'True Detective': Why Season 3 Feels So Familiar

Time is a flat circle, or so they say. That old True Detective logic, first uttered in season one by Matthew McConaughey's Rust Cohle, has returned in season three, if not in quite those specific words, as creator Nic Pizzolatto once again plays with time in the latest incarnation of the Emmy-winning HBO crime anthology.

True Detective season three, which premiered its first two episodes Jan. 13, takes place in the Ozarks and centers on a new detective who, like Cohle, isn't much for mincing words: Wayne Hays, played across three different moments in time by Oscar winner Mahershala Ali. A Vietnam veteran with the nickname "Purple Hays," Wayne finds himself drawn into the disappearance of two children, Will and Julie Purcell, a mystery that haunts him from the initial days of the crime in 1980, to a new breakthrough in the case in 1990, and all the way through his elder years in 2015 as he struggles to remember basic daily details, let alone details of the long ago case.

The first two installments, "The Great War and Modern History" and "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye," were written by Pizzolatto and are already evocative of the original True Detective run that became destination viewing in early 2014. (The less said about season two, the better, unless it's to briefly sidebar in admiration of Colin Ferrell's Ray Velcoro mustache, which we have now done.) Let's quickly count some of the ways:

• Once again, True Detective features a solitary standout performance at the heart of the piece, in the form of Ali's turn as the brooding Hays, haunted by a dark past that begins paling in comparison to the darkness of his future. As he says in 2015: "I used to think back then that there was before 'Nam, and after 'Nam. Now, it's before the Purcell case, and after the Purcell case." 

• The three distinct points in time — Hays' initial investigations in 1980, the second break in the case in 1990 (it comes to light that Julie, the girl who was never found, has resurfaced and may be an accomplice in a robbery) and an exhausting series of TV interviews in 2015 — calls to mind the structure of season one, which similarly unfolded across large swaths of time.

• As detective Roland West, Stephen Dorff conjures memories of Woody Harrelson's Marty Hart, both because he's a relative afterthought standing in the shadow of a magnetic leading man (despite a strong performance of his own; just as there was no standing in the way of McConaughey, the same looks true for Ali), and also because it appears he's estranged from his partner in the future. In 1990, Hays asks if West has been updated on the latest break in the case involving Julie, suggesting that the two men aren't exactly on speaking terms.

• The current main suspect in the Purcell case is Brett Woodard (played by Fear the Walking Dead alum Michael Greyeyes), better known around town as "The Trashman," due to his tendency to track down and salvage garbage for profit. Obviously disturbed from his own time at war, Woodard's occupation and isolation from society calls to mind Errol Childress (Glenn Fleshler), the landscaper who was eventually revealed as season one's Yellow King. (Indeed, the similarities all but rule out Woodard as season three's culprit; that said, it's early days, trust no one, et cetera.)

• Seasons one and three may even take place in the same universe, based on a throwaway comment in the 2015 storyline. While speaking with Hays about some of the cases similar to the Purcells' disappearance, documentary producer Elisa Montgomery (Sarah Gadon, fresh off her startling turn in Netflix's Alias Grace, a sinister performance that does not help her case as a trustworthy individual in the True Detective space) mentions a "crooked spiral," a symbol deeply associated with the Yellow King and Carcosa of it all.

• On that note, occult symbols abound throughout the first two episodes, from the mysterious dolls found in the woods and dished out on Halloween, to something as simple as a Black Sabbath T-shirt. ("It's just a band," a dopey teenager being questioned by Hays and West insists, as much a plea to the cops as it may be a plea to the viewer to not read too much into every single possible clue.)

The list of common threads linking seasons one and three goes on, and while it's all likely leading to the question of "whodunnit," it also produces a larger question about the True Detective effort: "Why?" Why return to the franchise after a maligned second season, only to offer up a new story that feels so similar to an old one?

Beyond trading on nostalgia for one of the most electrifying seasons of television in the last five years, True Detective season one's echoes throughout season three may fuel a larger purpose for the themes at play this year. At multiple points across the first two hours, Wayne Hays is not only featured across time, but actually engaging himself across those moments. In 1980, in the dead of night, Hays glimpses at the sky, blinded by an impossible light; the action snaps forward to 2015, as the older Hays reacts to that blinding sensation, only to see he's staring into the lights of the documentary crew. Another scene set in 1980 ends even more ominously, as he crawls through the Trashman's house and looks right into the camera, shattering the fourth wall: "I don't want to be here right now." We once again are slingshotted into 2015, as Hays tears himself away from the documentary crew for the day.

Hays struggles with memory, lost in the past, unable to move on from the case that defined him. If that's a defining theme of the season, then perhaps it's useful for season three to be similarly glued to season one, unable to break away from the shadow of a juggernaut. The idea is expressed in other corners of the story already; look no further than the Trashman, who can't move on from his time at war. Hays is similarly stuck in those days, at least in the infancy of the Purcell case. Why can't he move on? Why is he still relitigating these horrors all the way into his old age — and similarly, why can't Pizzolatto seem to shake the ghosts of season one? 

Whatever the outcome of the Purcell case, expect it to involve someone who simply cannot let go of what's come before — both in the context of the story's universe, as well as the larger narrative of the creative mind weaving the True Detective tale.

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