Roush Review: ‘True Detective’ Returns With a Haunting Mystery & Intricately Woven Story

True Detective

Time is of the essence in the intricately multilayered puzzle of True Detective’s mesmerizing third season, a return to form for creator Nic Pizzolatto. Curbing his tendency toward the loopy dialogue and mopey metaphysics that made 2015’s pretentious second installment feel like a self-parody, he puts story and character first in this long-awaited comeback season.

And what a character is Wayne Hays, a brooding Arkansas state detective haunted over three decades by a crime that shaped his life and career. Played with a simmering, festering intensity and sorrow by Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (Moonlight), Wayne is besieged by ghosts, literal and symbolic, when a true-crime TV producer puts him on camera in 2015. The goal: to recall the tragedy involving two small-town kids who went missing back in 1980 and what happened a decade later, when the case was fatefully reopened in 1990 following a startling twist.

The elderly Wayne’s memory is fading, and he sees this interview as a chance to both reclaim and exorcise his past. “I want to know the whole story,” he declares, reinforcing what draws many of us to a good mystery. “A lot of this is my life. Got some pieces I’m missing. I need ’em.” And so the story shifts among three time periods, often with sudden jolts of connection, leading Wayne to become unstuck in his 2015 reality, desperately recording his observations before he forgets them.

The journey reveals his deepest personal and professional relationships: with Amelia (savvy Carmen Ejogo), a schoolteacher who uses her romantic connection to Wayne to produce an
In Cold Blood-like bestseller, and with his wry detective partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff, projecting a gruff, Bogart-like charisma), who’s more adept at the politics of the job than the emotionally volatile Wayne.

Even when the script takes heady philosophical detours into poetry and Einstein, it never loses sight of the toll the investigation takes on those charged with solving the case. The trauma extends to the grieving and combative parents (a remarkable Scoot McNairy and Mamie Gummer) and panicked locals, with shock waves of racial unrest and mob violence setting everyone on edge. More than a whodunit, True Detective asks whether time heals or only makes the truth harder to grasp.

True Detective, Season 3 Premiere, Sunday, Jan. 13, 9/8c, HBO