A Hopeful 'True Detective' Season 3 Was Nic Pizzolatto's Greatest Challenge

For showrunner and creator Nic Pizzolatto, True Detective season 3 was one big math problem.

True Detective

Nobody would call True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto an especially hopeful storyteller. The two previous seasons of his hit HBO series, which returns three years and a half years later after its rock solid but heavily criticized second season, are defined more by misery and suffering than any signs of light. The previous season bordered on reveling in bleakness, but with a new nonlinear chapter set in the Ozarks, the series changes its tune again, and this time with Pizzolatto reaching for “less sensationalistically violence” and “for hope a bit more.” 

The relationship between the two partners in Pizzolatto’s new mystery, which revolves around the disappearance of two children, is another sign the series in a new direction. While the detectives of the past have been odd couples budding heads with their clashing worldviews and personalities, that’s not the case with the two investigators in Northwest Arkansas, Wayne Hayes (Mahershala Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff). There are a deep trust and respect between them from the start. They’re not overtly buddy-buddy, but through their long history together, they’re usually on the same page and genuinely respect and care for each other; it’s quietly heartfelt for True Detective.

There’s a simplicity to their complicated relationship, but when it comes to the structure of season three, it’s more intricate and more complex than the hunt for the Yellow King. The unsolved case starts in 1980, picks up again in 1990, and then continues in 2015 with Hayes’ mind deteriorating as the unsolved case and his demons haunt him. No longer with the detective in his later years is his wife, Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo), a school teacher who wrote an acclaimed nonfiction crime book about the missing children. Their marriage and lives are defined by the case, which brought them together in the first place but has consequences.

Hayes’ story began as the previous seasons of True Detective did in Pizzolatto’s mind. “Usually, it starts with the character, and with this one, it definitely started with Wayne Hayes and the desire to tell a man’s life story, in the form of a detective story, and the idea that, if he’s losing his life story near the end of his life, then who he is becomes the mystery, in a way,” Pizzolatto recently told a group of us at a mini press conference. “I just tried to think about, how you could do that? The case started to suggest itself, and then the setting and Wayne’s history, it all becomes symbiotic really quickly, but it starts with the character.”

When Pizzolatto, who directed episodes this season as well along with Jeremy Saulnier (Green Room) and seasoned TV director Daniel Sachem (Game of Thrones), was trying to write the most expansive story yet in the series, it tested him and brought him to the point of having a board full of Post-its he described as a crazy person’s wallpaper. “I frequently find that nowadays, in my accelerating age, I’m most drawn to things that seem hard,” he said. “When I originally had this idea, I was like, ‘Okay, but how would even do that? It’s like an impossible math problem.’ How do you keep a mystery going and have these reversals and revelations without cheating the audience by saying, ‘Well, I could have shown you this, but I didn’t show you, I just kept this out.’ I went a little crazy once or twice. I wanted to have no tricks up my sleeve. 2015 and 1990 are happening at the same time as 1980, and you’re constantly being told what is going to happen, all the time.”

Unlike the past seasons, Pizzolatto wasn’t always alone when writing season three of True Detective. As reported last year, he co-wrote one of the eight episodes with Deadwood and Luck creator, David Milch. Could somebody ever ask for a better writing partner? Probably not, and especially not Pizzolatto, who won’t ever forget the experience of collaborating with Milch (now shooting the Deadwood movie). “It was one of the absolute greatest highlights in what has been a very, very fortunate creative life,” he said. “We had gotten together because Scott [Stephens] is a producer on Deadwood, and he had brought me in for a couple of weeks to work with David on his Deadwood film script. This was around when I was still figuring out the idea for True Detective season three, and we had such a great time. He turned me onto writing out loud, which I had never done before. I ended up writing most of the second half of the season out loud, which was a much more spiritually healthy thing to do than to be alone in a room with a blank page. Man, it was just so great. There would be these times where I was doing one character and he was doing another, and we were like the dueling banjos in Deliverance.”

As ambitious and vast as the story is, and yet intimate, the first six episodes of the season play as clean and concise as can be, which Pizzolatto credits Ali for, his performance always selling the harsh passing of time. “In 1980, he’s a different person,” Ali said, describing the distinctions between the years. “He doesn’t lose the essence of who he is, but he’s a different person in 1990 than he is in 1980, after 10 years with a really intelligent, passionate woman, who he’s trying to keep up with, in some way, shape, or form. You might begin to talk a little bit quicker than you were in 1980, still dealing with the residual of being alone in the jungle, a few years earlier. And then, as he ages and his mind begins to deteriorate, his heart opens up, and he becomes more affectionate, more emotional, more loving, and more giving.”

Playing Hayes in 2015, Ali adjusted the character’s breathing and articulation, to convey “how those things start to change, as people get dentures.” The Academy Award-winner is constantly altering his speech, distinctive sound, and magnetic presence throughout the season. “I would have to check in with Nic every day because you’re dealing with a 500-page script,” Ali continued. “You’re shooting page one, then the next day, you might be on page 300, then on the next day, you’re on page 120 through 130. You’re jumping around all of these places, and you’re in different eras, so you have to lean on Nic and, at times, our script supervisor, to make sure that you are in the right world, in the right period. But there’s also space there for you to put your signature, as an artist, in the silences and in the moments that connect the beats. I really love and appreciate that about Nic’s writing.”

The actor’s appreciation of Pizzolatto’s writing doesn’t stop there. “There’s a clear point of view, and a clear agenda and point to every scene,” Ali added. “Every moment and every word is intentional, but there’s also space for you to just be in the moment. That’s where there are differences between what one actor brings to the table and what another actor brings to the table. There was a moment where Stephen Dorff and myself were just sitting in the car for 35 seconds, and no one was saying anything, but we were both still very much alive and experiencing something in that moment.”

While Hayes’ shaky state of mind in his later years could’ve muddled the mystery or brought a sense of confusion, it doesn’t. Some answers and clarity are provided very upfront this season. The Ozark-set crime story is a slyly unpredictable mystery that drops huge narrative bombs when least expected. Crucial information, twists and turns past movies and shows have taught us to expect late in the game arrive remarkably early in season three and keeps things exciting.

How much are we supposed to trust the information, though, considering Hayes has trouble with his memory? According to Pizzolatto, the show’s audience should trust him completely. “I do think Hayes is a reliable narrator,” the showrunner shared. “I think we can trust what we’re seeing because when hard reality breaks, you know it. It’s clear in the series, and when he’s in an episode, I feel that’s clear. Generally, a rule that I try to stick to is, if you’re seeing it, it happened. I’m not gonna play a game with you, where I show you something, and then I say that it didn’t really happen, like, I fooled you, ‘cause that doesn’t feel like I fooled you, it just feels like I lied to you.”

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.