“What if there’s another story? What if something went unbroken? All this life, all this loss — what if it was really one long story that just kept going and going until it healed itself? Wouldn’t that be a story worth telling? Wouldn’t that be a story worth hearing?”
These are the words of Amelia Hays to her husband Wayne … sort of. The late writer is just a figment of the aging detective’s senile imagination when she says this to him, providing the final piece in the puzzle regarding the missing girl he’s spent half his life searching for. But this is more than just a voice in his head. It’s a mission statement for True Detective‘s third season itself. No matter how much closure you seek — or even find — only time can bring a story to its conclusion.
Written by creator/showrunner Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Daniel Sackheim, the season finale — “Now Am Found” — is the show’s boldest and best experiment yet. On one hand, it comes across like a gauntlet thrown at every podcast and subreddit out there: You want answers? You’re gonna get ’em, spelled out as neatly as poor Tom Purcell‘s faked suicide note.
As Wayne nearly learns the hard way when he’s taken for a long ride into the wilderness circa 1990, the rich and powerful poultry magnate Edward Hoyt was most definitely involved in Julie Purcell‘s disappearance, at least tangentially. Played by the great Michael Rooker, who has maybe the most convincing drunk-voice of any actor today, the soused millionaire confronts the cop about the murder of his security guru Harris James. He threatens the detective’s family if the investigation continues … yet the man seems genuinely perplexed about what Hays thinks actually happened to the girl.
For good reason. In 2015, Wayne and his old partner Roland West finally track down Junius Watts, the one-eyed man tied to the case for decades. From him, Julie wasn’t molested by a cabal of rich sex criminals at all. Rather, she was kidnapped by Isabel Hoyt, Andrew’s schizophrenic adult daughter, who believed the girl to be her own late offspring. Will Purcell was killed completely accidentally during the struggle, and his sister spent years in the Hoyt compound, drugged and more or less happy, until the caretaker “Mr. June” helped her escape. The ex-cops neither kill nor arrest the penitent co-conspirator, leaving him to either live with his guilt or kill himself for it.
Wayne and Roland discover that after her escape, Julie became “Mary July,” the tweaked-out runaway last heard calling that hotline and accidentally accusing her real father in her confusion. She wound up at a convent, helping take care of needy kids, until dying of AIDS. Or so the nuns, and the gravestone in the church’s cemetery, would have them believe.
But with help from both Amelia’s book about the case — which notes that a boy named Mike Ardoin took the young woman’s disappearance especially hard — and that “visit” from the writer herself, Wayne realizes that “Mary July” is still alive. Mike just so happened to have been the groundskeeper for the convent when she worked there. He went on to start a family with her, living more or less happily ever after.
Wayne, of course, is desperate to close the case once and for all, and not just for Julie’s sake. A series of flashbacks reveal how central the Purcell mystery had always been part of his relationship with Amelia, for better and for worse: Back in 1980, he voluntarily accepted a demotion rather than turn on her when she badmouths the investigation in an article for the local paper. Their parallel quests for the truth have been a throughline for their marriage ever since.
So the elderly Hays drives to the missing woman’s house. Thanks to his medical condition, he immediately forgets why he went there in the first place. All he can do is ask the closest stranger (Julie) for help. In a reversal that’s moving in its elegant simplicity, she helps the lost old man find himself again.
It ends with a reunion between Wayne, his son and daughter-in-law, his estranged daughter and Roland. (Stephen Dorff is the episode’s MVP for the fantastic 1980 sequence in which he picks a fight with bikers to blow off steam, then gets nursed back from the brink by an adorable stray dog.) But “Purple” Hays soon finds himself lost once again, flashing back to the night he proposed to Amelia, and then disappearing into the jungles of Vietnam in the season’s final shot.
Now that Wayne has forgotten the answer, will the mystery ever be solved? There are any number of reasons to believe it just might. His son Henry (an understated Ray Fisher) pockets Julie’s address rather than throwing it away, indicating he thinks his old man might have been on to something. Perhaps he could turn to Elisa, the documentarian with whom he’s been having an affair, or she could suss it out on her own. (Though her idea that the case is linked to the serial killer from Season One is as misguided for her as it is for anyone in the audience who was hoping for a McConaughey cameo.) Or maybe Hays will emerge from the jungle of his own memories long enough to remember it all himself, with or without the help of his old partner.
But whether or not their investigation ever has a successful conclusion, Season Three sure has. It deftly weaves between timelines. It creates both an unshakeable sense of dread and a warm atmosphere of empathetic connection. It offers up as clear-cut an explanation of the case as possible, while still leaving the ending — and the very concept of conclusions — wide open. It wasn’t the flashiest season of True Detective, or the scariest, or the trippiest. It was the simply the best.
Previously: The Downward Spiral