How many crime dramas can boast a two-time Oscar winner as their lead actor? It was probably an accidental convergence of schedules that saw True Detective air throughout the same period as awards season, but it can’t have harmed this season’s chances having somebody so high profile as Mahershala Ali in the driving seat. A safe pair of hands, as it were, to guide a show seen as rudderless back to its former glories.
But that return to form comes with its own set of expectations. Perhaps it was too much to ask that the show could deliver one final twist in its telling, something reflected in reports of how showrunner Nic Pizzolatto had fought the network on this final episode’s running time until the very last minute. In the end though, after all the theories, the debates, the connections and misdirection, we didn’t get something spectacular like that first season’s explosive denouement. Instead, we got an ending much more in keeping with the pace and posture of this third outing, and in that balance of events it was not lacking in itself either.
One of the main elements to the series has been time is a cycle. The love affair between Amelia and Hays feels like it’s on a loop in any era, as the dynamic between them shifts its shape and their power structures fluctuate. They argue about her first book. They argue about his job. They argue about her manipulation of him. In one moment Hays can’t stand to look at her, in another he proposes marriage. It goes on and on, and into the next decade and beyond – a mutual toxicity born out of something like desire.
Back to the business in hand though – just what went down with Edward Hoyt? This was probably the biggest failure of the show, in building up a character to this level then introduce him at the last breath. Michael Rooker is a formidable presence in any show, but it felt like his talents were wasted here. Either way, a foreboding trip deep into the forest sees Hays and the food magnate cautiously dance around Harris James’s disappearance before exploding into accusations and threats. Hoyt seems like a broken man, haunted by his own demons. He isn’t aware of what happened to Julie Purcell and Hays can’t press him too far with a murder fresh in his own hands. His complicity in that crime is what Hoyt drives home as leverage to keep him quiet, and it’s enough to persuade the recalcitrant detective to reconsider his priorities.
Repeating 1980, the case is closed without any real resolution and Hays is demoted once again after refusing to denounce Amelia for tipping off a journalist about inconsistencies in the investigation. Despite promising her a full account of the truth earlier that day, Hoyt’s threats mean he won’t share his secrets in a bid to protect his wife. Amelia wants to make up her own mind however. Hays feels their marriage is forever tied up in the Purcell case, and can’t be continued without harming them both. They mutually agree to separate and tend to their own ambitions – but it seems like Hays is really giving Amelia the option to live a better life without hauling his baggage.
As we’ve progressed throughout this season the timelines involved have felt increasingly blurred and in this final episode it feels like these separate realities converged into one focal point. They mystery of what happened to Julie Purcell develops as most viewers would have expected by now, and the fact that the concept of justice wasn’t really delivered is a brave decision. Instead, all the people caught up in the aftermath of this case suffered their own forms of punishment – with the only option being to try and extract themselves from it before the damage became too definitive.
Hays and West speak to James’s widow about the one-eyed man. She says a man fitting that description visited her in the weeks after Harris went missing, and asked her if James ever found Julie. With nobody now residing at the Hoyt estate, the pair break in to explore the basement area. Despite a foreboding exterior shot of the dilapidated house as they arrive, the sense of dread in entering this house is missing. They venture through dimly lit corridors to find the “pink room” where Julie was kept and her father met his fate at the hands of Harris James. Now faded with dust and decay, the room still contains a child’s drawing that covers one wall – featuring characters depicted as Princess Mary, Sir Junius and Queen Isabel.
West uses his contacts to locate the man they now know as Junius Watts. He’s not surprised when they visit -“I been waiting on y’all”. It transpires that it was Watts who was the one watching Hays’ house, trying to work up the nerve to tell him the truth. The truth is of course, a tragic tale for all involved. It’s a story about a rich heir called Isabel Hoyt that lost her own husband and daughter in a car accident. Increasingly unstable in the aftermath of that tragedy, she conflated Julie Purcell with her dead child and demanded Watts convince Lucy Purcell to give her access to her daughter. But these fleeting hours spent deep in the woods became unsatisfactory to Isabel, who sinking deeper into her own madness abducts Julie whilst Will tried – and failed – to protect his sister, before falling to his death in the tussle. Isabel has Harris James pay off Lucy to keep quiet about the fate of her children, but in the process this action leaves Tom lost in a miserable state of ignorance for the rest of his short life.
The fact Watts helped enable Julie’s incarceration over the following years is a weight that he bears badly. When he discovers Isabel is drugging Julie to keep her compliant within the depths of the estate, he helps the teen escape to an agreed rendezvous. But Julie never shows – and the rest of the man’s life is spent in a hopeless search for her, as well as his own redemption. In the wake of her disappearance, a distraught Isabel commits suicide. Eventually Watts tracks Julie down to a convent in 1997, where she had been helping the sisters there with supporting the other lost children they care for. But Julie’s intervening years on the streets exercised a heavy toll – she had died of complications from HIV in 1995. The detectives visit her grave and hear tell of her love and support for the institution that saved her.
The pair close down their case – but the lack of closure bothers them both. With their friendship rekindled, West asks if he can stay with Hays. But as always, Amelia is the lodestar in this story. Hays reads a segment from her first book that alludes to Julie’s childhood friend Mike being dismayed at her disappearance, and the detective remembers a conversation with a man bearing the same name at the convent. In a strange coda to the story, Amelia appears in a hallucination to tell Hays the real truth – that Julie was alive and reunited with her childhood sweetheart after a chance encounter. The pair had a child together and now live in peaceful anonymity – with her falsified death the protective barrier to prevent anybody looking for her. Hays seeks her out to conclude his own investigation, but can’t remember why he’s there when he visits her house. It’s a bittersweet ending to the case but the flash of recognition in Hays’s eyes as he departs indicates he’s competent enough to know he should keep her secret.
It’s an interesting close to the show. A murder that never was, an abduction that started as a grief-stricken affection – and the grim flotsam of destroyed lives that one person’s imbalance created in its wake. Anybody expecting a similar action-packed finale to the first season – or some grand conspiracy revealed in the final reel – were instead witness to something far more nuanced, a nod perhaps to the tone and palette of European shows in the same genre that spends more time examining the detail of their characters lives. In the end, this was more about the human minutiae that surrounds a crime than the crime itself.
Did it all work though? Well, if we took this season on its own terms – then yes, it did. But the shadow of that initial run still looms over everything this series aspires to be, to the detriment of the narrative. Time will tell if it can break free of these restrictions in future iterations.
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