True Detective Season 3 Review: Great Expectations

This review contains minor spoilers for season three of True Detective

I don’t want to say that I’m disappointed by season three of True Detective, but similar to an investigator solving an inscrutable crime, the truth can be difficult to confront. I loved nearly every moment of this season until the last two episodes rolled around, and as much it pains me to say it, I have to face the truth: I am disappointed by this show’s finale. Despite this lingering disenchantment, I do believe that season three of True Detective is worth your time, and I believe it is best that you draw your own conclusions about the show. For these reasons, I won’t be discussing any specific aspects of the plot in this review, although I will be commenting on their execution.

Season three had me hooked and hungry for more by the end of its first episode. The way that the focal crime is staged for the viewer is immediately enthralling, haunting, and perplexing, and I was sucked in completely by this beautifully crafted mystery. Yet as good as the setup of this show is and as gripping as the building of the rising action and tension are, there are very few satisfying payoffs. This is because season three of True Detective has too much misdirection and too little focus.

Clues that are made to be very significant at the beginning are revealed to be ultimately insignificant in the end, and while this is okay to some extent, I feel instinctively opposed to the sheer number of red herrings present here. The ending of season three suggests that the mystery was never as important as the characters were, yet the amount of time devoted to each of these aspects is disproportionate to reach a conclusion like this. That might be why my gut reaction, even a week after completing the season, is one of disappointment. At the same time, I feel that this decision to subvert the audience’s expectations was intentional on writer and creator Nic Pizzolatto’s part. In this specific case, though, I don’t think quite enough time was spent on the characters for the finale to work as intended.

There are several characters that are essentially excluded or entirely dropped from the narrative, as well as several plot lines that are severely lacking in quantity of content. The most egregious example of this is a character and subplot that are built up the entire season, but with no real resolution or revelation attached to that character. That subplot ends so abruptly on a moment of such little consequence that I was honestly shocked that there wasn’t anything else to this.

I’ve been reading a lot of discussions online about how season three of True Detective contains a metanarrative about True Detective itself, and how the aforementioned character is a stand-in for the audience. I can definitely see why people are saying this, and I would even say that it’s likely that this is the case for this specific character. Whether this is intended or not, however, is frankly irrelevant, because as it stands right now, that character’s inclusion builds tension without any actual payoff or consequence. If your show contains an ultimately useless and inconsequential plotline for the sake of making a metacommentary, then that commentary isn’t worth making.

The majority of the season fixates largely on the mystery of the narrative and less so on the individuals involved in that mystery, but season three of True Detective pulls away from this notion in its final episode. There, it seems to propose that it’s all about family, yet protagonist Wayne Hay’s relationships with his children, particularly with one of them, don’t have nearly enough time devoted to them to feel at all complex or interesting. Wayne’s relationship with his wife, Amelia, is much more fleshed out, but it’s obvious that a lot of material about Amelia was left on the cutting room floor, as creator Nic Pizzolatto has been directly answering fans’ lingering questions about her (and about other characters and plot points) on Instagram. That really shows how a few parts of the season are simply absent, and the show can occasionally feel empty and disjointed because of it.

I know it seems like I’m coming down pretty hard on True Detective, but I actually feel physically uncomfortable while typing out these criticisms, as if I’m betraying the show somehow. I fell head over heels in love with this season from its onset, and I haven’t become this invested in a television series for a long, long time. Maybe I feel so disappointed by True Detective because it failed to live up to my own impossible expectations. I stand by my criticisms of the show, but I still feel as if I’ve done something morally wrong by stating them.

I’m going to take a break from the negativity here and gush about the acting in this show. There is no way my words can do justice to the remarkable performances of the cast, but I will do my darndest. Mahershala Ali deserves an Oscar for his performance as detective Wayne Hays. I know what you’re thinking: “But Cole, Oscars are awarded to films, not television shows!” Too bad. Ali deserves another Oscar under his belt, because you don’t see Mahershala Ali in this show; he melts away entirely, and all that remains is the character. Given that the show is split into three main timelines, Ali and his co-star Stephen Dorff play the same person at three different stages of their lives. What is particularly impressive for Ali and Dorff is their time spent as the older, seventy-year-old versions of their characters. While much is owed to the ridiculously realistic makeup work, both Ali and Dorff still feel like their characters from the earlier timelines, yet they also feel markedly different, irreparably changed and scarred by the events of their pasts.

I could drone on and on about the quality of the acting of the lead detectives, of the other main cast members, and even of the more minor characters who still manage to leave lasting impressions, but just watch the show for yourself. Given that my focus on this blog tends to be about the writing aspect of film and television, I do not say this often, but season three of True Detective is worth watching for the acting alone. It is that gosh darn good, and it’s far from the show’s only good quality. As much as I’ve criticized this season thus far, the majority of it is immensely enjoyable. The problems for me, as I’ve previously stated, only arise towards the ending.

For example, one of this season’s greatest mistakes is that it plays its hand too early. By episode five or six (of eight total), we know all the major players in the central crime and have a pretty solid bead on their motives. Episode seven, then, is essentially the characters playing catch up with the audience, and it’s by far the weakest of the season. While the final episode suffers in this way to a lesser extent, its true failing is its lack of payoffs and its unearned conclusions.

What is truly baffling to me is that the most pertinent information about the central mystery is revealed in a five-minute exposition dump, and it seems that this information was only delayed for convenience’s sake. A move like this just feels so out of place in an otherwise well-paced crime show, but regrettably, it’s far too easy to poke several convenience holes in the final episode’s plot, and by extension, the rest of the season.

Perhaps I’m being too harsh. Writing a complex mystery like this is an incredibly fine line to walk: the writers have to give enough clues for the fans to engage with the work, but they can’t give away so many clues that the mystery is painfully obvious. This dilemma is only exacerbated by the existence of the internet, and I’d be lying if I said that reading fan theories online didn’t heavily influence my ability to predict several plot points. With all of this being said, this season definitely rewards the attentive viewer, which earns it some points.

There are also several aspects of the finale that are well-implemented. The way season three of True Detective wraps up the larger narrative of the crime itself, particularly in regard to one core character, is both satisfying and beautiful. I also appreciated how one of the season’s villains is handled; rather than being a mustache-twirling psychopath, we are shown an emotionally damaged human being who is filled with more grief than vitriol. Even if some of the character work falls somewhat short, I think this is due solely to the show’s execution rather than its intention.

This review has been an overly dramatic drawn-out ping pong match between my confused and warring feelings, so I will leave you with two final thoughts. Even with its flaws, there is great beauty to be found in season three of True Detective. And after having read commentaries, reviews, and discussions online about this season,I’ve seen a lot of divisiveness among the True Detective community. Regardless of how you or someone else feels, it is okay to disagree about whether the conception and execution of this show is brilliant or lazy. I’ve been disagreeing with myself about that very issue for the past week, and I still haven’t fully made up my mind. I’m sure I’ll continue to wrestle with my feelings, but your experience may be different from mine. All I can do is encourage you to pursue that experience yourself.

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