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‘True Detective’ Review: Season 3 Premiere Is All About the Memories, Man

The Season 3 premiere calls to mind Season 1 through timelines and trees, while setting up an original story about one man losing his mind.

True Detective Season 3 Episode 1 Mahershala Ali old

Mahershala Ali in “True Detective”

Warrick Page / HBO

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “True Detective” Season 3, Episode 1, “The Great War and Modern Memory,” and Episode 2, “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.”]

After nearly three-and-a-half years off the air, “True Detective” is back, and it’s traveling back in time — again. The Season 3 premiere introduces Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) in three different timelines: In 2015, he’s a retired detective suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, who’s asked to remember what happened during a homicide case from 1980. In this, the oldest timeline, Wayne and his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) are tasked with solving a small-town murder: one boy dead, his sister missing — later, in 1990, it appears she’s alive.

These are the basics of creator, writer, and producer Nic Pizzolatto’s new season, but there’s far more going on than that. The premiere, titled “The Great War and Modern Memory,” is grounded in the anthology series’ past — there are plenty of nods to everyone’s favorite season, the first — while establishing a fresh narrative about how memories shape our lives. Wayne isn’t just trying to solve a case. He’s trying to put his life together, and he’ll go spiraling through a painful past to do it.

If time is a flat circle, what happens when the circle cracks?

Everything about the oldest timeline is steeped in histrionic gravitas, starting with the very first shot of the series: the click-clack of the Purcell children’s bicycle spokes. After a brief interlude to introduce Wayne and his case, director Jeremy Saulnier shows us why those loud wheels attract so much of his attention — and the neighbors’. These are the victims, and what happens to them after this fateful bike ride will haunt Wayne for the rest of his life. So attention must be paid to their journey:

After Julie and William Purcell start pedaling, they wave at a young boy who waves back a little too sweetly. Then there’s the neighbor taking down her pumpkin bucket, who waves and smiles at the passing children (who don’t seem to notice her). The “trash man,” as Brett Woodard (Michael Greyeyes) is most commonly known, sees them next, passing by in his ATV without much fanfare. Finally, the high schoolers in their blinding purple VW bug stare ominously at the kiddos (whose bike they’re shown riding later on), in our glimpse at the victims alive.

True Detective Season 3, Episode 1 - Scoot McNairy, Stephen Dorff, Mamie Gummer, Mahershala Ali

“True Detective”

Warrick Page / HBO

The time given to this short, simple expedition is lengthy — over four minutes of screen time for an uneventful ride down the road — so one would think these eyewitnesses will play a key part later on. (The neighbor is shown comforting Lucy Purcell after the kids disappear.) But who may not matter as much as how. “True Detective” has never really been about the case, and the premiere’s direction cleverly evokes the primary subject at hand: Wayne himself.

Saulnier’s slow-motion doubles down on the heavy emphasis paid to very little action. He’s creating a sense of place, of time, and, most importantly, of memory. This isn’t just what happened, but how Wayne remembers it happening. Their bike ride is framed through his recollection to the investigators during the middle timeline, and Saulnier’s atmosphere adds a lot more to the experience than the story itself.

Take the scene when Wayne and Roland first show up to the house. From the partners’ slow gait to the odd spacing between officers stationed a few feet from one another, the setting itself is eerie and off-kilter. It doesn’t feel real, even though Roland’s period-appropriate cowboy duster and the cop cars’ rolling blue lights (not blue and red), illustrate all the details are as they should be. Moments after approaching Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy), Wayne hears a voice and turns around, toward the camera — now it’s 2015, Wayne is grayed, and he’s remembering the scene from a different time.

It happens in reverse during Episode 2, as Wayne remembers how afraid the West Finger citizens became during the manhunt for little William Purcell’s killer. A school bus creeps down the street and opens its door, but no children rush onboard. No one leaves their house at all. It’s a ghost town, and Saulnier shows his audience exactly that. The gray skies and barren streets further emphasize a feeling over a reality.

True Detective Season 3 Episode 1 Mahershala Ali, Stephen Dorff, Scoot McNairy

Mahershala Ali, Stephen Dorff, and Scoot McNairy in “True Detective”

Warrick Page / HBO

This kind of purposeful ambiance-shifting is part of Saulnier’s expertise. Anyone who caught his latest film, “Hold the Dark” (now streaming on Netflix), should recognize similarities between Wayne’s examination of the house and Russell Core (Jeffrey Wright) coming to an uneasy rest in the Alaskan home of Medora Sloane (Riley Keough). There’s a stark, otherworldly quality to the worlds he builds, and the people roaming amongst them have a hard time finding secure footing. This aesthetic is a perfect fit for portraying Wayne’s memory loss, and the slow, methodical pacing of the premiere proves to be time well-spent: introducing the protagonist’s tricky perspective and distinguishing between three separate timelines.

Still, viewers probably won’t flash back to Saulnier’s past work as often as they remember Pizzolatto’s. For as dry as northern Arkansas looks, Season 3 is flooded with Season 1 signifiers. First, there are the timelines; a popular structure from the first season, when Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) told their story in the past and present. Now, there are two pasts and a present, or three timelines, but still two cops and one primary love interest. No, Michelle Monaghan isn’t back, but Carmen Ejogo’s schoolteacher-turned-true crime author Amelia Reardon completes the leading triumvirate of actors, a la the original “True Detective.”

Moreover, the setting is decidedly rural (instead of the L.A. locales from Season 2), there’s no criminal element telling their side of things (like Vince Vaughan did), car rides depict detectives sharing deep thoughts (“Do you know how many times rats almost ended civilization?”), and instead of creepy antlers populating the crime scene, there are creepy corn husk dolls. Even the way the interrogation room is set up during the middle timeline screams, “Hey! That’s the same room Woody Harrelson sat in, right? In Season 1? It sure looks like that one!” (Thankfully, Woody didn’t wear the same wig Stephen Dorff does — those two fun-loving detectives would get along fine, but Woody with that much hair is a non-starter.)

While the setting, structure, and characters may evoke the memories HBO covets, Mahershala Ali helps set things apart. No actor in the “True Detective” canon has been asked to do as much as this one, carrying the weight of the show across three timelines and doing so with unmatched precision. Moreover, his casting in the lead role has added fresh, period accurate levels to the character, as seen during his discussion with Amelia about what kind of racism she faces at school and how his “redneck radar” may have clouded his investigative instincts during the town hall meeting. Diversity is a huge plus for a show which featured six consecutive white leads prior to Season 3, and Ali is already showing what kind of added nuance his perspective can bring to the series.

If you felt the premiere was a little familiar (or just a little slow), Ali should be enough for even the most skeptical to hold on for another ride.

Grade: B+

“True Detective” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.

True Detective Season 3 Episode 1 Rhys Wakefield, Mahershala Ali, Stephen Dorff

Rhys Wakefield, Mahershala Ali, and Stephen Dorff in “True Detective”

Warrick Page / HBO

Case Notes, Episode 1:

  • That “True Detective’s” fictional true-crime docuseries is called “True Criminal” is either the only choice for a title or the laziest choice imaginable — is that admiration or contempt we sense from Mr. Pizzolatto?
  • What’s up with Steve McQueen? The audience is told three times that the kids disappeared the same day the actor died — November 7, 1980 — but is that date so important we need a shortcut reminder for it, or is the actor’s iconic masculinity simply appealing to a writer obsessed with macho, old school men?
  • This may be a stretch, given the sound specifics of other scenes, but the Purcell parent’s cliched fighting — “You’re a slut!” “You’re an idiot!” — could, maybe, be written as how Wayne remembers them fighting instead of how they actually threw down. He seems to have written them off as suspects by episode’s end, so he may not have given much thought to what, exactly, they were yelling about that night. Maybe he just remembers a conventional couple’s bickering. …or maybe we’re in for another female character reduced to being a wife, mother, and her promiscuous behavior.
  • The overhead shot of the cops searching the fields at night, with the fog rolling in, is one of the most beautiful images any “True Detective” director has captured.

Case Notes, Episode 2:

  • I gotta say, “Purple Hays” is a pretty great nickname.
  • Even offscreen women get a rough go of things in “True Detective”: Brett Woodard, the trash man, talks about how his wife left him and took the kids, later blaming her for not knowing where they are now. Perhaps it’s implied she left because of his lack of a job, but the rest of the scene is built to make him look like an upstanding victim. He keeps up his own house, he’s unashamed of how he makes money, and he genuinely cares about family — misses them even. His wife? She’s just the jerk who took all that away from him.
  • The doll being given to Julie on Halloween sure seems like a big clue, but what about the fact that one doll was dressed up like a bride? Sure makes it easier to see why Wayne and Roland beat up that pedophile, even when they knew it wasn’t him. Also, that gives viewers good reason to keep an eye on the uncle, considering the hole in the Purcell’s guest bedroom closet. Not that who did it really matters in “True Detective”… It’s all about Wayne, baby.

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