Early into the first episode of the new True Detective (a season that all but mandates the qualifier "much anticipated" every time it's mentioned), two detectives — hard, angular men of a hard, angular country (in this case, the Arkansas Ozarks) — sit on tatty folding chairs and drink beers in front of a pile of gnarled, rusted-out junk cars. One of the men, Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) shoots his revolver at the rats scurrying along the junk cars. However, when his partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff) points his gun at a fox, Hays stops him, because a fox is too clever and innocent an animal to idly kill. They don't carry disease the way rats do.
This scene may seem like it was tossed off to introduce the countrified grittiness of the setting and assure viewers that, yes, the creative team understand how much we missed the saturnine manliness of the much-celebrated first season. Yet the moment is illuminative, in a sneakily subtle way, of how much this incarnation of True Detective has evolved away from that saturnine manliness — much to its betterment.
The first season of True Detective, which debuted in early 2014, arrived at the epoch of Peak Antihero TV —that spot in the mid-aughts when the antics of bad, broken men like Don Draper, Walter White, Vic Mackey, Nucky Thompson, and Dexter Morgan (among so many others) supposedly spoke to our national Id; dissected the tropes of old-world, man's-man masculinity by glorifying them to an absurd degree; and attained, through their maladjustments, a prophetic ability to see the whole truth, the real truth, about our dark and pathetic world. Matthew McConaughey's imminently meme-able Rust Cohle was, to quote his partner, Woody Harrelson's Marty Hart, "the Michael Jordan of being a son of a bitch," a paradoxical figure of nihilistic virtue, tracking down a serial killer over decades even though he's prone to opine things like "Death created time to grow the things that it would kill." Though, on the surface, these kinds of utterances recall dorm room existentialism 101, McConaughey's flinty, wryly knowing performance and the show's Southern Gothic gonzo gave the character a perhaps unearned aura of profundity.
The second season hoisted itself on its own petard of epic dudely broodiness, becoming an unintentional caricature of machismo: In the first episode, Colin Ferrell's unfortunately mustachioed Detective Ray Velcoro dons brass knuckles to punch up the father of the preening bully who abuses his poor, soft-hearted son. Even the show's attempt at a Strong Female Character™, Rachel McAdams' Ani Bezzerides, is overtly chauvinistic: She really loves her knives and she's not afraid to cut a son-of-a-bitch.
After the critical drubbing that this season, and, by extension, auteur Nic Pizzolatto, took, the core question became whether this long-delayed and, yes, much-anticipated third season, could possibly ever achieve the zeitgeisty greatness of the first. But this isn't the right question — because the answer is that this third season of True Detective isn't contorting itself into season one, it's more nuanced and expansive in the ways it approaches masculinity.
Wayne Hays isn't a showboating philosopher dude-bro like Cohle, or cosplaying pulp noir like Velcoro or Bezzerides: Ali plays him across three timelines — the first timeline, which follows Hays' efforts to find two missing children, starts, tellingly, on the day Steve McQueen died (November 7, 1980); the second timeline, 10 years later, finds the case reopened and Hays questioning what he thinks he knows; and the third timeline, set in 2015, fixes on an aged and widowed Hays who is suffering from early onset dementia, as he recounts the case to a true crime documentary crew — with a contemplativeness that feels meticulous and completely instinctual. He's a reflexive thinker, more focused on the granular, and tangible details in front of him than on the grand flights of opining about the nature of time and space and monstrosity or brooding something as immaterial as his wounded manly pride — as befits a former reconnaissance tracker in Vietnam. His more economical, utilitarian approach is arguably forged by the horrible things he's seen and done in war: He finds no verbose grandiosity in the horrors of the world. Sure, kill the rats because they carry diseases. Hunt the boar in the jungle because you can eat it. But leave the fox alone, she's never hurt anyone.
Though it would be tempting for Nic "the world needs bad men" Pizzolatto to turn the story of a Vietnam vet, especially one with such grim and secretive work, into a kind of Prestige TV version of The Punisher, he and Ali are far more invested in the silent, cerebral nature of the job. In one anticipatorily meta moment, Roland West tells a search crew preparing to scour some deep-wooded terrain for the two missing children that Hays (who is, in true iconoclastic fashion, following a trail in the opposite direction) used to come back from his runs in 'Nam with "scalps" on his belt. The following long shot of Hays wandering the trail, stooping to the ground as if it will give up its secrets, coming across a trashed and muddied bicycle, and then winding his way into a secret cavern, where he will find the young boy's body with its hands folded over its chest as if in prayer, is as viscerally thrilling as any McConaughey monologue of a dream of a locked room or Ferrell's aging cop finding he still has the fury in his fists. Hays doesn't react to his discovery with any kind of ironic detachment: He shakes and blanches, sits sucking a cigarette with tears in his eyes. However well-trained he is, no matter what kinds of monsters he's met at the ends of those terrible dreams, he has the same reaction that any remotely feeling, humane, person would have upon finding a dead child.
Relatability has become something of a buzzword, most often and unfortunately applied to women characters — if anything, the fanboying over the perpetually sour Rust Cohle shows how little it applies to men. Yet indeed, part of what distinguishes Hays from his predecessors in the True Detective cannon is how relatable he is, and that relatability, at least in part, comes from his vulnerability. The Hays of the future isn't dilapidated in that grizzled, hard-jerky way that Cohle ages: He is mourning his wife and his memory, savagely missing his estranged daughter, and these losses conspire to break him down — he cries, openly, in front of the documentary crew that he's had enough, and he wants to go. Hays' wife, Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) isn't some disposable angel trying to temper his eccentricities, she's a celebrated true crime author who has her own insights about the case. Women in the earlier seasons vacillated between exasperated redeemer-figures and hardboiled basket cases, but Amelia possesses her own creative curiosities and ambitions: In her, Hays sees an equal, or, at times, someone who might be smarter or at least more attuned than he is.
In an interview with Collider, Ali talks expressly about instilling this kind of raw emotionality into the character: "As he ages … his heart opens up and he becomes more affectionate, more emotional, more loving, and more giving … There are people who grew up in a time when there were men's men, but then … they want to connect to their daughter and see that love in her eyes." Hays may be one of the archetypical silent male geniuses of TV, but he seems so distinct and so whole because his story doesn't have to serve as a grand metaphor for anything: He has real problems that speak to real issues, like surviving Vietnam only to return to a small town America that remains racist (in one of his first conversations he has with his future wife, the missing boy's English teacher, they elliptically allude to hearing certain words in town and certain areas feeling safer than others), and feeling the diamond-sharp edges of his mind dulled by time and illness. These issues resonate far more deeply and powerfully than, say, Ray Velcoro's backstory of avenging a raped wife (which is groaningly rote as a tough-guy origin story) or Rust Cohle's dead kid (which I didn't even remember until I looked it up on Wikipedia); Ani's childhood sexual abuse is crassly rendered as an explainer for why she's such an angry, knife-wielding bad-ass and not as anything she's actually tried to grieve through or process.
We are finally, mercifully, veering out of the age of the antihero — we're more likely to see a Mrs. Maisel on the small screen than a Walter White, a Daenerys Targaryen than a Don Draper, a Betty Cooper than a Tony Soprano. Now True Detective, a show that seemed so inextricably wed to this masculine mystique, has given it up and allowed an actor like Ali to give us something better than a meme-machine of a character, but a smart man with a heart that keeps on ticking through all the fractures. A man who knows that sometimes, you show tenderness. You spare the fox.