To a child of the 21st century, the ancient era referred to as “the Eighties” must seem like a difficult place to live. No cell phones. No internet. None of that pervasive interconnectedness borne of technology where everyone knows everything the second it happens. If you hear that Steve McQueen just died, you hear about it through a friend who heard from somewhere else. And if your kids don’t come back home when they’re supposed to, you can’t just ping the Find My iPhone button in your pocket.
About one-third of the new season of True Detective is set in these quaint, social media-less Eighties — starting on November 7th, 1980, to be exact. A few things happened that day. Steve McQueen died. It was a full moon. And two kids went missing in Arkansas, Will and Julie Purcell, ages 10 and 12. That missing persons case extends far beyond 1980, though, having a profound effect on those involved for decades to come.
After a rollicking first season that helped shore up Matthew McConaughey’s comeback, announced Cary Joji Fukunaga as a director to watch, and asserted some of the most complicated family dynamics you’ll ever see in a police procedural, the bar was set high for True Detective. Long story short: the second season seemingly didn’t even try to clear that bar, abandoning the creepy vibes and non-linear storytelling and replacing them with an impotent Vince Vaughn and a whole bunch of silent brooding. But now in the third season we’re back in the Deep South, we’ve got a gothic strangeness hanging in the air, and we’re straddling multiple time periods as the story unfolds.
The Season One similarities are not overbearing, but they aren’t entirely subtle either. Mahershala Ali (last seen in Green Book) and Stephen Dorff (putting in his second worthwhile performance after Somewhere) are the detectives assigned to the Purcell case, and they fill the same general roles as McConaughey and straight-man Woody Harrelson filled in the first go-round. There’s enough newness here to make it all worthwhile, though, and Ali’s performance across several decades (1980, 1990, and 2015) is particularly gripping. While both Ali’s Wayne Hays and McConaughey’s Rust Cohle were actively recounting the original story at hand, Hays’s mental deterioration lends itself to more interesting transitions between time periods as his memories bleed into one another.
And it isn’t distant past, past and present that we’re seeing here. There has to be some accessible present in each of the storylines, regardless of when they’re set, otherwise the framing device isn’t nearly as powerful. That’s already materialized, with meaningful revelations occurring in both 1990 and 2015. While the 1980 timeline might play like the “A” storyline, each period is equally relevant to the outcome of the case at hand.
Given Hays’s state of mind, there’s always the possibility that we are not seeing the whole story, or even the straight story, led along by an unreliable narrator who isn’t aware of the gaps in his own memory. The first season played with that, too, particularly in the fifth episode “The Secret Fate of All Life.” That was the first time Rust’s narration diverged from the events we actually saw, the first time we had solid proof that Rust was (at least in part) lying about what happened. One episode in, Season Three seems destined to play with that divergence on a much grander scale, tinging nearly every sequence in the 1980 timeline with a sneaking sense of doubt.
So writer Nic Pizzolatto has clearly learned from the second season and still managed to conceive of a compelling mystery that brings back elements of the original tale. The main quality this third outing shares with the first, though, is that the story is impactful such that we actually care what happens. The convoluted meanderings of the second season paired with unlikable characters to make that impossible. Whatever the storytelling trickery may end up being, I’m invested in Hays and eager to follow him down the rabbit hole of the Purcell case.
Which, of course, is the mark of a good mystery. At best, True Detective makes the viewer into an armchair detective, and here in 2019 we have cell phones and internet and a Reddit hive-mind essentially dedicated to cracking this thing. We could freeze-frame the photograph in the Trash Man’s house or the clutter around the Purcell home to look for clues. We could — oh, I don’t know — look up the lunar calendar for 1980, scroll to November 7th, the night the Purcells went missing, the night Steve McQueen died, the night Hays tells us was lit brilliantly by a glowing full moon…