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The ‘True Detective’ Season 3 Syllabus

From the Satanic Panic of the 1980s to the Vietnam War fiction of Dennis Johnson and Tim O’Brien, here’s everything you need to read, watch, and listen to in advance of Season 3 of ‘True Detective’

HBO/Ringer illustration

True Detective is a great extra-textual show. Beyond its mysteries, conspiracies, shootouts, dive bar philosophizing, and metaphorical scenery, one of the great pleasures of Nic Pizzolatto’s crime series is how it makes you think about all sorts of different stuff—music, history, literature, and film—beyond what you’re seeing on your screen. With the show’s third season making a (frankly, triumphant) return to HBO on Sunday, January 13, with two episodes, here’s a syllabus to help deepen your appreciation.

And while I have you here: If we’re talking about deepening our appreciation of True Detective, boy do I have an aftershow for you.

I’m co-hosting The Flat Circle: A True Detective Aftershow with my partner in crime, Jason Concepcion. We’ll be putting these up after each of Season 3’s eight episodes.

True Detective, Season 1

Man, this was good. The third season of True Detective goes back to the show’s roots in several ways. It limits the point of view to a pair of investigators—Arkansas state police detectives Wayne Hays and Roland West (Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff)—and tracks how one case becomes a conspiracy that irrevocably changes both of their lives. There was a lot wrong with the show’s second season, but perhaps the biggest misstep was trying to weave four characters together while still maintaining a tense mystery at the heart of the story. You want to know what kind of vibe True Detective’s third season has? Spend some time with Rust and Marty in the zone of quiet reflection.

There’s another reason you might want to dig back in to Season 1: It could have some bearing on S3. Despite the show’s anthology format, it’s not that hard to imagine the events in each season taking place along the same timeline, and, perhaps, just maybe, involving some of the same protagonists and antagonists. Season 3’s Arkansas setting is not that far from Season 1’s Louisiana, and with Season 3 taking place in 1980, 1990, and 2015, there’s plenty of action that could, if not totally cross over with the first season, at least draw from it. Even if there’s not an explicit connection, it’s fascinating to rewatch Season 1 from a thematic standpoint, watching how different characters react to similar experiences.

Remembering Satan, by Lawrence Wright

Paradise Lost: The Child Murders At Robin Hood Hills, dir. Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky

In his interview with Entertainment Weekly, Pizzolatto brushed off the idea that the third season was influenced by the Satanic Panic that swept America in the 1980s and ’90s. That’s fine—and we’ll see—but it’s no accident that the show is set where it’s set, when it’s set. And it only helps enrich the experience of watching to know about these cases. Aja Romano wrote an excellent primer on the phenomenon of Satanic Panic for Vox, which you should definitely check out. Boiled down: Throughout the ’80s and ’90s there were a series of cases when many Americans were swept up by the idea that the thing that went bump in the night was darker than we could have possibly imagined. This was a time of new, unproven, and oftentimes discredited psychological techniques like memory recovery, as well as the emergence of certain popular culture phenomenons like heavy metal and fantasy role-playing games that mainstream America had a hard time wrapping their heads around. This all led to some extraordinary, and extraordinarily tragic, cases.

The third season of True Detective centers on the disappearance of two young children from an area outside of Fayetteville, Arkansas. As Hays and West begin their investigation, a trio of metal-listening teenage outcasts emerge as persons of interest. There are some pretty obvious similarities to the West Memphis Three, not the least of which because the Robin Hood Hills murders took place about five hours away from Fayetteville. If you’re interested in learning more about the West Memphis Three, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky’s documentary, Paradise Lost, is a great place to start.

If you’re interested in repressed and recovered memory, a crime tearing a small town apart, and law enforcement trying to navigate the complicated intersection of crime, religion, and Satanic rituals, you have to check out Lawrence Wright’s Remembering Satan.

60 Minutes’ 1985 Dungeons & Dragons Segment

In the first episode of True Detective’s third season, the detectives come across a Dungeons & Dragons module in the room of one of the missing children. The camera lingers on the book a little too long to just be a random piece of set dressing. The role-playing game was just barely achieving a modicum of mainstream notoriety in 1980, and it was still misunderstood and in some cases feared by parents who couldn’t grasp why their children would want to spend their time rolling multisided dice and pretending to be fantasy characters. Much like heavy metal, it was thought to contain occult teachings. The above 60 Minutes segment speaks to the unease older generations had with the game at the time.

Green Room

The first two episodes of the third season are helmed by Jeremy Saulnier. He would eventually leave the production due to scheduling conflicts, though there have been reports of tension between the director and Pizzolatto (the latter of whom directed two episodes this upcoming season). Maybe they’re no longer on each other’s Christmas card lists, but Saulnier does a great job of establishing the mood early on in the season. It figures: This is a guy who knows about crime and small communities. He made his splash with the harrowing, darkly comic thriller Blue Ruin, and impressed with the metaphysical Alaskan horror flick Hold the Dark for Netflix. My favorite Saulnier is Green Room, a white-knuckled panic attack of a movie set in the white supremacist punk rock underground of the Pacific Northwest.

The Music of 1980

True Detective’s first season had a great mix of atmospheric music that ranged from Wu-Tang Clan to Lucinda Williams to Nick Cave, a.k.a. the stuff I really like to listen to. I made a playlist for that season that took both music found in the show and music that music made me think of. You can find it here. I’ve started another Spotify playlist for Season 3.

I love how 1980 is such an in-between year. You have late-period classic rock like Bob Seger, the rise of metal on the radio (AC/DC’s blockbuster Back in Black album), the slow, paranoid drip of British post-punk, goth, and alternative, and great records from artists that would define the decade to come like Bruce Springsteen and Prince.

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, Tree of Smoke, by Denis Johnson, Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg

Several characters from the third season, including the two main detectives, are Vietnam veterans. By 1980, most who had served in the war had been home for the better part of a decade, at least. But for many, including these characters, the war never left the forefront of their minds. What those soldiers endured, the things they did, and what it all did to them is brought up several times early in the season. There’s a treasure trove of literature about the war to choose from, but my favorite three books are the above selections from O’Brien, Johnson, and Thornburg. The Things They Carried is a perfect collection of short stories, a lot of which are about memory (the first episode of the season is called “The Great War and Modern Memory,” for what it’s worth). Johnson’s National Book Award–winning Tree of Smoke depicts the Vietnam conflict as a psychedelic and deeply spiritual experience that transformed those who took part in it. Cutter and Bone is a great noir tale that finds a Vietnam veteran and his friend getting mixed up in murder and conspiracy, traveling into the Ozarks to find the truth.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.