“You write the story, you get past the start, it’s important to know how you want it to end,” Amelia Hays declares midway through the concluding chapter of True Detective Season Three. This is perhaps the most self-conscious bit of writing about the process of writing in an episode full of it. The series’ two previous iterations each stumbled at the finish line in ways suggesting TD creator Nic Pizzolatto hadn’t followed his character’s advice. But where the start of Season Three was very obviously patterned after the McConaughey/Harrelson year, it ended a bit more gracefully.
The mileage you get from this go-round may vary depending on how much you treat each True Detective season as a play-along mystery. The question of what happened to Will and Julie Purcell was ultimately never complex or engaging enough to support eight-plus hours of dramatic architecture. The pool of remaining suspects shallowed out significantly by midseason, and the last few chapters made clear that the Hoyt family was to blame, if not exactly why.
Still, Pizzolatto found a few surprising twists at the end. The first was that Mr. Hoyt himself (Michael Rooker, in a suitably sweaty and bitter finale cameo) was only involved in the coverup, not the initial crime. Instead, it turned out that the whole thing was part accident, part neglect, part good intentions gone horrifically awry. Hoyt’s depressed and chemically-altered adult daughter Isabel fatally injured Will while the two were fighting over who got to take Julie home that night. Then Lucy Purcell took a payoff to let Isabel keep Julie and raise her as her own. Then Hoyt family caretaker Junius Watts oversaw Julie’s new captive life in the belief that it was good for both the girl and the young woman he had helped raise.
The second twist was that Julie was, contrary to what Watts believed, still alive, with a husband (former classmate Mike) and daughter (named for Julie’s murdered mom), having faked her death with the help of some empathetic nuns. (Like a lot about the plot of this or any other season, it’s best not to examine too closely, or it all falls apart.) But due to Hays’ dementia — and his abandoning his habit of recording voice notes for eventualities such as this — neither he nor West nor the guilt-ridden Watts will ever know that she turned out OK, in spite of all their fumbling. (Though there’s a suggestion that Wayne’s son Henry might take another look at that address his dad gave him.)
It’s an ending that’s simultaneously cruel to the survivors but optimistic about them and their world. The Purcell case took a terrible toll on two families, but the Hays clan wouldn’t exist without it. Hoyt fixer Harris James, the only genuinely malevolent figure in this whole mess, already suffered vigilante justice from West and Hayes back in 1990. Julie made it out OK in the end. Wayne was able to put the case aside for decades to make things work with Amelia. If he and Roland are now unfairly burdened with thoughts of a girl who’s not really dead, they’ve also pulled each other out of their respective exiles, and can enjoy their time on the porch watching Wayne’s grandkids go riding in a carefree fashion that echoes the Purcell kids’ final day together. All’s well that ends relatively well, right?
If this year’s plot wasn’t really built for quite so many episodes, it at least functioned well enough as a showcase for both Stephen Dorff and Mahershala Ali (who won his second Oscar, for his supporting role in Green Book, while “Now Am Found” was a third of the way through its first airing). And it was in the latter half — coinciding with the first appearance of West in the 2015 timeline — that the season began to feel like a two-hander, rather than just an Ali showcase. In the 1980 and 1990 scenes, West is the relaxed, well-adjusted white guy who fits in anywhere, while Hays is the mysterious and high-strung genius who’s out of sync almost everywhere thanks to both his skin color and his time in Vietnam. But Hays is the one who builds a life for himself, giving up the investigation twice to protect his family — first for Amelia in 1980, then for her and his children in 1990 — while West exiles himself to his cabin with his dogs. (“Now, that must be nice,” he snorts, when old man Wayne defends giving up the case because he had a family.) Ali is spectacular in all three timelines, but it’s in 2015 (and, to a lesser extent, in West’s friendship with Tom Purcell circa 1990) that Dorff really gets to shine.
Despite how much the season emphasized the many breakups and reconciliations in Wayne and Amelia’s relationship — and the ways that, as Wayne admitted to her, their love is “all tied up in a dead boy and a missing girl” — the finale’s most affecting moments tended to involve Roland. There was him picking a fight at a biker bar in 1990 to endure the punishment he felt he deserved for failing both Tom and Julie, followed by him making his first canine friend on the gravel outside. And there’s something extraordinary in the break in Dorff’s voice as the old cops stand over what they think is Julie’s grave (under the false name Mary July) and he tells her, “Your name was Julie Purcell. I’m sorry I didn’t do a better job for ya.”
That the finale goes on for quite some time even after we (if not Wayne) understand that Julie’s still alive suggests that Pizzolatto’s greater concern is in the collateral damage (and, at times, benefits) of the case than in the mystery itself. We not only linger on the Hays porch (where Henry seems to have banished all thought of the affair with Elisa from his mind), but go back to 1980 to witness the first of many mendings of Wayne and Amelia’s love story. Earlier, she has scolded him for not having much depth beyond things he’s seen in movies (another self-aware line?), but here she pushes him into admitting, to himself and to her, that he wants to marry her, and takes him home to sober up so he can try to ask for real. And as we follow them out of the VFW bar, Jon Batiste’s “Saint James Infirmary Blues” transitions us back to a time and place we’ve heard of but haven’t yet seen: Purple Hays doing long-range recon in Vietnam. Emotionally, he never fully made it out of that jungle, and the best moments of True Detective Season Three illustrated how he, West, Amelia and Tom tried to move past traumas that could have ruined their lives. (And ultimately did for poor Tom, who became the 1990 timeline’s patsy after Harris James murdered him.) There’s a lot of darkness in this story but also, to paraphrase Rust and Marty’s final conversation from the original season, a chance for the light to win.
The later episodes were a mixed bag when assessing this season as a whole. On the one hand, they featured tremendous work from Ali, Dorff, Carmen Ejogo, Scoot McNairy and others. On the other, the story largely unraveled and had to be resolved with a long expository monologue by Steven Williams as Watts. But the finale felt more emotionally potent than the Cohle/Hart conclusion did, even if the first season offered better storytelling overall. This arc never felt essential, but it provided its stars enough material to play with that it’s much easier to imagine a fourth season happening than it was to imagine this third one in the wake of the Ray Velcoro fiasco. Wayne and Amelia spend much of the finale debating the kinds of stories that she wants to, and should be, telling in her own writing. Pizzolatto is still iffy on plot, but with this season he reestablished the series as one of TV’s most preeminent acting showcases.