Gone were the post-mortem interrogations, the dueling timelines, and the cultish murder mystery; existential (and literal) crises of masculinity were all that remained to signify that this was a Nic Pizzolatto joint. But lacking a compelling framework or narrative, those elements no longer read as a throwback to or deconstruction of old archetypes – instead, they felt heavy-handed at best.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the latest installment of True Detective opens with Mahershala Ali’s Detective Hays recalling the day when the case at the heart of this season began: “I remember it was the day Steve McQueen died,” he says. McQueen’s particular aspirational brand of masculinity didn’t die with him, of course, but the fact that this date is significant to Hays offers plenty of context for the world in which he lives – be it the one around him, or the one that exists in his head. Where the first season was divided between “past” and “present,” season three is actually split between three crucial periods in Hays’ life: 1980, when Hays and his partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff), investigate the disappearance of Will and Julie Purcell in Northwest Arkansas; 1990, when Hays and West are brought in for additional questioning regarding the case, which has been reopened due to a remarkable development; and some 20 years later, when an elderly Hays is being interviewed about the case for a true crime series (the host of which is played by Sarah Gadon).

From the very first episode, “The Great War and Modern Memory,” it’s apparent that this season shares much in common with the first: The multiple time periods, the ruminations on time as an abstract and almost supernatural force, the cultish aspects to the central mystery, the interrogations of Hays and West a decade after the fact, and Hays’ reckoning with his own masculinity – his inability to effectively solve the case becomes a symbol of deep-seated impotence. These familiar elements might read as a cowardly capitulation to the viewership, but season three is impressive in its depth and complexity – it’s almost as if Pizzolatto saw HBO’s dare and raised them, and succeeded in delivering more than what was asked.

But he wasn’t alone; Pizzolatto had an entire army of talent for season three, including Jeremy Saulnier (who directed a couple of episodes and executive produced the series), the great David Milch (who is credited with helping write at least one episode), and a ferociously talented ensemble anchored by Mahershala Ali – playing a role originally written for a white man. Ali is breathtaking, giving us a trifecta of performances that grow increasingly complex with each passing decade. By the time Hays is in his seventies, his memory has been compromised; although it’s not made explicit, it appears that he’s suffering from Alzheimer’s, the effects of which are essentially erasing his life – including the memories of his wife, Amelia Reardon. Played by Carmen Ejogo, Amelia is an English teacher who writes a book about the Purcell case, but Hays feels threatened by her zealous interest. The elderly Hays is haunted – quite literally – by the specter of Amelia, who mercilessly taunts him about the slippery nature of time.

Even more so than season one, time lords over all. It is an omnipotent being, a force beyond understanding or control, a virus that returns again and again at the most unexpected – and unwelcome – moments. It is more than the flat circle upon which Rust Cohle ruminated; it cannot truly be defined. Early in the first handful of episodes, Amelia reads Robert Penn Warren’s poem “Tell Me a Story” to her English class:

Tell me a story.

In this century, and moment, of mania.
Tell me a story.

Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.

The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.

Contemplating this last line with Hays, Amelia explains that when we give something a name, we make it separate from ourselves. Hays counters with his own interpretation: Time in this context is the same as how the Hebrews perceived God – He who must not be named. In that moment, we are made keenly aware of the role time plays in Hays’ life, now and forever. It’s echoed in the smallest details that wash up on the shore of his memory abruptly, after years of struggling to grasp them. It’s present in tangible details: In 1980, the Purcells had two children – a boy and a girl. In 1990, Hays and Amelia had two children – a boy and a girl. In the present, Hays’ son has two children – a boy and a girl.

None of this is to say that the central whodunit mystery isn’t engrossing, but the details and particulars are so deeply intertwined with the existential components of season three that it’s impossible to appreciate one without the other – and vice versa. Without spoiling the developments, it’s clear from the outset that this season was at least somewhat influenced by the West Memphis Three case – the Arkansas setting, the kids disappearing on their bikes, the metal-loving teen boys that were the last to see the kids alive, the lower-class blue-collar parents, the finger-pointing in all the most obvious (and obviously wrong) directions. I’d be remiss not to mention Mamie Gummer and Scoot McNairy, who play the parents of the missing children; both deliver phenomenal performances in an ensemble stacked with exceptional talent. (I could also easily dedicate an entire paragraph to McNairy’s 1980 mustache, which is deserving of its own accolades.)

With its return to a familiar format and tone and some light similarities to the WM3 case, it’s easy to make assumptions about exactly what True Detective season three is or might be. But I’ve seen the first five episodes as of this writing, and each of them are subversive and unexpected, their themes in constant dialogue with Ali and his character’s fickle grasp of time in ways that are impressive and, yes, even profound. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about season three is that it almost feels like a meta-reboot of the first season, recontextualizing its themes and ideas and mysteries; always keenly aware of its presence and the futility of trying to exist in a separate space.