When True Detective wound down its second season in August 2015, it looked like we might have seen the last of the Nic Pizzolatto–created crime series — and that few would mind were that the case. The first season, which aired in 2014, had benefited from a few converging trends: a sense that we were living in a golden age of prestige television and no one was creating TV of more importance than HBO; a cultural taste for shows in which troubled heroes stared into the void of existence; impassioned discussions of the series on social media; and a renewed interest in all Matthew McConaughey–related matters. It also benefited from being — its excesses and slightly unsatisfying finale aside — quite good, mixing an unnerving, supernaturally-tinged mystery with beery philosophizing and stylish direction by Cary Fukunaga. The second season, on the other hand, had a much rougher time. Its convoluted tale of sex, violence, repression, and introspective gangsters in Southern California didn’t capture the public imagination in quite the same way (though it did inspire seemingly countless “in defense of …” pieces.) Just two seasons in, True Detective looked to have run its course.
But, as anyone who’s seen the previous seasons of the show already knows, the past never really dies. Now, over three years after it aired its second-season finale, True Detective is back, returning to a much-changed TV landscape in which it almost seems like a throwback. That may not be entirely by accident. Season three looks and feels a lot like season one, trading Louisiana for Arkansas but similarly unfolding a disturbing mystery across several interrogation-heavy timelines in the American South. If season one was the stunning debut album and season two the alienating second-album experiment that didn’t quite work out but inspired passionate defenders, season three plays — at least in these first two episodes — like a band trying to remind fans why they fell in love with them in the first place. (A question for further study: is Pizzolato a Weezer fan?)
Based on these first two episodes, that strategy is working pretty well. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a magnetic performer at the center of it all, namely Mahershala Ali. Season three’s first episode, “The Great War and Modern Memory,” introduces Ali’s Wayne Hays at three different points in his life: as a retired Arkansas state policeman speaking to the true-crime documentary team behind the TV series True Criminal (heh) in 2015; as he’s questioned in 1990 about a case he’s convinced led to a wrongful conviction; and as a young state cop in 1980 investigating said case, using skills he picked up as a recon operative in Vietnam (the same skills that have made him an excellent hunter of wild boar).
Wayne’s smart and he doesn’t suffer fools. He’s sensitive, too. In one early scene, Wayne stops his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff, in what ought to be a comeback-launching performance) from killing a fox during a beer-drinking session shooting rats at the dump. If it weren’t for Ali’s performance, Wayne might come off as a little, well, much. But Ali stays forceful and understated. In the second episode, for instance, he commandingly urges a bartender to turn up the TV volume right now without raising his voice a decibel. He also looks increasingly haunted at the later points in the timeline, as the past slips into the future and his short-circuiting brain can’t quite sort out which is which as he relives the case that we already know will come to define his life — he’ll even marry a woman who’ll write a heralded book about the crime she’ll call Life and Death and the Harvest Moon — even if the younger Wayne doesn’t know it yet. “I used to think back then there was before ’Nam and after ’Nam,” the older Hays says. “Anymore it’s before the Purcell case and after.”
And what exactly is the Purcell case? It begins simply enough, though this being True Detective, it doesn’t stay that way for long. On an overcast Arkansas afternoon in November 7, 1980, local dad Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy) sends his children Will and Julie off on a bike ride with instructions to return by sundown. They don’t, and soon Wayne and Roland are in the thick of a confounding case. They quickly learn that Tom and his wife Lucy (Mamie Gummer, playing it drunk and angry) are having issues, Lucy’s cousin Dan has been staying over (and possibly drilling a hole in a closet wall in order to spy into Julie’s room), and the kids could have had run-ins with both some tough local teens and a scavenger who collects trash in the back of a go-kart.
By end of the first episode, 2015 Wayne has grown troubled by revisiting the Purcell case and 1990 Wayne has learned that Julie might have survived and is ready to reopen the investigation. But the bulk of the action takes place in 1980, where Wayne, in the process of asking questions about the Purcell kids and those who might be possible for their disappearance, strikes up a low-key flirtation with Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), the English teacher he’ll eventually marry and who will later write about the case. Even more dramatically, he ends the episode using his tracking skills to follow a path from the ranger tower where bored local kids party into the woods of the Devil’s Den State Park (the name might be on-the-nose but it’s a real place), where he finds some disturbing dolls made of straw and, more disturbing still, Will’s body in a cave, where he lies as if in repose, his hands folded as if in prayer. This, it would seem, is no simple disappearance. It’s the sort of case that splits a true detective’s life into what came before and what came after.
What immediately comes after for us, however, is another episode, HBO having decided that the best way to keep viewers hooked for the length of the season is to serve up two installments at once. “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” like its predecessor, is helmed by Jeremy Saulnier, the talented director of the artfully pulpy Blue Ruin and Green Room. (Saulnier was supposed to direct more episodes, but creative differences with the famously exacting Pizzolatto seem to have cut that short. Whether his departure will slow the third season’s strong start remains to be seen.)
After a relatively fast-paced opening episode, “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye” settles into a familiar, meditative groove — one that works here but doesn’t necessarily bode well for the future if upcoming episodes stay in the same gear. As Wayne and Roland further their investigation in 1980, the 1990 and 2015 segments offer clues as to what’s to come — all of which suggest why Wayne is now so haunted by the past he’ll come to recall in piercing flashes.
But first, back to 1980, where Wayne and Roland keep bumping into apparent dead ends. First up is Woodard (Michael Greyeyes), the scavenger popularly known around town as Trash Man. A haunted Vietnam veteran who lives alone having been abandoned by his wife and children, he’s an obvious suspect. Too obvious, as it turns out, yet even though Wayne and Roland don’t seem too concerned about Woodard’s involvement, I doubt we’ve seen the last of him.
The town of West Finger has yet to let him off the hook, and its residents’ paranoia is fast becoming an important part of the narrative. In the previous episode we saw one of the teens from the ranger tower party questioned about his Black Sabbath shirt. Here, the mysterious dolls become public knowledge and, later, when the county’s ambitious district attorney — and future Arkansas AG — spills details of the investigation on the news, the atmosphere of suspicion grows even thicker. Dark thinking has come to this corner of Arkansas at the beginning of a decade that will see the country panic over satanism and alleged pedophile rings. (The True Criminal producer even references one such lurid story as fact, never mind that it turned out to be a malicious hoax.)
Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a seedy underbelly to the place. Wayne and Roland question a child sex offender — another apparent dead end — and the aforementioned creepy Cousin Dan. But these pursuits seem to get them nowhere, nor do the many false tips that show up in the wake of the DA’s TV stunt. Then, near the episode’s end, they receive a ransom note suggesting Julie is still alive. Meanwhile, in 1990, Wayne receives more information confirming that she’s still out there, possibly committing crimes, news that shakes him, makes him behave strangely around his family, and troubles Amelia, whose book on the crime has reached the galley stage. Then, in 2015, we find Wayne still rattled reflecting on these moments. We hear allusions to “what happened with Julie and her father” in 1990 and suggestions that Wayne’s 2015 rift with his daughter Becca might have been more dramatic than he can recall. But he remembers other things, and even if his misfiring brain leads him to wander the streets at night, it still sends him somewhere significant. And, from the look on Wayne’s face, it’s somewhere he hoped he’d never return.
Intriguing Leads and Red Herrings
• Season three’s opening credits maintain the distinctive, ominous look of the previous two, offering stylized glimpses of the cast that bleed into images of the setting. The song this season is a cover of “Death Letter,” a.k.a. “Death Letter Blues,” as recorded by Cassandra Wilson for her excellent 1995 album New Moon Daughter. The signature number of Son House, a Delta blues musician who recorded in the 1930s then found a new audience as part of the folk revival of the 1960s, it’s a song of bad news, unexpected mourning, and moral reckoning. A fitting intro, in other words.
• The 1980 narrative begins on November 7, 1980, the same day — as we’re told several times — Steve McQueen, an icon of anti-authority movie star cool, died of mesothelioma at the age of 50. Read into this what you will in the context of a series filled with damaged men trying to live up to some ideal of masculinity they never chose for themselves. Also worth noting: This is three days after the election of Ronald Reagan (an actor who mostly played square-jawed types). Furthermore, 1979 was the last year Volkswagen made the classic VW Beetle — one of which may or may not play a major role in the case — available in the United States. We are clearly in the midst of changing times.
• Wayne was originally written as white until Ali convinced Pizzolatto to make some changes. His race is barely mentioned in the first episode beyond a knowing exchange between he and Amelia about the level of racism she’s encountered as a black teacher in a mostly white school district. It pops up more prominently in the second episode when Wayne chides Roland for not being more assertive, knowing that the white authorities will be more likely to listen to him as they’re a part of the same tribe. Two episodes in, race doesn’t seem likely to become a central part of the story, but Pizzolato isn’t ignoring it either. Nor is he suggesting the experience of being black in the South is the same for all his characters. Amelia spent time as a leftist radical in San Francisco. Wayne went to Vietnam and seems to be a Republican.
• Wayne has also, we learn, struggled with dyslexia. But he likes comics, especially those starring Batman and the Silver Surfer, a brooding, obsessed, vigilante and a soulful, lonely galactic exile, respectively. This makes all the sense in the world based on what we’ve seen of the character so far.
• Spotted in Will’s room: A Boy Scouts manual and an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons guidebook. The latter game will also play a role in the satanic panic of the 1980s.
• The ominous aerial establishing shots are another returning signature. Say what you will about season two, but I could have watched a whole episode just of the images of California traffic.
• One soundtrack quibble: The Black Sabbath shirt seems appropriate for a burnout teen in 1980. (And that scene suggests the season might draw some inspiration from the West Memphis Three case.) But their other musical preferences — the Stooges and, especially, X — seem a little too sophisticated for that time and place.