Time is a Mall Pretzel
Critics making “time is a flat circle” references have, themselves, formed a flat circle. Back when folks were savaging True Detective Season 2, they all deployed the same super-clever reference. A quick glance at all of the Internet’s many, many takes on last night’s premiere of True Detective Season 3 shows more of the same.
It doesn’t mean they’re wrong, exactly. At first glance, True Detective Season 3 seems like an apology for the last go-round, a return to what made the original so compelling. Two taciturn, seemingly-mismatched detectives, Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and the gloriously named Roland West (Stephen Dorff), meander through Poor America. They stumble upon the Case Of Their Lives, with a fair amount of metaphysics involved: creepy dolls and artwork left behind by the killer, obscure literary references, etc. And here the subtle but effective changes begin.
Hays isn’t so much a detective as he is a hunter, of animals and men. He’s a Vietnam vet, part of the Army’s elite Long Range Recon Patrols, guys who were dropped off in the middle of the jungle for weeks on end to find the enemies. Also, he isn’t Matthew McConaughey, thank God. Ali keeps things very close to the vest, often mumbling his sparse dialogue, letting his eyes do the heavy lifting, and man, those eyes have seen things. The tale will revolve around him. He’ll tell it in three different years: 1980, 1990, and 2015.
The case involves a suitably creepy murder. Two young kids, a brother and sister, disappear into the Arkansas night, the killer leaving behind small straw dolls dressed in miniature bridal gowns. (They don’t find the girl, at least in the first two episodes.) We bounce around in time because, of course, the case wasn’t really solved back in 1980. As in Season 1, we get a later-stage interrogation plotline. Here, though, an added wrinkle–2015 Hays, old and grey, is being interviewed for a documentary called “True Criminal”. And while McConaughey’s Rust Cohle seemed lucid and sure of himself as a pony-tailed oldster, Hays knows he’s not, and so do we. We meet him making a recording, something he does every day, reminding himself that he has “memory problems.”
And this might be the biggest differentiator between this season and Season 1. Time for Hays, and for the viewer, isn’t a fla…you know. It’s a salty, greasy mall-kiosk pretzel, twisting back upon itself, terribly bad for you. Voices, and, in one memorable shot, a studio light pull Hays out of his past and into his present. Are we watching a flashback, or are these the false memories of a mind being consumed by Alzheimer’s, and, possibly, guilt?
Along with the obligatory “they’re gonna find the dead kids in this creepy-ass old house/abandoned tower/cave” dread, the new season exhibits a greater existential fear. In a scene in which Hays visits the older kid’s English teacher–who he’ll eventually marry and who is dead in 2015–the camera lingers on a blackboard quote: “What is the name of the world?” No doubt comments sections across America will be diving into What It Means.
I found quite a bit to like about the opening round of True Detective Season 3. Dorff is pretty great, as are all of the supporting actors. Rural Arkansas makes for a depressing and spooky setting. And the mystery itself proves compelling, with a nice twist coming at the end of the first episode. “The general rule is everybody’s lying, period,” Hays says near the beginning of the first episode. Maybe that includes him.