Still, it’s not hard to expect greatness from an Oscar-winner like Ali. This season’s surprise was Dorff, who was every bit his equal while transforming from a cocksure skirt chaser in the first timeline into a decorated police lieutenant in 1990, and finally a lonely retiree with a love for both stray dogs and stray humans. With these two performances True Detective again staked out its position as the TV’s greatest acting showcase. Ali seems the likely favorite for a dramatic acting Emmy with Dorff possibly joining him in a supporting category. And just as with McConaughey’s 2014 run, the series’s constant presence in during awards season can’t be ignored when accounting for Ali’s second Oscar victory Sunday night.
But while Ali and Dorff burned up the screen, the show’s fan base was also burning up the internet with theorizing. Did the mysterious Amelia know more than she let on? Her conclusions seemed eerily prescient when she rose to fame as a true crime author with a book about the Purcell case, and she’d previously admitted to a socially shape-shifting past. Was Julie Purcell’s abductor purposefully shielded by the state police department who eagerly pinned the crimes on dead men in both 1980 and 1990? If so, to what purpose? When Julie’s mother, father, and uncle all ended up dead over the years it certainly seemed like someone was trying to keep them silent. Was it possibly the rich owner of the local chicken processing plant, Hoyt, and was he the one seemingly stalking Wayne in a series of dark sedans?
All these possibilities had fans combing episodes and the internet for details they may have missed. Pizzolatto’s inclusion of references to real world satanic panic cases, abuse conspiracies, and his penchant for dropping cryptic terms like Julie being the “princess of a pink castle” had viewers convinced that something much more nefarious than a simple one-off kidnapping was afoot. Pizzolatto’s story structuring where key details like the person originally convicted in the Purcell case, why Wayne left the police department in 1990, and Amelia’s unexpected disappearance or death by 2015 all fed the flames.
The ultimate clincher came in episode 7 when Elisa (Sarah Gadon), the true crime TV host (for a fictional show called “True Criminal,” no less) interviewing Wayne about the case in 2015 pointed towards a larger conspiracy and point-blank referenced a similar case in Louisiana: the case Rust Cohle and Marty Hart solved in True Detective’s first season. Surely this was the tell. Were the Season 1 and 3 cases tied together in a large conspiracy? Was Hoyt one of the five powerful “kings” hinted at in season one? Sunday’s finale was poised to reveal it all.
How odd then that Nic Pizzolatto chose instead to shrug off his most die-hard fans. Hoyt wasn’t a powerful criminal mastermind. He was a sad, drunk old man who had tried to soften the loss of his own grandchild by quietly arranging for his daughter to play with Julie Purcell. Julie’s mom Lucy was even paid for her trouble. The following death and abduction were the tragic results of a mentally disturbed woman trying to claim a little girl as her own. The episode wrapped up the Purcell mystery halfway through its 80-minute runtime with its plentiful conspiratorial red herrings ultimately leading to nothing, and leaving the show’s craziest viewers grasping at straws. The show’s inclusion of the doggedly conspiratorially-minded Elisa seems like a direct slap back at fans who sought to turn every stray end into a clue.
The episode’s remaining minutes were devoted to Wayne and Roland’s private lives and relationships. Wayne and Amelia ultimately solved their marital issues and her death was nothing mysterious (in fact it wasn’t even mentioned in the episode; Pizzolatto later revealed online that Amelia died peacefully in her sleep). The two detectives spend their golden years together focused on friendship and family. It was a stunning redemptive shift for a writer whose critics have often derided him for macho nonsense. Pizzolatto seems to have finally learned that his show’s greatest strength was its actors and not the cases they were solving.
But it’s worth asking if we should have been so surprised. The Season 1 finale “Form and Void’s” revelation ultimately wasn’t about a shadowy cabal, but about Rust Cohle’s spiritual reconnection with his deceased daughter as he stared into the starlit sky outside a Louisiana hospital. Perhaps we mistook Nic Pizzolatto’s lack of an answer then for another red herring. What he really cared about was right in front of us the whole time.
With another season finished, it’s again worth wondering what the future holds for True Detective. While Season 3’s ending was an impressive feat centered by some incredible acting, he can still be an infuriating writer who loves to keep answers close to the vest. As successful as this season was, the intrinsic, meditative story it ultimately sought to tell would have benefited from a stronger directorial hand. Only time will tell if Pizzolatto ever gets around to a fourth season (he claims he has an idea, but isn’t yet committed to pursuing it), but, if this is the end, it was strong renaissance for the show as an immersive acting showcase. The season’s success wasn’t its central mystery, but in its characters, their motivations, and its emotional catharsis. A successful return to not just form, but void as well.