The ‘True Detective’ Season 3 Teaser is Drenched in Guilt

The first footage of the Nic Pizzolatto drama does well to hone in on Mahershala Ali's demons.
Mahershala Ali True Detective

No show should’ve had to bear the indomitable weight of first season critical acclaim that True Detective did. Claims that the series, which at the time starred Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, was one of the best programs ever were woefully premature; not because the Nic Pizzolatto-penned drama was necessarily bad. Rather, True Detective‘s ambition just proved to be overwhelming across both of its two seasons, which resulted in inconsistent returns.

With Cary Fukunaga at the helm of Season 1, True Detective‘s admittedly generic crime story is kept afloat by stylish, moody visuals that breathe alongside the show’s protagonists. Landscape feels like a vital secondary character (it certainly has more personality than the few women in the series do anyway). What could be described as the quintessential True Detective atmospheric tone is pulsating and well-executed in the first season, aptly complementing the strangeness and grimness of McConaughey and Harrelson’s opposing forces.

Season 2 ended up being a tougher puzzle to ingest. With far less time to iron out the kinks in the season, Pizzolatto and his crew made more than a few glaring mistakes that watered down the overall final product. Despite the fact that True Detective‘s second season is fundamentally less knotty and convoluted, plot-wise, divvying up its lead roles among four instead of two cast members spread the series’ focus too thin. Hence, each protagonist feels underdeveloped at best. The lack of a consistent directorial voice was painfully obvious, too. Overall, it isn’t a bad season, but it does feel less special.

True Detective‘s anthology format has been a blessing and a curse for the series, if only that fresh stories featuring entirely new casts can typically only be judged on their individual merits. Anthologies have the potential to purport strong internal character development within finite story arcs to suit an impactful ending, but basically, none of that stuff can be rehashed in upcoming seasons. Between existing seasons of True Detective, the foundational work of character and world building simply cannot pay off, which makes the show difficult to predict in the long run.

So, what, indeed, can we make of True Detective‘s upcoming third season; something we were absolutely stoked for? HBO dropped a fresh teaser for the project ahead of the Sharp Objects finale, and it’s all we could ask for in a trailer. That is to say, we know nothing about this evocative mash-up of joyless, lowkey stressful clips. However, what is certain is that season star Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) is front and center as he should be, waxing philosophical in the way only a despondent Pizzolatto protagonist could. Watch the spot below, and then let’s break down what we’re seeing.

According to HBO’s official website, the third season of True Detective will notably return to the structural tenets that made Season 1 all too gripping. Partner detectives will be investigating another gnarly crime, only this time the show will take place in the Ozarks, Arkansas. Ali will play state police detective Wayne Hays while Stephen Dorff (Somewhere) will fill the shoes of Arkansas State Investigator Roland West. The rest of the all-star cast includes Carmen Ejogo (Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them), Scoot McNairy (Gone Girl), and Mamie Gummer (Cake), among others. The story is set to span three decades.

Ali’s involvement in True Detective is a godsend, and one of the main reasons I’m personally looking forward to the new season. TV has given Ali some of his most memorable roles, between shows like The 4400, House of Cards, and Marvel’s Luke Cage. To have him fully headline an entire series is perfect, given the strength and versatility of his onscreen dramatic presence. In the case of True Detective, in particular, everything from Ali’s demeanor to the sullen nature of his voiceovers lends the perfect overcast tone to the proceedings.

The teaser opens with Wayne Hays walking through a field. Already, we’re establishing a distinctive shift away from the inexplicable shots of the winding Los Angeles highways that bolstered Season 2, and heading back towards somewhere rural.

Furthermore, as the YouTube subtitles make clear, tense music is playing as Hays declares, “Before you ever knew me, I wasn’t scared much.” The disembodied nature of his voiceover works twofold — it’s practically addressing the audience, although the character is most likely speaking to someone within the context of the show. Either way, the juxtaposition of Hays’ level tone and the urgency of his words is weird and discomfiting. A perfect reentry point into True Detective.

Very quickly, we get a glimpse of Ejogo’s character having a candlelit dinner with Hays. In HBO’s summary, she portrays a school teacher named Amelia Reardon who has connections to some missing kids in the town. The clip doesn’t make this character arc apparent so far. Instead, Amelia is shown tracing around the shape of Hays’ fingers with her own — a teasingly intimate gesture — and they gaze at each other with some semblance of peace in their eyes. Nevertheless, Hays’ narration continues in an ominous fashion: “Things I’ve seen. Things I know. Wouldn’t do anything but cause harm.” Let’s not get too comfortable.

As Hays continues to muse about missing pieces in his life, we get a glimpse of a family, presumably his own. It isn’t a stretch to immediately assume that Hays may lose several relationships throughout the season, perhaps due to his strenuous job or something more sinister. In the world of True Detective and its fraught men, this just seems extremely likely from the word go.

The teaser appears to keep its timeline linear for a bit, until we get a striking mid-shot of a grey-haired, bespectacled Hays. He has nothing but sadness, fear, and guilt in his eyes.

And a flashback of a similar composition cuts in for just a second. Young Hays looks on at what could be the initial crime scene. At least, that’s what the briefly flashing lights seem to hint at: police vehicles. Moreover, regardless of context, here is a classically pensive True Detective shot, if I ever saw one.

“Did you think you could just go on, and never once have to look back?” Ejogo asks with eerie, pointed calmness when the trailer cuts back to the aging Hays. Like a specter in a horror film, she is shrouded in shadow in the shot’s background, and we’re left wondering if she’s even really there. Is she perhaps another projection of Hays’ guilt? (I’m not super jazzed about this prospect, considering the show’s horrendous track record with sidelining women as it is, but I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself.)

The teaser then begins to quicken in pace, detailing little elements of the case that seem to connect to the children of this sleepy region. Apart from depicting Hays parsing through slips of paper with disjointed phrases like “its [sic] okay” scrawled on it, an unnerving shot of cycling kids is automatically followed up with one of Hays examining an abandoned bicycle in the woods. This only serves to heighten dreadful suspicions, but the source of the fear is obviously kept hidden.

Soon enough, we’re introduced to the secondary characters of the series, and a notable one is Mamie Gummer looking extremely harried. Per HBO, her character, Lucy Purcell, is said to be a mother caught “at the center of a tragic crime.” That much is obvious here.

Like the strange symbolism and imagery of seasons’ past — more notably that of the occult in Season 1 — we may be shown some form of modus operandi for Season 3’s big bad through this shot of cut-up letters spelling out some kind of message. This is a common visual used in crime dramas, but it still has a chilling effect. That misspelling of “shud” is unmissable, fascinating in the context of what we can make of the rest of the perfectly rendered message.

The rest of the trailer quickly zips by, and at this point, discerning actual narrative hints seems a little pointless. We know some people will be peering through peepholes, and gang violence will come to a head.

What we really want to know is why a younger Hays is sticking a man in the trunk of a car. That’s not what police detectives should be doing. Contrasting the beginning and end of the trailer with such a stark character bookend is a great move on HBO’s part. How do we reconcile a guilty-sounding Hays with the image of his indiscretions?

Although brief, this trailer assures audiences that the sprawling nature of True Detective Season 2 is far in the series’ rearview. The network has found the perfect linchpin in Ali and totally knows it. Even if time is indeed a flat circle, and painful, mind-bending realities persist in the dreary world of Pizzolatto’s crime series, True Detective‘s third season could very well deliver on the high-stakes drama that its first season knocked out of the park.

True Detective is set to return to HBO in January 2019.

Sheryl Oh: Sheryl Oh often finds herself fascinated (and let's be real, a little obsessed) with actors and their onscreen accomplishments, developing Film School Rejects' Filmographies column as a passion project. She's not very good at Twitter but find her at @sherhorowitz anyway. (She/Her)