In all three seasons of True Detective, Nic Pizzolatto’s favorite characters are men badly damaged by the weight of being men. The mantle of machismo weighs heavy on these characters’ broad shoulders; a lifetime of gazing stoically into the abyss takes a toll when the abyss stares back. The detectives that lead Pizzolatto’s stories are vigilantes, more loyal to their own notion of justice than they are to the measly version society provides; they are noir superheroes, crushed and redeemed by their great responsibilities.
Technically, this show is a series of mysteries—and especially in its first season, dropped clues and missing pieces drummed up as much enthusiasm as its character stories did. But its most successful elements are also the easiest fodder for parody: the shadowy palette, self-serious tone, male existential angst, and drawled, poetic writing. The men of True Detective roam the rusted-out rural spaces of America, trying to maintain both their dreadful power and their duty to righteousness. They struggle to allow themselves to be vulnerable—to not be consumed by the easy lure of evil, as personified by cartoonish villains. Like Batman comics, True Detective would have fewer stories to tell if its protagonists would just go to therapy.
The struggle between men and their demons is cast as a romantic one—one underpinned, in the show’s evocative opening credits, by the terror of vast wilderness, the unfathomable depths of the starry sky, the unspeakable crimes committed in hidden rooms. In Season 3’s title sequence, a reddish full moon glares as Mahershala Ali turns his face towards the camera, only to reveal an eerie, jagged tear bisecting his gaze.
As with so much of True Detective, this sentiment is evocative, gendered, and only vaguely meaningful—but I can’t deny that it is beautiful, too. As a mystery, the show’s blockbuster 2014 first season was only moderately successful; as a paean to crucified machismo, it was maddeningly self-satisfied. But as a mood piece, True Detective Season 1 was a massive success—bringing the lingering dread of rural spaces and the sticky closeness of humid swampland together for a tale where the truth-telling cowboy heroes have to put their lives on the line to catch one very creepy bogeyman. The second season failed in multiple obvious ways, but its biggest mistake was in losing the first season’s tone. After all, it takes some doing to create a world where messily grappling with toxic masculinity is a reasonable way to spend your time.
The long-awaited third season, premiering on HBO January 13, re-commits to the mood of the first—in ways that both satisfy and frustrate. This story takes place in the Missouri Ozarks, starting with the disappearance of two young siblings who were in the care of their father, Tom ( Scoot McNairy ). The detectives called to the case are Roland ( Stephen Dorff ) and Wayne Hays (Ali), bi-racial partners in a segregated town. Scenes of their initial investigation in 1980 are interspersed with a 1990 reopening of the case, as well as a present-day investigative report on the same incident. Cursory mooring details are dropped in to help you along, but the full story is deliberately withheld from the audience.
Frequently, in Wayne’s own memories, he turns back, or towards the camera, and asks an unseen listener to let him stop remembering. It seems he must have something big buried in the back of his mind, something that scares him. But whatever his foundational secret, his aversion to remembering has become a scourge: in the present-day timeline, where Wayne is interviewed on camera by a pert young journalist ( Sarah Gadon ), the ex-detective is suffering from what appears to be dementia. In one scene, as the white-haired man sits at his desk, a shadowy cadre of Viet Cong fighters assembles around him. In another, set in 1980, Wayne kneels to examine a footprint. The moon, reflected in a muddy puddle next to him, suddenly flickers and goes out. Wayne asks if he should stop talking, and suddenly we are back in the present, where one of the camera crew’s lights has briefly malfunctioned. All this back and forth makes Wayne a quintessentially unreliable narrator, one whose recounted memories might very well be convenient fables. You can see on his face that he is not sure about the veracity of his own tales, either.
True Detective gets more textured when women get involved, primarily because the show’s gaze seems unable to inhabit the interior landscape of female characters with the same close intensity it offers men. In this season, thanks to the three timelines, Wayne falls in love with, has a difficult marriage with, and mourns the death of Amelia ( Carmen Ejogo ), a middle-school English teacher-turned-true-crime novelist. They meet through the first investigation, in 1980; by 1990, she’s written the definitive literary take on the case. Their relationship is, at times, troubled; their sexual excitement is tinged with the gruesome details of the investigation, which comes with some predictable pitfalls. But what really gnaws at Wayne appears not to be Amelia’s success, or how she profits off this sad case, but rather the weight of the agreed-upon “true” story: in the present, he flips through the book as if he is cramming for an exam.
Ali told Variety in December that he was the one who convinced Pizzolatto to turn True Detective Season 3 into a story with a black man as the lead. To bolster his case, he procured images of his own grandfather, a state police officer. Pizzolatto, and HBO, ought to send him a couple extra bottles of Champagne: in a media landscape stacked with stories of anguished white men, Ali’s casting—and Wayne’s character—adds tense, necessary friction, which counterbalances the series’s inclination towards doleful nostalgia.
Even with Ali at its center, True Detective requires its audience to fall under the spell of a hero’s noble suffering—the toxic cocktail of guilt, shame, and bottled-up fear, rolled into a desperate need to perform machismo to every other person in the world. In Ali’s performance, though, the viewer can read the desperation of that stance; through him, it’s possible to interpret not just the seductive power of these masculine myths, but also the defensive role they might have played for a teenage black boy shipped out to Vietnam. And then that traumatized boy has to come back to a segregated town—and work with an otherwise entirely white police force to protect a community that doesn’t trust people that look like him. His gravelly voice, prone to skipping syllables, channels the weight of bad decisions, suppressed grief, and perpetual confusion. It’s startling when the naked brutality underneath his decorum claws its way to the surface—which happens, most notably, when Wayne and Roland pick up and interrogate witnesses. Ali’s Wayne has, quite convincingly, seen some shit, and the pain of it bubbles just under the surface of his life.
But beyond that vivid central performance, it’s difficult to know whether this season will pan out. HBO made just five of its eight episodes available for review, yet this season’s success will largely lie in the way these fraught tensions resolve. True Detective has not seriously handled race relations before; it has drawn widespread criticism for its portrayal of women; the second season had major storytelling flaws. Yet Pizzolatto, a prickly media figure, is still the series’s sole writer—on a season where two of the five leads are black. He had assistance on just two episodes. Episode 4 was written with legendary prestige-drama show-runner David Milch; Episode 6 with Rectify and Quarry writer Graham Gordy. Pizzolatto also directed two episodes of the season, with assistance on the others from indie-film director Jeremy Saulnier and one of TV’s finest, Daniel Sackheim. An impressive lineup, perhaps, but certainly not a diverse one.
For now, I’m cautiously optimistic, primarily due to Ali. Pizzolatto’s scripts manipulate the character’s sense of time—but Ali, like Season 1 star Matthew McConaughey before him, can make even the most ridiculous meanderings of the narrative into a personal, moral journey. It’s rare to see an actor carry old-age makeup without looking affected; it’s as if the boxy wigs and put-on wrinkles melt into his person. Ali walks through this show as if he is stepping back and forth through time, because its constructions of good, evil, fantasy, and reality are all firmly his own. The show seems to organically embrace him, with its forgiving gauzy light and portentous, long shadows. Wayne Hays does not quite belong in this landscape; he is marginal in the police force, weak in his marriage, and feeble, ultimately, as he ages. But he does belong to the show—and, more importantly, the show belongs to him.
LINK ORIGINAL: Vanityfair