True Detective’s first season introduced two major new voices in television — creator-writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Joji Fukunaga — and cemented the McConaissance, but it became a pop-culture supernova thanks to an occult-conspiracy angle that fueled a cottage industry of clue-finding and connection-making but ultimately went nowhere. Pizzolatto had written a show about rich pedophiles and their poor, mentally ill splinter cell; their Yellow King of Carcosa pretensions were never intended to be anything but delusions of grandeur. The season’s strengths (Fukunaga’s filmmaking, Matthew McConaughey’s performance, a pervasive sense of dread) and weaknesses (tough-guy dialogue played completely straight, a dearth of women characters given anything to do but react to the menfolk and occasionally disrobe) largely got lost in the shuffle.
Following Pizzolatto and Fukunaga’s less than amicable creative divorce and a lingering sense that season one’s Lovecraftian antics had been a big bait and switch, season two was bound to face an uphill battle in recapturing the magic. Its near-total disconnect from the first season on practically every level — thematically, aesthetically, the nature of the crime and the criminals, the relationship between the detectives — didn’t help. Nor did a Byzantine murder mystery, dialogue even more stylized than the first go-round, and a suite of confrontationally unpleasant lead performances by co-stars Colin Farrell, Taylor Kitsch, Rachel McAdams, and Vince Vaughn. I get the sense that time has dimmed the furor against the second season and led more people to discover its own murky beauty — it certainly did for me; consider exhibit A and exhibit B — but it still hovers somewhere between “cult favorite” and “contrarian curio” on the prestige-TV continuum.
Where does that leave season three? How do we talk about a show that’s been talked damn near to death two seasons running?
Creatively speaking, the show’s in a pretty good place. Despite sharing its southern-gothic setting, sex-abuse-conspiracy story line, and odd-couple investigators with season one (the events of which it has even referenced directly), it’s much less dorm-room trippy and much more focused on the human element than on supernatural winks and nods. Yet in keeping the show down to earth, Pizzolatto (who now serves as the show’s occasional director as well as writer and showrunner) has also avoided the sense of smog-choked confusion that dogged so much of the California-based second season.
A friend’s description of the series’s overall arc has stuck with me. Imagine a big-ass equalizer knob on a stereo. First, it wobbles all the way to one side — the heady, reference-laden metaphysical season-one stuff. Then it swings wildly in the opposite direction, deep into season two’s exhausted, outclassed losers who couldn’t even outthink a bunch of mildly mobbed-up city bureaucrats, much less describe the nature of space and time. Finally, it settles in the middle, where a troubled but fundamentally reasonable cop, his less intuitive and more careerist but still decent partner, and the ambitious but talented and well-intentioned writer he marries (Mahershala Ali, Stephen Dorff, and Carmen Ejogo respectively) do their best to solve a sad and tricky case, despite hitting dead end after dead end.
Maybe they’ll get to the bottom of it, like McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s detectives did, even if they were never able to bring the real ringleaders to justice. Maybe they’ll be hounded into defeat, like the quartet of characters in season two, wrapping up the season with only a slim, but still tantalizing, prospect of justice winning out in the end. Either way, the solution seems far, far less important than what they discover in the act of attempting to find that solution. The death of Will Purcell, the disappearance of his sister Julie, and the myriad crimes and killings that surround them keep spiderwebbing out into deeper, darker, and ever less glamorous corners of the community so badly rocked by these events.
True Detective season three is about the fate of the Purcell children, yes. But it’s also about the prejudice and PTSD that drove Native American Vietnam vet Brett Woodard to spark a lethal firefight after his neighbors tried to lynch him for a crime he didn’t commit. It’s about the mysterious one-eyed man who gave the Purcell kids a doll he purchased from a racist parishioner at the local Catholic church, then resurfaced a decade later to harangue Amelia for profiting off other people’s suffering. It’s about the black neighborhood that understandably reacts to a visit from the police like an invasion by outside occupiers. It’s about the three random metalhead teenage assholes who nearly get jammed up for murder because they’re surly and wear Black Sabbath shirts in a God-fearing southern community. It’s about Tom Purcell, driven to alcoholism to dull the pain of life in the closet. It’s about his wife, Lucy, who employs drugs, drink, and promiscuity in much the same self-medicating way after a childhood of abuse and incest. It’s about the contemporary true-crime boom, and how well-meaning filmmakers and podcasters and writers can get us closer to the truth but do a lot of damage on their way there. It’s about the way wealthy men and their allies in government and law enforcement can collude to treat the communities they rule with the kind of impunity that would make a feudal lord envious. It’s about an old man with Alzheimer’s, whose own life is fast becoming as big a mystery to him as the case he could never quite solve, and whose loved ones are slowly slipping into anonymity the same way the real killers and kidnappers did.
In this respect, True Detective season three has learned lessons not only from its own direct predecessors, but from the ne plus ultra of small-town murder mystery television: Twin Peaks. And it’s learned the right lessons, too.
Though separated by time and distribution methods alike, the first two ABC Network seasons of Twin Peaks, the prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and the Showtime revival Twin Peaks: The Return add up to much more than the buzzword Lynchian could ever hope to capture. It’s true that David Lynch and Mark Frost’s creation had all the head-scratching clues, eye-popping surrealism, and chilling supernatural flourishes that fans of True Detective season one enjoyed, or at least thought they were enjoying; that stuff’s nowhere to be found in season three. Lynch and Frost also have a pronounced fondness for the soap-operatic — the sex, the scandal, the silliness — that none of Pizzolatto’s three True Detective seasons to date have gone anywhere near.
But when that one-eyed man popped up at Amelia’s book reading in “Hunters in the Dark,” disruptive and distraught, perhaps complicit in the central crime in some tangential way but seemingly remorseful and also very obviously disturbed by his own experiences, I didn’t think of the Black Lodge or the Red Room, Norma Jennings and Dougie Jones. I thought of Russ Tamblyn’s Dr. Jacoby, the eccentric psychiatrist who had an unethical relationship with his teenage patient, snapped when she was murdered, and wound up a conspiracy crank in the woods.
There are so many people like that in Twin Peaks, people driven to the margins of the idyllic small-town society by abuse, poverty, mental illness, drugs, or their own bad actions, never to return. Harry Dean Stanton’s Carl Rodd, wise and sad in his trailer park. Alicia Witt’s Gersten Hawyard, a onetime child prodigy clinging to her suicidal and abusive junkie lover. Lenny Von Dohlen’s Harold Smith, the shut-in with the lonely soul. Catherine E. Coulson’s Log Lady, whose prophetic gifts couldn’t save her from dying of cancer like anyone else. Addicts, adulterers, crooked cops, scheming hoteliers, lonely gas station operators.
Some are closely connected, in one way or another, to murdered high-school student Laura Palmer — herself pulled in a million different soul-damaging directions long before her murder and quite apart from the demonic forces feeding off her misery. Others have no connection at all except geography. All of them float around in the dark and icy waters of the American underclass. In Twin Peaks, Laura’s tragic murder is the crack in the ice that allows us to observe the sea of suffering underneath.
That’s what I think of when I think of True Detective season three, not Matthew McConaughey’s twitchy nihilism, nor Colin Farrell’s thousand-yard, eight-beer stare. Wayne Hays, Amelia Hays, and Roland West may well be the truest detectives we’ve met yet. But from Agent Dale Cooper on down, not even the best investigators have ever truly seen an open-and-shut case, one they could comfortably solve and file away forever. The forces that made life so hard for the Purcells and the people around them, that empowered their community’s worst elements and discarded otherwise decent people like corpses at a crime scene, will be there even if Will and Julie’s attackers are taken down once and for all. Who killed Laura Palmer? was the start of a discussion about what we do in the face of endemic pain and injustice, not the end of it. If True Detective season three wraps up with the same strengths it has displayed so far, it will ask a similar question, and offer just as challenging an answer.