Review: True Detective‘s Season 3 Premiere Succeeds by Returning to Its Southern Gothic Roots

[Contains mild spoilers for True Detective seasons one, two, and three.]

After a long three and a half years, True Detective is finally back.

Nic Pizzolatto’s roving police drama cemented its place as a cultural touchstone soon after its premiere on HBO in early 2014 thanks to a hypnotic tone and instantly recognizable look. Matthew McConaughey’s hollow-eyed lawman Rust Cohle provided the show with a distinctive nihilistic voice (featuring such uplifting gems as “I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution”), while Woody Harrelson’s down-to-earth Detective Hart proved a worthy sparring partner for Cohle’s brand of boozy philosophical pessimism. Out of their endless debates, a legendary buddy cop duo was born.

The show went on to be affectionately spoofed by Key & Peele, and it provided a partial model for the angsty cop drama Philbert that BoJack Horseman so incisively satirized. Its first season was lightning in a bottle, a drama given electric life by its two leads’ headbutting chemistry as they drove the lonely roads crisscrossing the endless fields and bayous of its desolate Louisiana setting. Its visual aesthetic luxuriated in autumnal golds and long, lazy tracking shots that mimicked Cohle’s thousand-yard stare. True Detective was widely hailed as art—a little pretentious, sure, but a show with ambition.

Then season two happened.

To watch True Detective’s second season is to experience anticipation slowly curdling into annoyance as the many, many dubious choices keep piling up. On paper, the idea of a modern L.A. noir riff starring Rachel McAdams and Colin Farrell as hard-boiled cops sounds pretty solid, especially with most of the creative team behind season one attached. In practice, it plays out like a codeine-fueled fever dream, and not the David Lynch kind.

It was with adjusted expectations, then, that I approached the season three premiere. There was a lot to be excited about: haunted gravitas in human form Mahershala Ali, a return to the time-hopping format that worked so well in season one, underrated character actor Stephen Dorff (demented 4 eva). Encouragingly, for the most part, the show is living up to its promise as the unsettling story of West Finger, Arkansas unspools.

Making good use of the long hiatus, Pizzolatto and the True Detective team have learned to stick to what worked about the first season and largely dialed back on the show’s worst Existentialism 101 impulses. Ali’s Detective Wayne Hays feels like a man unmoored in time as he investigates the chilling disappearance of two children 1980, revisits the case in 1990, and struggles against the ravages of memory loss to tell his story to a documentarian in 2015. His experiences in Vietnam and on the police force have shaped him into a person who holds others at arm’s length, and age only deepens the gulf between himself and those around him.

His is not the performative, drunken alienation of Rust Cohle. Wayne is a careful, conscientious observer rather than a rule-breaking firebrand, and unlike his predecessors he faces subtle racism that impedes his progress. Although Hays is plagued by troubling gaps in his memory that make it seem like reality is slipping away, True Detective’s third season leaves the gate with both feet firmly planted on the ground.

This change represents an embrace of nuance that had been largely absent underneath the artistic murder tableaus and smoky philosophical musings. Another positive development is the growing inclusion of well-drawn female characters. Carmen Ejogo’s compassionate teacher Amelia is an emotional fulcrum for the show and a much-needed connection to life outside the all-consuming mystery of the missing Purcell children. After a first season that tended to relegate women to the realm of the symbolic, and the general batshittery of season two, it’s a relief to see a normal human woman playing a prominent role in the proceedings for once.

In the second episode, an interview subject and fellow Vietnam vet asks Hays if he’s ever been “someplace you couldn’t leave.” Like the man in the chair across from him, Hays finds himself locked in a static scene from which he cannot escape—a flat circle, if you will. True Detective mines this claustrophobic feeling for all it’s worth, adding familiar stylistic flourishes that viewers of the first season will recognize: sleepy rural towns, endless horizons sliding past sedan windows, creepy handmade totems, an arid score composed by T Bone Burnett. It all adds up to an uncanny feeling that we’ve seen this all before.

It’s hard not to think of Nietzsche’s idea of Eternal Recurrence—the concept of endlessly revisiting one’s own existence—when watching Hays relive the case that shaped his life again and again. (I’m sure there’s a whiteboard in the writers’ room with a note to this effect.) More broadly, the show is returning to its past success—playing the same Southern gothic tune with slight variations. It remains to be seen whether the echoes of the past will resonate as strongly as they did in the first season as True Detective explores the treachery of memory. But, as the show keeps reminding us, time is…well, you know.