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True Detective: Series 3 - Mahershala Ali shines as mystery ultimately underwhelms

True Detective Series 3

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

THE third season of Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective was another absorbing affair, fuelled by a terrific central performance. But the central mystery ultimately underwhelmed.

Having been hurt by the scathing criticisms levelled at the second run of the crime anthology series, Pizzolatto clearly opted to play it ‘safe’ and return to the format that made the first season so highly regarded.

But while this was fine in principal, and involved yet another case that spanned decades, the central investigation itself promised more than it delivered. Rather, once the dust had settled on all of the events, season three of True Detective was more about one man’s personal journey rather than any far-reaching crime conspiracy.

That man was Wayne Hays (Oscar winner Mahershala Ali), an Arkansas based detective who is called, with his partner Roland West (played by Stephen Dorff), to investigate to investigate the disappearance of two children on bikes in 1980.

The case quickly turned into a murder investigation once the body of one of the two children, a boy, was discovered in a cave. But it proved a difficult one to solve. And the ensuing series split between 1980, 1990 and the present day in its attempt to find a conclusion.

In doing so, it teased plenty of conspiracy theories, from Satanic leanings that played into real-life ’80s paranoia, to potential paedophile rings that could have been connected to the first series (Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle and Harrelson’s Martin Hart were directly referenced late on).

But ultimately, and without giving too much away for viewers who have yet to see the finale, the case boiled down to finding one suspect and hearing his confession.

To Pizzolatto’s credit, he did spring one more surprise in finding an apparently happy ending for one of the two missing children, offering some comfort by way of a bittersweet finale. But he also cheapened some of the apparent complexity that had gone before; or rather, he cheapened the investigative progress that his two detectives strove so hard to make.

The third season ultimately came down to bad luck. And sometimes bad [or to quote Deadpool, lazy] writing.

The laziness stemmed from the structural similarities between seasons one and three, some of which directly mirrored each other: two detectives, multiple timelines, a case that was mistakenly solved and re-opened, partners who fell out only to be reunited in their later years for one final push, a key photo being discovered late in the day. You could almost accuse Pizzolatto of cheating here.

The bad writing stemmed more from the failings that the wrapping up of the case eventually highlighted – ie, the numerous mistakes made by Hays and West along the way. Even in its final moments, they overlooked one glaringly obvious clue concerning the missing girl.

And then there was the device involving Hays’ dementia, or Alzheimer’s, or ‘condition’ as he referred to it. This didn’t particularly adhere to any rigid discipline, rather allowing Hays to remember or forget as thematically convenient. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it felt plain contrived.

That isn’t to say the case itself was a complete bust. Pizzolatto did keep us guessing. And in the journey of Scoot McNairy’s grieving father it provided us with a third great performance: a truly tragic one. There were some neat twists, too, involving the fate of certain characters, as well as a nice red herring in the form of a belated appearance from Michael Rooker, as a seemingly pivotal character in the conspiracy that never unfolded.

True Detective Season 3

But overall, you couldn’t help – like its two lead detectives – that the solving of the case didn’t bring any real sense of closure. Perhaps this was because it wrapped up too neatly given how many lives had been torn apart in the process. Or, perhaps, it was because you felt let down by the thought that Hays and West really were bad detectives.

Where season three excelled, however, was in its performances. Dorff was terrific as West, despite playing second fiddle to Ali for long periods. His own journey was as sad, in its own way, as that of Hays, only lonelier and not as deserving of as much screen-time.

Dorff, though, struck some striking sparks off Ali. They felt like brothers in arms in their older years, but when they rubbed each other up the wrong way, they really fired on all cylinders. One heated exchange, in which West threatened to use the ‘n’ word against his partner, was electrifying stuff, fuelled by frustration, anguish and resentment.

As with both previous seasons, Pizzolatto’s writing really allowed his cast to showboat.

And so we come to Ali, who earlier this week became only the second black actor in history to win two Oscars. His take on Hays was rooted in complexity and was absolutely riveting to watch.

As a young man, he appeared driven to succeed and do the right thing. But he was continually at odds with himself and the case, not to mention his relationship with Carmen Ejogo’s writer. Part of this stemmed from his unspoken experiences as a tracker in Vietnam; part of it probably stemmed from the colour of his skin and the way he was perceived by his peers.

But the case itself took an emotional toll that only became deeper the longer it lasted, and as dementia set in. Which memories could he trust? Why was his life, post Vietnam, so inextricably linked to the missing Purcell girl?

A scene in which Ali and Ejogo broke down their relationship, while trying to save it, was heartbreakingly honest and very well written.

But Ali brought so much depth to Hays that he remained a formidable figure throughout (much like Colin Farrell in season two). He was, in himself, a mystery worth solving; a man worthy of trying to figure out, let alone root for. Someone who deserved his own happy ending… even if it eventually arrived in bittersweet form.

True Detective‘s third season will be remembered mostly for Ali. Having campaigned to be its lead, the actor rewarded his writer and directors with a tour-de-force that looks destined for some kind of awards recognition.

Hence, while the central investigation may ultimately have disappointed more than it impressed, its impact on its central characters was what it left you with. And once that initial disappointment subsided, it was easier to appreciate season three for what it did deliver, rather than what it didn’t.