by Christian Leus
The HBO show “True Detective“‘s first season flirted with the Southern Gothic, that alluring and elusive sensibility (or aesthetic or genre, depending on who you ask) that confronts the darkest parts of the Southern psyche and Southern landscapes. For season one, that meant coastal Louisiana, where wetlands hid the secrets of the Yellow King and oil refineries loomed over Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s troubled detectives. But season three, which marks the show’s return to the South after a dalliance to Los Angeles in its second season, is set in northwest Arkansas, in the heart of the Ozark Mountains. “True Detective” won’t be the first to look at the region with an eye toward the macabre and violent—works like Winter’s Bone and Netflix’s “Ozark” have looked at the heart of the mountains and found it black.
Nic Pizzolatto, the show’s creator and lead writer, attended grad school at Fayetteville’s University of Arkansas and credits the rambling, steep landscape as an inspiration in this new story. So, when it came time for HBO to shoot the new season, Pizzolatto insisted it be shot on location in Arkansas. “I feel landscape is a character, definitely in what I do and I wanted that character,” Pizzolatto told KNWA.
HBO has revealed that, in season three, partner detectives played by Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff investigate a macabre crime involving two missing children in the heart of the Ozarks. The story spans three decades, with McConaughey and Harrelson executive producing.
So, what ominous vistas, local lore
Caves and caverns. The Ozarks of Arkansas are particularly known for their caves. Places like Onyx Cave and War Eagle Cavern are “show caves,” popular tourist attractions famous for their rock formations, underground streams and wildlife. Some even come with built-in stories, like Old Spanish Treasure Cave’s legend of cursed gold hidden by the Conquistadors. But less scenic caverns could easily harbor some secrets that are a little more sinister than what’s in the cave brochures. An unexplored cave could either be a great place for a killer to stash a body or the perfect visual metaphor for the characters’ treacherous descent into their investigation. Or both.
Update: A body is indeed found stashed in a cave at the end of the first episode.
Remote trails. Hiking and biking enthusiasts flock to northwest Arkansas for its scenic parks and trails. But, besides having appropriately ominous names, the trails at Devil’s Den State Park or Slaughter Pen Hollow could pose some danger to a maverick investigator in way over their head. With hundreds of miles of wooded trails with steep slopes, unexpected cliffs and fast rivers that turn into waterfalls, the area is great for getting lost physically while you get lost emotionally in the trauma of your own past.
Update: Devil’s Den got several mentions in the first episode as a place where the bad element goes to hang out.
Walmart. Bentonville, Arkansas, is the home of the Waltons, the family dynasty that owns Walmart. While that may seem innocuous at first, Walton money underpins quite a few institutions in Northwest Arkansas, including Fayetteville’s Walton Arts Center, Bentonville’s Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and a growing number of charter schools. Will the area’s new money powerhouses stand in the way of the truth to protect their own name?
Christ of the Ozarks. Okay, this one is actually a sure bet—Eureka Springs’ 66-foot statue of Jesus Christ can be seen in “True Detective”’s season three teaser. The seven-story Messiah looms over a religious theme park that includes a 3,500-seat amphitheater where Eureka’s Great Passion Play is performed to thousands of tourists/pilgrims every year. It’s literally the area’s biggest roadside attraction, but its reputation isn’t rosy. Its creator, Gerald Smith, was a notoriously anti-Semitic evangelical preacher who moved to Eureka Springs to escape the political ire he had earned in other parts of the country. He built Christ of the Ozarks in 1966, and since then it’s been a source of controversy, with many townsfolk arguing that Smith’s mission shouldn’t be represented in Eureka, and many more claiming that the statue is just too ugly to stand. So what will the show make of it? The statue’s eyes can see far into the mountains—do they see too much?
Beaver Lake. At over 28,000 acres, Beaver Lake is the largest body of water in northwest Arkansas, as well as one of the newest. The lake is technically a reservoir, created in 1966 when the Corps of Engineers dammed the White River a few miles north of Eureka Springs. It provides northwest Arkansas with drinking water, hydroelectric power and a place to fish and camp. But underneath it all runs the Price Mountain fault line, which now and again shakes the bedrock under Beaver Dam, threatening to crumble the concrete that holds the river back. So, it’s the perfect spot for some oblique and nihilistic conversation.
Motorcycles. The Ozarks don’t allow for a lot of straight highway, so northwest Arkansas is full of scenic backroads that draw in motorcyclists by the droves. The Pig Trail, a length of highway that twists up through the mountains from Clarksville to Fayetteville, is popular biking terrain, as is the Ozark Moonshine Run around Jasper. Festivals like Fayetteville’s Bikes, Blues, and BBQ draw in crowds annually, but motorcycle tourists wander in and out of the area all year round. Here today, gone tomorrow—even if they are more benign than the drug-fueled bike gang out of Texas that McConaughey’s Rust Cohle fought in season one, northwest Arkansas’s bikers could still be prime candidates for mysterious witnesses or elusive suspects. Scenic road trips, after all, are transient—just like everything else in this life.
White supremacy. This is the big bad of northwest Arkansas—if there is a black heart of the Ozarks, this is it. The area has historically been a hotbed of KKK activity, and that legacy of hatred still haunts its quickly-growing cities and suburbs. Nearby Harrison is a notorious sundown town that has gained a national reputation as one of the most racist cities in the country. Recent efforts by some of the town’s residents have sought to increase diversity and tolerance, but the KKK still maintains an office just outside the city limits. For Mahershala Ali’s State Police Detective Wayne Hays, the hostile people of northwest Arkansas may pose a greater challenge to solving his case than anything else. For all the things in northwest Arkansas that “True Detective” will have to work to make sinister, this is one where reality is scary enough as it is.
Season three of “True Detective” premiers on HBO January 13, 2019.
Christian Leus is a recent graduate of the Film Studies program at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas. As a lifelong Arkansan, she has spent considerable time around Fayetteville and knows the landscape and culture well. Her work has been previously published in FilmMatters.