Understanding True Detective, Season Three
That was a True Detective season, I guess.
Last Sunday, the latest stanza of Nic Pizzolatto’s iconic television show wrapped up and… you know, told a competent crime drama. There was nothing inherently wrong with it. But nothing exciting either. Although it bore structural and narrative similarities with season one, it managed to gracefully skate around it while teasing a hypothetical crossover.
It did not have the infuriating flaws of season two, but it was unfulfilling.
True Detective can’t just tell competent crime dramas. It has trademark elements that make it what it is: sweeping conspiracies, wisecracking underdog policemen, connecting subplots, etc. There were almost absent of season three. If these eight episodes wore any other name (as they should’ve), I’m not even sure it would’ve been produced.
So, let’s unpack what went wrong and where can True Detective can go from here. Given that it doesn’t go straight to Cancellation City.
Of course, spoiler alert.
Rust > Ray > Wayne
I believe it was Chuck Palanhiuk, the author of Fight Club, who said in a craft essay that a protagonist doesn’t need to be sympathetic of relatable if he’s interesting. Rust Cohle was an ex-cop turned recluse bartender who ran an investigation out of a storage unit. He was also a suspect in the case. In season two, Ray Velcoro (also a cop) was on a mobster’s payroll. He was basically paid to report on an investigation that threatened a gigantic money laundering scheme.
They weren’t conventionally sympathetic, but they were larger than life. Rust was an armchair philosopher who oddly understood the forces that shaped his life and Ray had as many self-defeating quotes as he had self-defeating ways. He was so self-conscious of not being a good person, he came off as redeemable. This scene will forever be a television classic to me:
Wayne Hays was nothing like Rust or Ray. This is not bad per se. The only common trait between Rust and Ray was their occupation. They would’ve probably hated each other. But Wayne suffered from problems the aforementioned two were unencumbered with. For starters, he didn’t talk. It’s hard to relate to a character on a television show if he doesn’t talk, unless he’s doing extraordinary things. But for eight episodes, Wayne ran into dead ends and bickered with his wife.
One could argue that Wayne’s partner Roland West was the quotable one. He had the series’ best moment in episode eight when he goaded a biker couple into a fistfight. But Roland is mostly perceived through the prism of Wayne’s fractured mind, over three different timelines. Every time you start getting a good feel for who he is (or Wayne, for all that matters) the show hurls you either into the future or the past. I get that Wayne was stunted by whatever was going on inside his head, but the show communicates that only through a handful of hallucinatory scenes.
And it doesn’t work, because unlike for Rust’s hallucinations in season one, they don’t have any bearing on what’s going on in the show. They’re just jumbled bad memories, like people suffering from Alzheimer often have. They’re tragic, but they’re not interesting in the context of the show.
The big picture (or lack thereof)
Unlike its two predecessors, season three of True Detective didn’t really feature a conspiracy. There was a kidnapping, an accidental death and an elaborate cover up, but it didn’t involve satanic sex (season one) or unchecked greed (season two). It was committed out of love by a broken woman who couldn’t deal with her daughter’s passing. The worst person involved was undoubtedly Lucy Purcell, who sold her kid because she didn’t love herself enough. I have nothing against that on paper. It’s a good enough premise even for True Detective.
The problem I have is that Nic Pizzolatto kept the audience prisoner by letting them think there was one. The straw dolls clue Wayne and Roland chase for like, four episodes, was a complete dead end. The Elisa documentary investigation, which takes most of the 2015 timeline, hints to a conspiracy that ties into season one and goes absolutely nowhere.
To a certain extent, I understand what Pizzolatto was going for. It’s human nature to tell ourselves stories that are perhaps more interesting than the truth, but the audience is left alone telling itself these stories because Wayne and Roland aren’t. They’re competent, pragmatic cops who follow the evidence where it leads. They’re completely in the dark until Hoyt, a character the audience ignores the existence of until like… episode five I believe, bails out the narrative in episode seven and eight.
Also, season three didn’t make a greater thematic point. In season one, there was a nihilist cop investigating a child molesting conspiracy running through a Church program, leaving you pondering the controlling nature of religious institution. In season two, a mobster, a corrupt cop, a closeted cop and …uh, Rachel McAdams investigated a brutal murder that revealed a money laundering scheme takeover by a Russian gangster leaving you pondering what else in your reality that’s dictated by financial interests of a greater nature.
True Detective is, at the heart, a show about the malleable nature of reality and season three failed to portray that. It had two interesting hypotheses. First there was the Satanic panic angle, which could’ve been a rich playground for exploring the powers of moral institutions in America. There was also the aforementioned human compulsion to tell ourselves stories, which was left for the audience and the audience alone to develop. I believe that failure is what frustrated me the most.
The game of expectations
I know what you’re thinking: “Ben, you didn’t like it because it wasn’t what you expected. I just went in hoping to be entertained and I was.”
I understand the sentiment, but I beg to differ. A show that’s so structurally rigid plays a different game of expectations. There are expectations that need to be fulfilled and others that need to be subverted. True Detective isn’t True Detective without its flagship elements (mentioned in my first point). Otherwise it could just wear another name. And they were there. Severely underdeveloped, but they were there.
For the rest, it had carte blanche for me. The uprooting from season one to season two was drastic and fun. Season Two underdelivered through its writing, not through originality. Season three underdelivered because it felt mostly like a more honest and realistic spin off season one… and I think we can all agree season one was the most enjoyable of them all? Honesty and realism was not exactly its problem. It was the expectations it created. That and… you know, the “liberal” use of other writers’ properties.
I didn’t come into this season in bad faith. I watched the episodes fully expecting to be entertained at some point and entertainment only came sporadically, entangled in long scenes of passive-aggressive domestic disputes, longer scenes of office paperwork and Nic Pizzolatto basically calling us idiots through a true crime documentarist character. I’ll leave you guys with this question: do we collectively want this show be good more than it is actually good? Are we looking for an experience that isn’t actually there?