Nov. 7, 1980: “The day Steve McQueen died.” It was a full-moon night, the week after Halloween, when the town of West Fingers, Arkansas, changed forever. Two children were missing, and the sleepy Ozark community was irrevocably contorted; once an innocuous spot of brown country, it would now be the site of an infamous crime of duplicitous origin. Who was involved? A group of metal-obsessed teens? The kids’ uncle? A local pedophile? Or was there something darker at play in West Fingers, something that — decades later — is still spinning its web of evil?
That’s the basic setup for the third season of True Detective, HBO’s gritty noir anthology series from creator (and occasional internet punching bag) Nic Pizzolatto. The first season, directed by Cary Fukunaga (Maniac) with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as leads, was a masterpiece of weird fiction, a Lovecraftian horror fable about a seedy underground pedophile ring protected by local systems. Though the second season diverged from the promise of the first — favoring corrupt police and crime syndicates over the first’s occultist obsession — it didn’t sour all the goodwill. The third season, which premieres on Jan. 13 after a nearly three-year hiatus, has been hyped thanks in part to the inclusion of Deadwood creator David Milch, Green Room director Jeremy Saulnier, and Oscar-winning actor Mahershala Ali in the lead role.
The result is a season that, at least in the first two episodes — which played to a handful of lucky Alamo Drafthouse audiences in preview screenings in late December — returns largely to the successful formula of the first, in which clever flashbacks and small-town secrets stoke the fires of conspiracy and mysticism.
[Ed. note: The following contains mild spoilers for the first two episodes of True Detective season 3.]
In season 3, we see events play out across three decades: 1980, 1990, and 2015, with the life and perspective of Ali’s Wayne Hays providing a framing device. Hays, a Vietnam War scout turned small-town detective, is first seen in the stark modern day, his face aged with convincing makeup, the subject of a true-crime documentary series directed by Sarah Gadon’s Elisa Montgomery. As an old man, Hays struggles with what appear to be the early stages of Alzheimer’s, though he forces himself to wade through memories to unearth intricate details of the 35-year-old crime. The show then leaps to 1990, when the case was reopened, and then back even further to when it all began. The wigs and title cards keep the eras straight, although there’s a bit of a whiplash effect in those opening moments.
Wisely, season 3 orients itself with one of the more famous real crimes in modern America: the West Memphis Three case, in which three teenage boys were arrested for the murder of three children in West Memphis, Arkansas, in the early 1990s. In that case, the convicted teenagers were heavy metal- and horror-obsessed boys who rebelled against the norms of a fundamentalist community — and were severely and erroneously persecuted for it.
In season 3’s first episode, “The Great War and Modern Memory,” we’re introduced to a trio of local teen boys who immediately evoke the West Memphis Three, sporting long hair and Black Sabbath T-shirts, and are known by townspeople for hanging out at a backwoods hotspot called the Devil’s Den. Hays and his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff, who looks freakishly like Dennis Quaid in his highlighted ’80s wig) are immediately suspicious of these boys and their proximity to the missing children, who disappear on a bike ride early in the episode.
The West Memphis Three were associated with a phenomenon known as the “satanic panic,” a widespread, fear-mongering hysteria that spread through the U.S. in the 1980s, in which authorities targeted schools and day-care centers with accusations of ritual-based abuse, sacrifice, and child prostitution. Season 1 dabbled in satanic panic with its Light of the Way preschool cult, and it looks like season 3 is on a similar route. In addition to the West Memphis Three allusions, the episodes also pepper in references to the “Franklin case” — another real-life conspiracy theory about an alleged child prostitution ring in Omaha, Nebraska, that’s commonly associated with the satanic panic craze.
But if you’re worried about True Detective hedging too close to real-life crimes, worry not: By the end of the of the second episode, “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye,” it’s clear there’s more to this case than you’ll get from a run-of-the-mill true-crime podcast. For starters, the children’s father, Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy), may have more to do with the mystery than we’re initially led to believe. And there are other key suspects and ancillary characters — like Michael Graziadei’s creepy uncle Dan O’Brien, and Michael Greyeyes’ trash-hoarding ’Nam vet Brett Woodard — to keep us guessing.
Like the first season, which juxtaposed cultish crimes with the personal lives of their investigators, Hays’ family life has its own set of curiosities, including his wife (Carmen Ejogo) who wrote a famous book about the crime, and an estranged daughter, whose motives are initially unclear. Hays’ personal desperation clouds his ability to see the past clearly, a theme that will undoubtedly carry us through the next six episodes.
If there’s anything to complain about, it’s how safely the opener evokes season 1, relying a bit too hard on the flashback storytelling as if daring us to wonder when McConaughey’s Rust Cohle might stumble into frame. Saulnier, who directed the first two episodes before bowing out after alleged creative disputes, does a competent job, but can’t quite match Fukunaga’s dreamy, prose-like camerawork. Instead, season 3 feels more streamlined and hard-edged; more accessible, perhaps, but a tad less magnetic.
Still, the premiere episodes show a lot of promise plotwise, teasing out a season that gets to the uniquely spooky roots that hooked audiences in the first go-round. If the devil really has come to Arkansas, we’re happy to fall under his spell.
Lindsey Romain is a pop culture writer living in Austin. Follow her on Twitter @lindseyromain.