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Josh Reviews True Detective Season Three

Like many, I loved the first season of True Detective.  The ending was a little disappointing (in that the many plot threads weren’t wrapped up as neatly as I’d hoped), but I thought it was a riveting, smart, adult drama.  The writing was sharp, the directing was memorable, and the acting was magnificent.  Season two was a bit of a letdown, but while most of the world seemed to hate that season, I enjoyed it a lot.  After that second season was so poorly received, it seemed that True Detective was dead.  And so I was delighted when, a few years later, word came that a third season was happening.  Lo and behold, I think season three might be the best season of the show!

Mahershala Ali stars in season three as Detective Wayne Hays.  As was the case in season one, the season-long investigation unfolds over three timelines, which we follow simultaneously throughout the season.  In 1980, Detective Hays and his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) investigate the disappearance of two children, Will and Julie Purcell.  In 1990, the unsolved case is reopened when video footage seems to show that Julie Purcell is still alive.  In 2015, an elderly Hays is interviewed about the case for a True Crime TV show.  (I love that the show found a way to incorporate the True Crime trend that has bloomed in popularity over the past several years.)

Whereas season one had two leads and season two had four, season three focuses on one single main character: Mahershala Ali’s Detective Hays.  This is a terrific choice.  I have enjoyed Mr. Ali’s work for years, ever since he was the best thing about the sci-fi show The 4400.  He’s become a successful movie star now, but I’m thrilled he continues to work in TV as well.  (He was one of the best aspects of Luke Cage season one.)  True Detective creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto has crafted a showcase role for Mr. Ali, who proceeded to knock it right out of the park.  Mr. Ali is absolutely riveting from start to finish.  I love how he is able to successfully craft different versions of Hays at these three different points in his life.  Mr. Ali’s magnetic intensity is perfect for bringing the audience along through this complicated story taking place across decades.

One of the best things about True Detective season three is that the central mystery wraps up in a more satisfying, comprehensible way than it did in either season one or two.  The show is still fiendishly difficulty to follow — which I believe is by design.  It’s unlikely a viewer will be able to get ahead of the show and guess the ending.  (At least, I didn’t.) I love that about the show… and I love that, at the end, I felt that I understood the truth about what had happened.  (I couldn’t really say that after getting to the end of seasons one or two.)

While Mr. Ali is without question the show’s central lead, the supporting cast is very strong.  The biggest surprise for me was how spectacular Stephen Dorff was as Hays’ partner Roland West.  I loved Mr. Dorff in this role so much!!  He created a wonderful character in Roland (ably assisted by Mr. Pizzolatto’s tight script, of course).  Roland is despicable at times, and hugely flawed… and also, by the end, perhaps the most sympathetic and likable character who has ever appeared on this show across all three seasons!  I was blown away by the sophistication of Mr. Dorff’s performance, and by the gentle wounded humanity he brought to Roland.

Also terrific is Carmen Ejogo, who plays Amelia Reardon, a young teacher who knew the missing kids and who eventually becomes Wayne Hays’ wife.  I recognized Ms. Ejogo from her small roles in Selma, Alien: Covenant, and the Fantastic Beasts films (in which she plays Seraphina Picquery).  But I didn’t think any of those films ever gave her much of a chance to shine.  Here, though, she’s able to craft a wonderfully interesting character.  Like Mr. Ali, Ms. Ejogo is able to beautifully show us this woman at several very different stages of her life.  It’s a marvelous performance.

Shockingly, True Detective season three has a mostly happy ending!  Lots of horrible stuff happens over the course of the season, but I was pleasantly surprised that this generally grim, nihilistic show allowed itself to leave most of the major players in a decently happy place.  After watching a lot of horror over the course of the eight episodes, I was pleased to get this glimpse of sunlight at the end!  (Though the show’s actual final shot — of Hays in the jungles of Vietnam, alone, as a young man — is a haunting reminder of how damaged Hays was and still remains, as well as how damaged most of the rest of the main characters are as well.  It’s a terrific ending.)

I gave a hoot of pleasure in episode seven, “The Final Country,” in which we saw a reference to the investigation of Detectives Cohle and Hart (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) from season one!!  I’d hoped that perhaps this season’s story would tie more directly into the season one mystery.  Season one left a LOT of story threads hanging, and I got very excited that perhaps we’d finally get some more substantial answers.  Sadly, that was not to be; but still, I was delighted by this rare example of continuity between the seasons of this show.

As always, True Detective is wonderfully well-written, with a complicated storyline and rich dialogue for all of the characters.  The show looks beautiful as well.  This season was directed by Jeremy Saulnier, Daniel Sackheim, and Mr. Pizzolatto himself.  While this season doesn’t quite ever equal the particular special something that season one director Cary Joji Fukunaga brought to that inaugural installment, I thought the mood and tension was perfectly crafted throughout this new season.

I am so glad that this show has returned from the seeming-dead!  This was a terrific season of television, anchored by an extraordinary lead performance by Mahershala Ali.  I’m so glad to have seen it.  I hope we don’t have to wait too many more years for a season four.

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