The first season of True Detective, starring Matthew McConaughey as Detective Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson as Detective Marty Hart, is some of the best television ever produced. Earning multiple Golden Globe and Emmy nominations, Season 1 was a mind-bending character-driven thriller propelled not just by plot but the ever-gray area of right versus wrong.
There’s not a lot to say about the disappointing Season 2, so let’s pivot to the upcoming Season 3 starring Oscar winner Mahershala Ali, Justice League‘s Ray Fisher, and Stephen Dorff. The new season of True Detective is set in the heart of the Ozarks, wherein a disturbing crime occurs involving two missing children and a mystery that deepens over decades, playing out in three separate time periods. The trailers have teased that Ali’s character, Detective Wayne Hays, has possibly developed Alzheimer’s in his old age and is attempting to piece together earlier events.
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The show’s enigmatic creator Nic Pizzolatto returns as the main writer and showrunner, while also making his directorial debut. The show’s other directors include Blue Ruin’s Jeremy Saulnier and Emmy award winner Daniel Sackheim (Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead).
Thus far, the trailers have indicated the show is back on track, but what does Season 3 need to do to have a fighting chance to top Season 1 and improve upon Season 2?
Focusing On Character
The narrative of Season 1 may have revolved around a 17-year-old case, but the driving force of the story was the relationship between Rust and Cohle and how their lives, and those closest to them, changed. Rust’s own personal journey was one of the most satisfying parts of the season. In the end, the detective’s near-death experience challenged his own complex viewpoints based on philosophical pessimism that allowed him to see light in the darkness he was once drawn to.
The characters in Season 2 were intriguing thanks to impressive performances by Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Vince Vaughn, and Taylor Kitsch, but the plot actually worked against what made the first season a cohesive, engaging story. At times, the narrative failed to keep the characters front and center. Potential powerful arcs were subverted in an attempt to bring the case to a messy close by the end. Hopefully, Pizzolatto and company learned their lesson and will go back to character over the plot in Season 3.
One of the biggest flaws of Season 2 was how convoluted the plot became. It was meant to tie the characters together in one big conspiracy case, but the effort to go bigger than the first season did the story no favors. The actors’ performances alone make the second season worth watching, but jamming it with so much complicated exposition took away from the characters and resulted in too many loose ends.
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Season 3 will benefit if Pizzolatto has gone back to a focused mystery that can be fleshed out as much as the characters should be. The trailers look promising as they reveal a few familiar elements from the first season, including trimming down the main characters and bringing back timelines the audience will move through alongside the characters versus just being told what happened in the past.
The first season of True Detective masterfully balanced nonlinear storytelling by moving back and forth through time. The transitions cleverly allowed viewers to learn more about the characters and unpack several mysteries that all tied together well. Season 2 brought back the anthology’s embrace of past affecting the present, but the past was treated like an offscreen memory revealed only through dialogue.
Season 3 reintroduces the format established in Season 1 and ups the ante with three time periods and a main character whose memory is now failing. If the new season can reestablish those transitions through time and use them to unravel the mystery while allowing the audience to witness the character’s journey, then Season 3 may possibly give the first season a run for its money.
A big challenge for Season 3 of True Detective will be recreating the wonderfully haunting atmosphere that Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga pieced together in Season 1. The season’s setting, trademark music, and introspective scenes allowed performances to breathe and take risks like attempting (and nailing) a six-minute single-take tracking shot.
Besides the shootout in Episode 4, there weren’t many scenes in the second season that stood out. There were definitely some great moments that were unfortunately diluted with boring storytelling. Season 3 appears to be bringing back that haunting atmosphere that embraces dread as we become invested in the new characters. Having an award-winning actor like Ali in the lead leaves no doubt that the performances will be on par with the first season.
True Detective Season 3 premieres on HBO on Jan. 13, 2019.