I was late to the game in seeing the first, highly praised season of True Detective, but I loved it when I finally got around to it last year. By that time, season two was already completed, and multiple people told me not to bother with it, so I didn’t. So finally, when season three showed up on my HBO Now homepage with Mahershala Ali’s face on it, I was ready to go for it again. Spoilers to follow.
Season three had a lot of similarities to season one in terms of format and storytelling, and I think that worked in its favor for the most part. Season three follows detectives Wayne Hays (Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) as they investigate the abduction of two children, a brother and sister, in 1980 in rural Arkansas. When the boy is found dead and his sister is presumed murdered, a local war veteran is posthumously convicted for the crimes. In 1990, the girl’s fingerprints show up at a drugstore, and the case is reopened. Again, the case is quickly “closed” when the blame is placed on another dead man. These investigations make up two of the season’s three timelines, all of which are key parts of each episode. The third timeline takes place in 2015, wherein Hays is being interviewed by a documentarian about the case and how it was mishandled. Hays begins investigating again, on his own at first. He is suffering from dementia in 2015, so he is often confused about where he is in time, which adds a more magical-feeling element to the viewer’s bouncing around between 1980, 1990 and 2015.
While this sounds like a lot of threads, I always felt grounded while watching, and that is definitely partly thanks to Ali’s performance. He is fantastic in each thread of the story, and I found him to be commanding and surefooted on screen. I loved that this season made a character study out of just one key character because we really do get a fully formed person out of Ali’s Hays. We are not watching an actor play the same version of himself at different ages. We actually see a complexly different character in each timeline, reflective of three vastly different times in Hays’ life. Dorff’s West, though far less a focus of this season, also proves to be a complex character, especially in his 1980 and 1990 timelines.
Season three also explores the relationship between Wayne and his wife, Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), who writes a true crime book about the case. In 1980, we see the beginning of their relationship and her first attempts at writing about the case of the Purcell children. In 1990, the two are in a difficult phase of their marriage with the case reopening, Amelia updating her book, and looking after two kids at home. While season one mainly explored Martin Hart’s relationship with his wife insofar as it affected his relationship with his partner, Rustin Cohle, season three really digs into Wayne and Amelia’s marriage and how it affects the case / how the case affects them. They both have a stake in the investigation, which made their dynamic more interesting to watch.
I also found the crime itself to be a compelling enough story to carry the show across more than 30 years. With one child confirmed murdered and a second never found, the 1980 timeline left open lots of possibilities for the fate of Julie Purcell. In 1990, when we discover she is alive, viewers are still left with so many questions. Did someone take her? Did she run away from someone? When this is never settled, it makes sense why a crew of documentarians would want to take on this technically unsolved case. This kind of case fits right in with the ones the true crime world has been eating up in recent years. Closed but not really solved, mostly forgotten by the public but always on the minds of those closest do it. Look no further than Adnan Syed’s case for a real-world example. Season three definitely highlights the issue at the heart of many unsolved/prematurely closed crimes: the race to a conviction rather than a prolonged effort to find the truth. (Think: the West Memphis Three, which actually did take place in Arkansas, like the fictional Purcell case.)
One odd thing the show did was make a direct connection to season one. This didn’t happen until episode 7, when the documentarian put forth her theory that a pedophile/sex trafficking ring was responsible for the Purcell children’s disappearance. She shows Hays a newspaper article about season one’s Yellow King case (occurred in 1995, solved in 2012) and says that although that the serial killer was believed to have a circle of accomplices, none of these was ever investigated, and therefore the same people could be responsible for the Purcell children’s disappearance.
But in episode 8, when we do find out what really happened to the Purcell kids (and I won’t spoil this part), the potential connection goes out the window. While Internet sleuths still tried to find a way for seasons one and three to connect, the show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto, confirmed that the two stories are merely part of the same fictional universe and their events are not actually connected. Honestly, I was kind of relieved they weren’t. The story in season three was standing on its own for me, so I didn’t want there to be some shoehorned tie-in at the last minute (or a potentially awkward cameo by Harrelson or McConaughey).
The final episode is a mix of closure and open-endedness. While Hays and West find out what happened to the Purcell children back in 1980, Julie’s present-day whereabouts are different for both of them. They’re told she died in a convent many years later, but Wayne (with the help of his wife’s ghost) discovers a link from long ago that might prove that Julie is still alive out there. When he goes to pursue this thread, his memory fails him, and he can’t remember why he is there. This made me so incredibly sad. While viewers got to see what he was after, he did not get to reach the conclusion he’d been chasing for so many years. Therefore, West did not get that final closure either. I had a lot of mixed emotions in these few powerful scenes.
There are apparently lots of theories out there about the ending. The final scene shows Hays in the Vietnamese jungle/forest, walking into the thick vegetation. When I first saw him walking in his Army gear, I said out loud, “Oh no. Please don’t let this be a Jacob’s Ladder scenario.” I was so afraid we were about to watch him die. Thank goodness that’s not what happens. I think the final sequence, like the rest of the season, is mostly about time and memory and how it shapes our experiences. In the article linked above, Pizzolatto points out something I forgot: “the first episode ends with Wayne walking alone into a dark forest and that's also how the last episode ends.” It’s a kind of closure for him, but it is not a fully closed loop. (Anyone hearing echoes of Cohle’s “Time is a flat circle” speech from season one?) The one saving grace, a final open-ended hope, is that Henry, Wayne’s son, picks up the address where Wayne lost his memory and pockets it, possibly implying that Henry will solve the case once and for all. And hopefully Wayne and Roland are around to hear about it and finally get the true closure Roland says he doesn’t yet feel in the finale.
Overall, I give this season 4 out of 5 stars. I enjoyed it. I thought it worked as its own story, and the timeline jumps were effective. Ali gets a 5 on his own, though. This show is worth watching just for his performance.
What did you think of season three? Let us know in the comments below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org!