‘True Detective’ returns with double-episode season 3 premiere

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The following contains spoilers about season 3 of “True Detective”

Crime thriller “True Detective” has returned to HBO with two episodes to kick off its third season. The enigmatic, noir-esque anthology series swept fans into the world of theories and Easter eggs with its first season and dropped the ball with a bloated sophomore effort. But it seems the series has returned to form with the premiere of its third season.

In this iteration, the show returns to the South — West Finger, Arkansas, to be precise — with police Detectives Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) investigating a case that will come to be the centerpiece of this season: The disappearance of the siblings Will and Julie Purcell.

Episode 1, “The Great War and Modern Memory,” however, begins not with the murder, but with a memory of the murder. The episode opens on Hays sitting for a deposition on the case 10 years after it took place. This is our entry point into the world of the show. The show’s setup, as it is revealed, takes place across decades — from the actual events of the disappearance in the 1980s to Hays’ deposition in the 1990s and an elderly Hays telling the story of the case in the present (or near present) of 2015.

The idea of memory and time is critical to this series, with the infamous “time is a flat circle” being the most-quoted line from season 1. The tripartite framing of time allows for new aspects of the story to unfold not in real time, but in a nonlinear layering of detail and revelation. Hays is the audience’s conduit into this piecing together of time and the details of the mystery.

As the youngest Hays starts investigating the case, and the 1990s Hays begins his deposition, the elderly Hays begins an interview for a true-crime documentary, providing another means of analyzing the Purcell case with the hindsight of decades past. It is shown, however, that the older Hays’ memory isn’t what it used to be, as he uses a voice recorder to keep track of his thoughts that quickly fade.

The show sets its tone from the start, with a moody opening credits scene backed by a low guitar and a cover of the blues ballad “Death Letter” sung by Cassandra Wilson. T Bone Burnett is back to score this season’s adventures, creating an atmospheric background of eeriness. The haunting music complements the grim subject matter and ominous cinematography, which often takes on blueish-gray hues to mimic the general despair of the situation.

Spinning off from the eldest Hays’ interview, the show returns to the deposition, where Hays outlines what he remembers about the case, responding to his interviewer: “Yeah, of course I remember. … 10 years is nothing. I remember everything.”

The facts of the case quickly come to light, with an entire scene devoted to the children’s disappearance. One afternoon, the two leave their house on bikes to see a friend’s new puppy, and going around their sleepy town, the two encounter characters who will later turn up: Their father, Tom (Scoot McNairy) waving them goodbye, angsty teenagers in an electric purple VW bug, a mysterious man riding a go-kart piled high with trash. The day turns to night, and the children are never seen again.

As Hays and West, whom you might’ve forgotten about by now, get word of the disappearance, they start to gather clues and possible evidence. They start by questioning Tom and the children’s mother, Lucy (Mamie Gummer). From here, other figures come in to the mix, including Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo), the high school English teacher who will ultimately marry Hays, as is revealed in later flash-forwards.

Some of the most exciting moments of the episode come from Hays finding clues on his own, leading to the episode’s climactic moment, when Hays is led to the body of one of the children, Will, by a bread-crumb trail of straw dolls left deep in the woods.

After this discovery, another revelation surfaces in the deposition time frame. Hays, having concluded his statements for the day, is informed that a fingerprint set has been found matching Julie Purcell’s at the site of a robbery, realigning his entire conception of the case — after all those years, Julie could still be alive. The episode ends back in the woods, where Hays and West are talking as the search crews scour the murder site. Hays, however, soon retreats back into the forest, searching for more clues that could lead to Julie, thematically crisscrossing the divide between time and the progression of the case.

Episode 2, “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” focuses mainly on the oldest timeline, as Hays and West pursue suspects and leads, with occasional dips into the flash-forwards. This episode also gives more insight into Hays’ background, including his time as a sergeant in the Vietnam War, his blossoming connection with Amelia, and his experiences with racism in the largely white police department.

First on the partners’ suspect list is Brett Woodard (Michael Greyeyes), an outsider who lives on the fringes of the town and is known for collecting trash on his go-kart. The three men bond over having all served in the war, and Woodward appears to be a dead end. West is also tipped off about a pedophile who lives under an assumed name. Hays and West question and torture him, but he gives up no details about the Purcells.

Meanwhile, the town starts to buzz with renewed concern, voicing their fears as it is revealed that Julie could still be alive, as her body was not found with her brother’s. Hays solicits the help of Amelia in finding out the meaning of the straw dolls he discovered before coming across Will Purcell’s body. She proves an excellent partner, finding out that Julie received one of the dolls weeks before on Halloween. This leads the department to release a map of where the Purcells had trick-or-treated to the public, against Hays’ wishes, causing the town to panic.

Will’s funeral reveals more potential clues — a creepy uncle (Michael Graziadei) returning to town becomes a potential suspect, and Hays and West discover the Purcells were having marital problems. These revelations don’t come to fruition in this episode, but rather hints are planted as possible leads for episodes to come. Another mystery arises when the Purcells receive an ominous note, of cut-out magazine words strung together, suggesting Julie is, as was their instinct, still alive.

After the reveal made in the last episode’s deposition, Hays starts to spiral as the news of Julie’s presence makes him question his relationship to the case a decade later. And the elderly Hays shows signs of irritation with the documentarians, whose prying questions go too far, pushing him in a way that isn’t quite clear. The final scene shows the elderly Hays at the crossroads where the Purcell case started, with it unclear whether the scene is meant to be real or somewhere buried in Hays’ memory.

This initial pair of episodes has established this season as one of twisty turns and a moody, Southern Gothic aesthetic. Mahershala Ali is the clear star of the season, giving a nuanced performance in each of his character’s timelines while his co-stars frequently come off as flat or overblown. Hopefully, the forthcoming episodes will show more growth with these peripheral characters.

The show’s treatment of memory will also be interesting to see develop, as the question of who can be a reliable narrator seems to complicate the outcome of the central mystery.

Camryn Bell covers film and television. Contact her at [email protected].