[Season 2 of ‘True Detective’ wasn’t as bad as you think. A writer explains why.]
As it did with Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle and his “time is a flat circle” philosophizing in the first season, a chunk of this information unfolds through a deposition long after the fact — in this case, 10 years — and the show adds a third timeline, 25 years after that, when the elderly Hays has acquiesced to an interview for a true crime show. (Old-age makeup is notoriously difficult to get right, so it should be said that Ali’s transformation is exceptionally good here.) Other major characters get a toehold on the first episode, too, including Stephen Dorff as Hays’s partner, Roland West, and Carmen Ejogo as Amelia Reardon, an English teacher who will eventually become Hays’s wife and write a book about the case.
Pizzolatto’s script goes easy on the hard-boiled Pizzolatto-isms for the time being, which allows his strengths for baroque plotting to shine through more clearly. Time will tell whether the unsavory aspects of the story — child murder and abduction, a peephole into the little girl’s room — will drag it down or if Pizzolatto will lose the plot as much as he did in the second season. But the two big twists in “The Great War and Modern Memory” — that Amelia married Hays and wrote about the case, and that the little girl is still alive in 1990 and apparently burglarizing pharmacies in Oklahoma — are expertly handled, and the various suspects and witnesses are laid out clearly and carefully.
Getting those establishing details right is no small feat, especially after a second season that sowed confusion and contempt from the opening hour. The third season of “True Detective” may be scaled-back in ambition, but Saulnier and Pizzolatto get the hooks in deep through evocative scene-setting and the bread-crumb-by-bread-crumb storytelling of a classic procedural. As Hays steels himself to explore the darkness at the edge of town, it’s easy enough to follow for now.
• That last exchange between Hays and West (“It’s too dark, man.” “I don’t care.”) feels like an I-yam-what-I-yam moment from Pizzolatto, who might feel inclined to wink at his critics after last season.
• Race will surely become a factor as the season moves along. The initial meeting between Hays and Amelia leaves the question hanging — “How is it here … you know?” — for now.
• Devil’s Den joins Cape Fear in the annals of prophetically named public spaces.
• The peephole in the boy’s room, most likely carved out by Lucy’s cousin, is the first big lead in the case, especially when the boy turns up dead and not his sister. It is also a Pizzolatto — and noir — convention to have this secret space in the back of a closet, undercurrents of unfathomable evil coursing through everyday life.
• Fans of the eclectic music supervisor T-Bone Burnett may chuckle at the Mickey Newbury version of “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In” that closes the episode. Burnett also produced the eclectic soundtrack for “The Big Lebowski,” which used Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s single for the surreal, Busby Berkeley-esque dream sequence at the bowling alley.