Do you remember what it felt like, all those years ago, when you went to bed thinking about the Yellow King? How about the feeling of dread as you watched Rust chase the monster through Carcosa? Did you feel as hopeless as I did when you realized that the “man with scars on his face” was one small part of a large web of inhuman creatures that reveled in the torture of the innocent? Do you remember how at one time there was only darkness, so the stars in the sky prove that the light is winning?
I do. I remember. Never has a season of television given us all-time levels of existential dread and universal hope like the first season of True Detective. Although the second season went in a different direction, focusing more on the dark underbelly of crime and police corruption in Los Angeles, the series gave us more horror than most network “horror” shows could dream of delivering. The media gods at HBO blessed us with True Detective five years ago, and even though there have been a few hiccups along the way, it looks like they are gifting us gold on our wooden anniversary.
So why should you care? Why should you devote your limited weekly free hours to a show that has let you down in the past? I’ll give you four reasons:
If there’s one thing True Detective has always delivered, it’s world-class talent in their casts. Season One featured a world-destroying performance from Matthew McConaughey as the burned-out ex-vice detective, Rustin Cohle, and a perfect counterweight from Woody Harrelson as his partner Marty Hart. Together, they were able to show us the human toll that crime takes on those that work the cases. Neither of them was “good”, you might even hate them both at times, but they were human. They wanted to help those being hurt, for cosmic justice or for a reassurance that they can do something right. Either way, they never stopped. They never have up, and they broke our hearts.
Season Two was interesting, for sure, but you cannot complain about the talent in front of the camera. Vince Vaughn may not strike you as a tough guy, but his depiction of the career criminal Francis “Frank” Semyon managed to find a way to not completely disappoint. Add in great performances from Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch, and a terrifying Colin Farrell and you have the makings of one of the finest casts in recent memory. So how do the show runners top their choices for the first two seasons? They bring in Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff.
During the first two episodes of this new season, I found myself completely blown away by Ali’s portrayal of Detective Wayne Hays. Mahershala has a gravity about him that pulls your entire being forward in your seat and makes your mouth hang open in amazement. You cheer for him as a young Vietnam veteran looking to find these missing kids, you stare in bewilderment with him as he finds out a shocking truth ten years later, and you weep with him as he tries desperately to remember his life as an old man. Add in Dorff’s portrayal of Roland West, Hays’ partner, and Scoot McNairy’s heart-wrenching turn as Tom and you have a dynamic cast that could read from the dictionary and win an Emmy.
(Before we move on, can we talk about how good Stephen Dorff is? It’s great seeing him in something other than electronic cigarette commercials and edited re-runs of Blade on Syfy. I really missed him.)
Season One of True Detective benefited from having the incredibly talented Cary Joji Fukunaga as the director of all eight of its episodes. This allowed for a strong, consistent tone for the entire season, and showed us just how good Fukunaga can be. Season Two attempted to go in a different direction, having seven different directors take on the eight episodes, with only Justin Lin directing more than one. Some think that this made for a more disjointed tone and ultimately left the season feeling more episodic. While I don’t necessarily agree with that sentiment, Season Three looks to split the difference by handing the reign of the show over to just three different directors, including one of horror’s best.
The first two episodes of the season, available now to watch on HBO, were directed by Jeremy Saulnier. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s awesome and has directed some of genre cinema’s best films of the past decade. His last three feature films, Blue Ruin, Green Room, and Hold The Dark, have been stripped-down, atmospheric, and brutal. In case you didn’t know, stripped-down, atmospheric, and brutal are three things that we are all looking for in an episode of True Detective.
Joining Saulnier as director for the season is series creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto and Emmy-Award winning director Daniel Sackheim. Sackheim is a television god, having directed multiple episodes of some of the greatest series in TV history. This includes The Americans, The Walking Dead, Ozark, House, The Leftovers, and Game of Thrones, so the man knows what he’s doing. When you turn on this season of True Detective, you can be sure that you are going to be seeing the work of world-class creatives.
What’s the last show that made you talk to your coworkers? I don’t mean in a “Where are those TPC reports” type of way, either. I’m talking about the last show that made you stand by the water cooler and reminisce about what happened on last night’s episode of (fill in the blanks). For me, it was Game of Thrones, but even then, the majority of the series comes from an existing book series, so most of us super-fans already knew or suspected most of what has transpired. You didn’t have to speculate about what was going to happen, you just had to go to your local bookstore and pick up a copy of Clash of Kings.
Before True Detective, the last show that made America speculate and play detective in their own right was Lost (all my Dharma-Initiative-Heads holler at me!). That was over a decade ago, and I don’t know about you, but I miss it. I miss going online immediately after each episode and try to dissect what I just saw. I miss seeing my friends the next day and laying out each clue, trying to both solve the mystery and ignore any real-world work responsibilities at the same time. We need that feeling again. It’s been too long. Just maybe, a Zeitgeist-dominating television show like this can save the world from the hellfire it is slowly dipping itself into? I guess we all have to watch the show and find out.
This season of True Detective follows the case of two children that go missing from West Finger, Arkansas in 1980. We ride along with Detectives Walter Hays and Roland West as they track down every clue and fight their superiors to find these kids before it’s too late. After a conviction in the 1980’s, it looks like the wrong person was imprisoned for the crime. We see how the case takes on a life of its own during the coming years, with books, appeals, a dementia-suffering Hays, and television documentaries all trying to figure out what really happened to those poor children.
The first thing that comes to mind when watching these episodes is the similarity this case has to the West Memphis Three debacle that also occurred in Arkansas. While there may be strong ties to that very real case of wrongful prosecution that landed three teenagers in prison (and one on death row) for nearly twenty years before they were finally released, there is so much more going on than that. It’s everything that we have ever feared. It’s the fear that changed the world forever.
Most of you, and most of the people watching this show, grew up in some form of the 1970s, 1980’s, or 1990’s. That means that we all had a certain level of freedom in our childhoods that does not exist today. We were latchkey kids that rode our bikes all around town and went on adventures in the woods with our friends. That doesn’t happen anymore. Now, kids are saddled with GPS trackers in their watches or in pendants around their necks and watched at all times. I’m not hating, mind you. You better believe that I will not be letting my children out of my sight without 17 different military satellites checking on them at all times. For good reason, too. It’s because of stories like the one depicted in True Detective season three that we have locked down our little ones and fear those around us. Every small town in America has a story like the one being told to us from West Finger, Arkansas, and this story is rooted in truth unlike any other show.
This story represents every boogeyman that you were ever told to be afraid of. The neighbor who stares at your sister just a little too long. The junk-man who roots through other people’s trash to make his own living, filling his yard with a labyrinth of metal and rust. The teenagers who wear all black and draw pentagrams on their notebooks. The dark corners of the park where nearby truckers go to drink and whistle at underage girls. The back of the gas stations where sweaty men go to watch private movies. These things have been embedded in our subconscious as things that should be feared and left alone. We are trained to fear the “Other”, the one who is just a little different from us.
Let me get literary on you for a second. In the first episode, Detective Hays’ future wife Amelia (played brilliantly by Carmen Ejogo) is teaching a class on a poem from Robert Penn Warren titled “Tell Me a Story”. In it, Warren writes about hearing the sound of geese flying northward in the nighttime. He couldn’t see them, but he heard them, kind of like how we know things instinctively before we know we know them. He goes on to say:
Tell me a story.
In this century, and moment, of mania,
Tell me a story.
Make it a story of great distances, and starlight.
The name of the story will be Time,
But you must not pronounce its name.
On her chalkboard, Amelia asks her students a simple question: What is the name of the World? In True Detective, in this century, and moment of mania, the name of the world is FEAR. The fear of what you love and who you cherish most being drawn by their blood to a place where something evil is hungry. Hungry and waiting. Waiting and patient. Patient and eternal.
So, there you have it! These are the four reasons why you should be tuning into HBO every Sunday night for the next six weeks and drinking in the third episode of True Detective. At the end of its run, we will be posting a season recap and discussion article to get everyone’s opinion on how it went down.
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