The third season of HBO’s True Detective opened with a two-part premiere that stretched across three timelines spanning 35 years. There were missing kids and creepy dolls and plenty of overhead shots of this season’s Ozark-region landscape. There were bicycles and potentially evil teens and red herrings that resulted in suspects getting tuned up pretty good. There were slimy but ambitious district attorneys and (possibly) slimy but ambitious news types. There was a lot, really, stretched over the first two hours, a good chunk of it as familiar to us — the overhead shots and the creepy doll and the “the cops yapping about life as they drive around” are all very much Season One things —as it was to the lead detective, Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali), whose memory problems are already a running theme in the investigation.
But let’s back up and all get on the same page: In 1980, on the day Steve McQueen died (as we are reminded more than once), two children, Matthew and Julie Purcell, head out on their bikes and never return. Their parents (Scoot McNairy, all broken-up and sad; Mamie Gummer, all drunk and mad and repeatedly defending the former by shouting “I’m entitled to a life!”) fall apart and our two detectives (Ali’s Hays and Stephen Dorff as Roland West) take a break from drinking High Life and firing off their guns to investigate.
What we learn in short order is that the boy, Matthew, is already gone, found by Hays — an expert tracker of sorts from his time in Vietnam — in a cave with his hands in a praying position and his location tipped off by a few creepy straw dolls. What we learn later, both in the episode and in the show’s own chronology, is that Julie Purcell is still alive, if her prints at the scene of an Oklahoma Walgreens robbery are any indication. (One imagines they are, unless, like, a pre-teen Julie rode her bike from Arkansas to Oklahoma and slapped her prints all over a pharmacy in such a way that they’re still there 10 years later. It will be a little hilarious — bad, but hilarious — if this happens.)
We also met our cast of characters — from a trash-collecting veteran with a go-kart to Wayne’s protective but apparently bitter son to Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), a schoolteacher in the town who will eventually become Wayne’s wife and the author of a famous non-fiction book about the case. So far the show is mostly just disseminating information, dropping clues and background information to (hopefully) build from later. All we really know so far is:
- Will’s dead, Julie is alive
- Whatever the result of the original investigation, it was reopened and overturned in 1990
- Wayne left the force sometime, for some reason, after that happened
- Mahershala Ali rules
This last part cannot be overstated. Stephen Dorff is doing great work so far, too, and at some point we’ll really need to discuss his 1980 hair, but this is Ali’s show. His presence and intensity carry the first two hours, to the point that even his repeated utterances of “I don’t know” feel authoritative. If I ever get murdered (god forbid, obviously), please ask him to handle the investigation. Not this character. Him. Mahershala Ali. I think he will do a good job.
And now, let’s look at where things stand.