More than three years after the last installment of Nic Pizzolatto’s anthology series, time is once again a flat circle. After becoming a phenomenon and critical and commercial darling with the Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson-fronted first season, True Detective lost viewers and momentum with a disappointing follow-up (even if this writer will defend season 2 #JusticeForVinceVaughn). But for the long-awaited season 3, Pizzolatto and the show are returning to its roots by heading back to the south, framing the plot through multiple timelines, and featuring an actor in the midst of an awards season run.
Instead of two stars like in season 1 or four stars in season 2, Oscar winner Mahershala Ali has center stage all to himself, even getting to one-up McConaughey by playing three different time periods. We start by briefly meeting an older version of the actor before we’re sent to 1990, where we’re officially introduced to Arkansas State Police Detective Wayne Hays. Similar to the first season, he’s being interviewed about an old case (Cougar Town‘s Josh Hopkins and Scandal‘s Jon Tenney are doing the honors). Ten years after said case, there have been calls to overturn the conviction. We jump back and forth between this Wayne and older Wayne, who is listening to recordings he made the day before to help with his memory. Back in 1990, the investigators ask Wayne to talk to them about Nov. 7, 1980.
It’s the day that Steve McQueen died, but I’m guessing that won’t be the case. We are introduced to Tom Purcell, played by TV MVP Scoot McNairy (Halt and Catch Fire, Fargo, Narcos: Mexico). Tom is working on his car and gives his daughter, Julie, and son, Will, permission to ride their bikes, but they need to be back before dark. On their ride, the children pass suspicious teenagers in a purple Volkswagen and a Native American man driving a go-kart and collecting trash. Later, it’s well past their curfew and Will and Julie haven’t returned home so Tom goes searching, to no avail.
In steps 1980 Wayne. He and his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) are chilling in a dump just doing the usual, you know, drinking, smoking, shooting rats, and pouring one out for legendary movie stars. They get bored of talking about things like paying for sex (Wayne is a romantic, while Roland is a feminist), so they decide to take a ride. “Maybe we can find somebody to beat the s— out of,” declares Roland, to which Wayne replies, “Lord that would be nice.” Well, no beatings tonight as they get the call to go to the Purcell house.
The action transitions forward to 2015 where Wayne is sitting down for an interview with True Criminal, a documentary series looking into the case. We learn that Wayne worked the case both in 1980 and 1990 and that his now deceased wife published a book on it. Speaking of wives, in 1980, Tom doesn’t know where his wife is. Lucy (Mamie Gummer, daughter of Meryl Streep) soon comes home and their marital problems are quickly on full display. Wayne and Roland look around the house, finding Playboys under Will’s bed and a hole in his closet that looks into his sister’s room. We also get a few suspect names: Freddie Burns own the purple car, Woodard is the trashman, and Dan O’Brien is Lucy’s cousin who used to stay in Will’s room (his Peeping Tom hole?).
The search continues the next day with the partners heading to the children’s school. They first talk to Will’s teacher Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), whom Wayne seems immediately transfixed by. He asks about Will and the older boys, before transitioning to her and eventually scoring her phone number (surely just for professional reasons!). They then question Freddie and another teenager who have conflicting stories. They also scout out the home of Woodard, a.k.a. “Trashman,” but he isn’t there. The timelines continue to blend as 2015 Wayne cuts off the interview just as Woodard is being brought up. Wayne has his son Henry (Justice League star Ray Fisher) escort them out.
In 1980, everyone is hunting for the kids, but Wayne seems to be their best hope considering Roland is hyping up the tracking skills that his partner picked up during the war. Off on his own, Wayne finds a lookout tower with tons of empty liquor bottles and cans, followed by a bike, and then a straw doll in a white dress. He spots another of the dolls by a cave, leading him to go in and discover Will’s dead body with his hands folded over his chest. He calls it in to Roland.
Meanwhile, in 2015, we learn that the teacher, Amelia, became Wayne’s wife. But in 1990, he learns something even more shocking. Julie’s fingerprints were found at the scene of a recent burglary at a Walgreens in Oklahoma. “Jesus Christ; she’s out there,” he declares. While 1990 Wayne will surely soon be going to look for her, 1980 Wayne is already doing so, no matter what time of day it is. “It’s too dark, man,” Roland tells Wayne, to which he replies, “I don’t care.” I really hope this is a meta-joke about True Detective, and if so, well done.
This week’s Truest Detective: 1980 Wayne is the only Wayne currently investigating anything and he was pretty quickly able to track down Will in the woods.
Read on for our recap of episode 2, which aired right after episode 1.