What the True Detective Finale Forgot

The HBO crime drama’s third season wrapped up by emphasizing character change—but left out crucial details.

Mahershala Ali in 'True Detective'
Mahershala Ali in True Detective (HBO)

This post contains spoilers through all eight episodes of True Detective’s third season.

It’s always about the cops, not the case. Sunday’s finale of True Detective’s third season has some fans sputtering after it offered a not-all-that-grandiose conclusion to the mystery that the detectives Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) chased over 35 years. Rather than dwelling on the the 1980 death of the young Will Purcell and the disappearance of his sister, Julie, significant time went to shading in more details about Wayne’s and Roland’s personal histories. Elisa Montgomery (Sarah Gadon), a true-crime documentarian, dropped out of the show entirely, as did her suspicion of a vast pedophilia conspiracy. The last, inscrutable shot: Wayne in the Vietnam War.

Much of the reaction to the episode has suggested that something meta, next-level, must be going on. The season’s many red herrings—unfulfilled teases of paganism, government cover-ups, Memento-like reversals, a Matthew McConaughey cameo—amounted to a “blistering case against true crime,” argues Kenny Herzog at Vulture, pointing out how the post-Serial wave built upon the Reddit-fueled puzzle-solving around True Detective’s debut season. In the recap video series The Flat Circle, you can watch The Ringer’s Chris Ryan and Jason Concepcion—plainly baffled while recording the webcast minutes after watching the finale—wonder if the “dreamlike,” “ethereal” quality of the finale might help explain it. Joanna Robinson at Vanity Fair notes parallels with the 1990 film Jacob’s Ladder, so as to suggest that the entire season was a hallucination Wayne had before dying in the jungle back in Vietnam.

The high-concept readings of True Detective aren’t far-fetched: There’s arguably no headier TV creator than the show’s Nic Pizzolatto, a novelist who aspires to the lineage of crime fiction spanning Elmore Leonard and Thomas Pynchon. But treating the un-thrilling resolution of the Purcell mystery as a twist in need of demystification isn’t quite right. True Detective’s first two seasons also baited, then defied, the Redditors by ultimately prioritizing how their cops were changed by their cases rather than tying up all the details of the cases themselves. The nihilistic Rust Cohle found spirituality; the flinty Antigone Bezzerides (yes, that really was the name of Rachel McAdams’s character) found herself with a baby in Venezuela. If these transformations were not particularly compelling, they were still central. The criteria by which Season 3 should be judged is whether Pizzolatto lived up to his aspirations as an investigator of human nature. Really, he made a mildly engaging muddle.

To be sure, it’s not like True Detective dropped the entire notion of a crime being solved. Wayne and Roland tracked down the mysterious one-eyed man, Junius, they’d been searching for for much of the season. Eager to unburden his longtime guilt about his role in the the Purcell tragedy, Junius spewed all the answers they’d been looking for. The industrial chicken farmer Edward Hoyt, heavily hinted at as leading a child-sex ring, was simply an enabler for his troubled daughter, Isabel. Stricken with grief over the death of her husband and daughter, Isabel kidnapped Julie and accidentally killed Will while Junius, a servant for the Hoyts, stood by. Isabel then kept Julie in a basement playpen for years, dosing her with lithium, until Junius decided to help the teenage Julie escape. Years later, Junius figured out where she had run to: a convent, where she reportedly died of AIDS.

As the old-men versions of Wayne and Roland (the show toggled between 1980, 1990, and 2015) discover these facts, they also come to some inward resolution. This triumph is encapsulated tidily in a scene of the two of them, now part-time housemates, sitting on a sunny porch with Wayne’s adult children, from whom he’s previously seemed somewhat distant. Wayne also finally sits down and reads the true-crime memoir of his late wife, Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), and comes across a small detail that leads him to suspect that Julie’s death was faked by the nuns of the convent. He tracks down an address where she might be living, but as he shows up to the house—where a woman the age Julie would have been is tending to a beautiful garden with her adorable daughter—his recurring dementia-like symptoms kick in and he forgets why he’s there. At one point, the look in Ali’s eyes hints that his character actually does recall the point of his journey, but opts not to say anything about it to Julie. If that were indeed the case, it’d represent growth for Wayne: a willingness to finally let the case go.

Scratch that. “He does not remember,” Pizzolatto wrote in (multiple) Instagram comments about the scene with Wayne and the grown-up Julie. Pizzolatto hasn’t given many interviews lately, but he has replied to social-media inquiries by viewers, and his answers are required reading after this finale. As for the Jacob’s Ladder connections, which would suggest an it-was-all-a-dream reading, Pizzolatto shoots them down: “Not inspired by that at all (never seen it, actually).” Regarding Amelia, Pizzolatto wrote that a scene depicting her dying peacefully of natural causes in 2013 was cut for time. Also snipped were scenes explaining why Wayne and his daughter, Becca, seemed estranged all season. Wrote Pizzolatto, “She and Wayne don’t have any problem other than neither of them is good at reaching out (Amelia was the parent who always called every week), and they’ve both been lonely without the other.”

These are major omissions. In any other crime show, leaving out some details about the protagonist’s family might seem standard, but in this case, doing so short-circuited the supposed profundity of Wayne’s personal journey. The finale did fill in a lot that had been left unclear about Wayne and Amelia’s history: that her journalism about the Purcell investigation led to him getting demoted; that together in the 1990s, after realizing the toll the case had taken on their lives and relationship, they both decided to quit their pursuit of it. But what happened between 1990 and 2015 in his home life was left almost entirely mysterious. Viewers just knew that Amelia died somehow and that things between him and Becca were tense. As Wayne was shown horsing around with his grandkids in the final few minutes of the finale, there was a sense that he’d reached some new level of engagement with life—but the details of what he overcame were left sketchy. So was the fate of his wife, a major character.

Throughout the season, the ailing mental faculties of 2015 Wayne seemed to explain the herky-jerky way that basic facts about the case were conveyed to viewers: We were skipping through time like Wayne’s own mind might. But by the finale, the apparent dementia began to feel more like a storytelling gimmick than anything else, as it became quite clear that when old Wayne was lucid, he could remember most of his past. There’s a satisfaction to learning more about the Hays marriage in the last episode, but that satisfaction comes largely from the mere fact that the info had been withheld for so long, not because Wayne had some great breakthrough. With seemingly crucial facts about his wife and daughter getting trimmed from the episode for time, it shows the extent to which the pursuit of false suspense undermined the deeper story Pizzolatto tried to tell. It also invites old criticisms that the show doesn’t really care about its female characters.

All of which is not to write off True Detective’s third season as a ridiculous mess (which the second season was) or as an overhyped mood board (the first season). Pizzolatto, his directors, and his actors landed scenes of cinematic spark throughout the eight episodes, and viewers did get to think of the characters as human beings by the end. In the finale, the seeming clichés of a depressed cop getting into a bar fight then finding solace in a stray dog were rendered in surprisingly raw fashion through Dorff’s acting. The sight of a probable Julie Purcell happily gardening, and of Wayne being unable to identify that she was who he’d been searching for over decades, did strike a note of wistfulness. The final shot, of Wayne in a dark forest, presumably representing the thickets of his faltering mind and of the case he’ll never fully solve, made an effective statement, too. Perhaps that’s in part because True Detective never seems able to escape from its own jungles.