True Detective‘s third season finale reached back to its glory days, just not in the way everyone expected.
You write the story, you get past the start, it’s important to know how you want it to end.
While the Oscars were busy stepping on history’s rake by awarding its highest honor to Green Book, True Detective was quietly ending its third season over on HBO, for once not the biggest thing happening on the night of its airing. That seems an apt mirror for what True Detective chose to do in its third season finale “Now Am Found,” as the show made an unexpected turn toward character resolution while largely eschewing the conspiratorial plotting that enraptured its most-obsessed, Reddit deep-diving fan base. It’s an extremely odd move from a show that had previously seemed so intent on recapturing the best and worst traits of its glory days.
True Detective became an instant hit in 2014 with its combination of serialized mystery and dorm room philosophizing as Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart attempted to solve the seemingly occult murder of woman across multiple timelines in the bayous of Louisiana. The show had critics praising director Cary Joji Fukunaga as a genius (the show would win him an Emmy) and obsessive fans chasing clues about a cryptic figure called the Yellow King from Carcosa, and a possible conspiracy about five powerful figures who controlled a criminal empire. Though the season ended without fully engaging with those fan theories, catapulting Fukunaga to wunderkind status and a resurgent McConaughey toward an Oscar in the progress. When the rushed second season failed to live up to the hype with its brand new story, fans and critics were left wondering if creator/writer Nic Pizzolatto had been an over-hyped one-trick pony, and if True Detective would ever even return at all.
When True Detective finally did return this year, after a four-year hiatus, Pizzolatto’s attempts to recapture the magic were impossible to miss. The show returned to a two detective formula with Mahershala Ali and Steven Dorff playing Wayne Hays and Roland West, respectively, who worked to solve a crime over multiple timelines in a southern setting. Pizzolatto even secured the services of an acclaimed director, Jeremy Saulnier, to helm the first two episodes which were warmly, if hesitantly received. Everything seemed to be back on track, even if Pizzolatto seemed to be replaying his greatest hits.
Season 3 focuses on the disappearance of a young girl named Julie Purcell who never returns after going to a friend’s house with her brother one afternoon in the 1980s. When the brother is soon after found dead and cryptically posed, Detectives Hays and West investigate the case. A second timeline in the 1990s finds Wayne and Roland reinvestigating the previously closed case after a major new development, and a third timeline finds a retired Hays interviewed by a true crime investigative series whose host is unsatisfied by many of the case’s lingering questions. That third 2015 timeline is complicated by Wayne’s dementia, which has him chasing ghosts of the past while trying to stay grounded in the present.
All the pieces combined for a wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey…thing.
Mahershala Ali is one of our greatest actors and Pizzolatto’s script offered him the opportunity to act the hell out of it. Wayne’s different timelines present the detective as three very different characters. The 1980s Wayne struggles to assimilate back into society after the Vietnam war. He’s young and single at the show’s outset before he falls for a local teacher named Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) who helps them interview Julie and Will Purcell’s classmates. Wayne isn’t exactly idealistic, having seen far too much in the war, but he’s not yet jaded about the bureaucracy and red tape that will plague the Purcell case.
By 1990 Wayne’s personal life is considerably more complicated as his marriage to Amelia is floundering, and his nagging memories of the “solved” Purcell case color the fears he has for his two young children. When store surveillance tape and fingerprints from a convenience store break-in reveal that Julie Purcell is still alive, it throws the doubt on the original conviction which also made the assumption that Julie had been killed shortly after her brother back in 1980. Wayne directs his suburban frustration back at the police department that pushed him to originally wrap up the case with a series of false conclusions and seems content to do the same thing again.
When we meet 2015 Wayne Hays he’s a shell of his former self physically, mentally, and emotionally. He’s a widower who finds he can’t trust his former employers, but also can’t depend on his own memories of the previous investigations. The show’s makeup department will almost certainly be picking up prizes for seamlessly transforming Ali into an older, heavier man. Combined with Ali’s performance, the stooped, grey-haired Wayne is utterly believable. Viewers are left to question if the show is hinting at a larger conspiracy or Wayne is simply losing his grip on reality.