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Stephen Dorff Is Quietly the Best Thing About ‘True Detective’

Mahershala Ali is undoubtedly Season 3’s centerpiece, but his scene partner is putting in a performance that’s equally compelling and heart-wrenching

HBO/Ringer illustration

The third season of True Detective has been a welcome mix of the good things we expected and some pleasant surprises. It was, for instance, all but a given that Oscar winner Mahershala Ali would elevate the material with a compelling lead performance and that the series would have solid production value befitting an HBO drama. The pleasant surprises? Well, it’s a relief that writer-creator Nic Pizzolatto has apparently learned from his missteps; even the most tepid reviews will concede that Season 3 has been a marked improvement over the memeable disaster of the second season. But the greatest revelation comes from an unlikely source: Stephen Dorff is giving one of the best performances of his career, and, alongside Ali, deserves serious Emmys consideration.

If you knew only the basics about the new True Detective season ahead of its premiere, you might not have even known that Dorff had a significant part in it. The promotional material and trailers billed this season as something of a one-man show led by Ali’s Detective Wayne Hays as he investigates an unsolved murder-kidnapping in small-town Arkansas over three timelines. That itself was a departure of the True Detective ethos: The first installment was very much the Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey Show, while the second season flexed a trio of A-list actors in Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, and an extremely miscast Vince Vaughn. (No disrespect to Taylor Kitsch here but, y’know, John Carter.) True Detective has always been about true detectives (sorry). And despite what trailers indicated, that has remained the case: Season 3 hasn’t just been about Hays.

As Hays’s on-again, off-again partner Roland West (who, by the fifth episode, has teamed up with Hays across all three timelines), Dorff is giving a supporting turn for the ages. In every episode, and with every scene, he’s gone toe-to-toe with one of our finest working actors. “Is Stephen Dorff out-acting Mahershala Ali?” would have been a ridiculous question to ask a month ago; now it doesn’t seem so irrational.

Dorff is the type of actor you know by name—a quintessential That Guy if there ever was one—but it’s hard to name more than a few of his films. To many, Dorff will always be Deacon Frost, the campy vampire baddie of Blade whose aesthetic was trapped somewhere between peak ’90s fashion and the Twilight franchise. Dorff’s performance as Frost is fun, over-the-top, and silly, but knowingly so. As his character committed absurd acts such as throwing a damn child, Dorff had no pretensions. He elevated the movie by not trying to elevate it at all.

But Blade is also over 20 years old at this point. The Dorff filmography of the 21st century has been noticeably deprived of noteworthy performances—a Sofia Coppola movie here, a supporting role in a Michael Mann film there. Oddly, one of Dorff’s most memorable contributions to pop culture this century is a beguiling commercial for an e-cigarette company that Joe Rogan—yes, Joe Rogan—declared to be one of the douchiest ads ever. He was Prima Donna Chantix Ray Liotta before we even knew who Chantix Ray Liotta was. (It’s also worth mentioning that Dorff eventually admitted he hadn’t actually traded cigarettes for e-cigs.)

The actor, the subject of a litany of Daily Mail headlines, has also assumed a (perhaps unfair) reputation as a party animal—a seeming extension of the bad-boy characters he played in the ’90s. But in an interview with Variety in 2013, Dorff explained that getting a chance to star in Coppola’s quiet 2010 film Somewhere arrived at a perfect time in his personal life. “I was in a pretty dark spot,” he says. “I had lost my mother a year before. My mom always wanted me to do movies where I played, whether I had flaws or not, guys that had a good heart.”

Which brings us to Roland West. Though the role was initially offered to Ali, after spending five-odd hours with Dorff’s Roland, it’s hard to imagine anyone else embodying the character. Roland holds a gruff exterior—he naturally assumes a scowl that makes him look like he’s perpetually in line at the DMV—and has a wickedly dry sense of humor, but it doesn’t take much prying to discover his heart of gold. It’s there whenever he warmly greets his partner by his Vietnam nickname “Purple Haze”; or when he prays with Scoot McNairy’s Tom Purcell; or when he takes in a stray Yorkshire terrier and feeds it eggs out of a skillet because it can’t fight for food alongside his bigger dogs. “Them eggs are fierce, huh?” he asks the dog in a rasp, blowing out a cloud of cigarette smoke and unscrewing a bottle of whiskey. “You show a woman you got kitchen skills, they know you ain’t lookin’ for a cook.”

It’s a wonderful evolution for an actor otherwise known for playing bad guys. You may come into True Detective with some preconceived notions about Dorff’s character—especially in the 1980 timeline, when he looks like Washed Dennis Quaid. If Hays is the Rust Cohle type, the thinking went before Season 3 began, then Roland is Marty, the comparatively straight-edged detective who nevertheless wrestles with his own demons. But to call Hays a retread of Rust is reductive, and the same goes for dubbing Roland Marty 2.0. He’s far from a perfect person, but Roland doesn’t harbor the same vices as Marty, and he carries a deep reverence for his partner, even if he’ll never understand what it’s like to live as a black man in rural Arkansas.

The Hays-Roland relationship—even more than the one between Hays and his love interest turned wife, Amelia (played by Carmen Ejogo)—is the heart of this season. There’s a mutual obsession to solve a decades-old case, even if the two detectives take different approaches. Ali has been running the show, and has been startlingly good in the 2015 timeline, sporting impressive old-person makeup and capturing Hays’s slower cadences and deteriorating state of mind with heart-wrenching accuracy. But as great as Ali has been, his work is elevated thanks to an able sparring partner who gives the Roland-Hays scenes the necessary emotional weight.

At the end of the fifth episode, in the best scene of the season thus far, Old Man Hays meets with Roland, hoping to convince him to agree to reinvestigate the Purcell case. Dorff’s performance carries the bulk of their exchange, as Hays can’t remember the last time the two of them spoke—or why Roland is still mad at him for something he did more than 20 years ago. Dorff ably moves between resentment over Hays’s behavior in 1990, sadness that Roland was abandoned by one of his closest friends, and eventually, overwhelming emotion in the face of Hays’s tearful apologies. “Fuck you, man!” Roland yells after Hays questions his drinking habits. “I’m fine, alone out here,” he asserts, tears welling up. “No woman, no kids, and no old friends.” Dorff captures countless emotions in the span of 16 words and a few vacant glances over his property.

The exchange embodies everything that makes True Detective so compelling: the enormous personal toll that comes from investigating heinous and mysterious crimes, and the ways those investigations can fundamentally alter the detectives. We don’t know why Roland, who wasn’t much of an outdoorsman, and who used to be in a long-term relationship, now lives in the middle of the woods with only a bunch of rescued dogs as company, but I suspect we’ll find out.

I also suspect, with whatever the rest of this season throws at Roland, we’ll be getting the best of Dorff along with it.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.