Evan McGarvey is painfully aware that time is a flat circle.
The recent season finale of True Detective had no cathartic shootout, no pursuit of a madman through greasy gothic catacombs. The season’s multiple timelines didn’t collapse into a chain of truth bombs across Sunday’s eighty-minute finale. Our last glimpses of the outstanding cast were of family and friends gathered on a porch and a memory of a couple deciding to marry. Call it a kinder, gentler True Detective.
Even the promised appearance of the sinister patriarch of the company that stood at the center of this season’s crimes turned out to be a dud. Michael Rooker played Edward Hoyt as a confused drunk who couldn’t even effectively threaten Wayne Hayes (Mahershala Ali), our protagonist and star. Their confrontation opens the finale and transpires on a stark, beautiful bluff in an Arkansas state park. For a moment, I thought Rooker’s Hoyt would comically stumble off the cliff to his own death. It didn’t happen. A conventionally thrilling finale this was not.
Yes, the season long plot of the missing Purcell children, the case that has animated the season and haunted state police officer Wayne Hays and his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) for decades, did end. The story behind their abductions turns out to be short and tragic, and delivered to the audience via an expository monologue from a minor character halfway through the finale.
Briefly, and from the chronological top: poultry magnate Edward Hoyt’s grown daughter lost her husband and child in a car accident. She then lost her mind, became obsessed with little Lucy Purcell in 1980 upon seeing her at a company picnic, started to pay her mother to spend time with Lucy, wanted more, and finally abducted Lucy, accidentally killing her brother Will in the process. Lucy lived under a Lithium haze in an underground palace in the Hoyt mansion for a decade before escaping as a teen, finding her way to a convent for runaways, and building a new life. That’s it. Warped rich people stole a poor family’s child and pitilessly tied up the loose ends, a tale as old as time. There was no Lovecraftian cult nor Reddit-satiating tether back to the first season. There will be no True Detective: Infinity War.
But more than the bro-down of the first season, and certainly more than the haphazard outline that was the second season, the third season finale of True Detective delivered a clear, humane thesis. We are products of time, elastic, compressed, forgotten and haunted. Everything human — moods and cases and sins and compromises — all must fall on a grand, unfeeling number line of when.
That sentiment lives the Robert Penn Warren and Delmore Schwartz poems that Wayne’s wife and writer Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) quotes; it’s Roland (in what feels like Dorff’s career performance) liver-spotted and lonely in the 2015 timeline, grieving for how many years he and Wayne have lost in their friendship, how much emotional distance they’ve accrued, because of their shared stubbornness.
So the monster at the end of True Detective’s third season wasn’t an inbred serial killer or an off-brand Raymond Chandler real estate conspiracy. The villain appears to have been — all together now — the transitory, sequential nature of life!
And by deflating audience expectations for the kind of release (a showdown that either ends with handcuffs or a body bag) we crave from a procedural, the finale encapsulates creator Nic Pizzolatto own relationship between what most viewers will recognize as genre and the slipperier, snootier idea of the “literary.”
When the first season of True Detective aired in 2014, it felt like an event, something more than, well, TV. HBO offered an intoxicating recipe of talent and timing. Two movie stars, an exciting young director and a young, compelling crime novelist joined together to remix a generation of wan, practiced cop shows that had neither director Cary Fukunaga’s sumptuous, teeming Louisiana exteriors nor extended Schopenhauer-meets-Guy-In-Your-MFA-program soliloquys. It worked. A river of recognition flowed: ratings, Emmy nominations, GIFs, an appropriate critical pushback against the season’s less than generous treatment of sex workers, crime victims and, uh, anyone who wasn’t one of the two white male leads.
Then the woeful second season’s convoluted plot, preposterous dialogue (remembering that Vince Vaughn’s gangster character called his life “the design” still stops me in my tracks) and tonal swerves gave off the collective feeling of a hurried, poorly planed casino opening.
Just like that, True Detective, the show and the brand, seemed dead.
In the two years since the second season, True Detective operated under different expectations. Grit god David Milch came on board to help write. A new up-and-coming crime bro, Jeremy Saulnier, directed the first episodes of the season. The well-regarded, experienced Daniel Sackheim directed a few more. Nic Pizzolatto had a tribe around him. He didn’t have to do it all on his own.
To me, the new dynamics behind the scenes bled into the show itself. If one of the season’s enemies was lonliness, both the kinds we can address (call your friends more!) and the kinds we can’t (“Do you realize that everyone you know someday will die?” sang The Flaming Lips), it makes sense that this season seemed to be Pizzolatto’s most personal. The season’s backdrop of Northwest Arkansas is intimate to him; he got his MFA in Fayetteville and launched his career as a fiction writer there. Some of season’s plot and character choices feel lovingly adapted from canonical crime novels he’s certainly read (the twisty missing child narrative from Dennis Lehane’s Gone Baby Gone; issues of community and racism from Walter Mosley’s Devil In A Blue Dress; the cop with a fading memory chasing old ghosts from George Pelecanos’s The Night Gardner).
In interviews, Nic Pizzolatto has proudly talked about his working class roots and how fatherhood spurred him out of the academy and into more lucrative entertainment work. In the finale, in our last trip to the 1980 timeline, Mahershala Ali’s Wayne talks to Amelia about how his own poor background made him feel inadequate compared to her. In episode six, in the 2015 timeline, Wayne tells his grown son that he and his sister changed Wayne more than the Vietnam War did: “I did things some people even call brave. Y’all made a coward of me. I’ve been terrified since the day you were born.”
So I’m struck at the end of the third and possibly final season of True Detective less by potent images or superb acting, though the season had both, but more in how gracefully the finale seemed to let all that the show had previously clung to — Men gotta be men! Kill the monster! — go.
If the first season’s failing was that it tried, so very strenuously tried, to convince the audience and itself that True Detective was a big, serious, No Girls Allowed, Faulkner-meets-Chandler epic, the third season finds something close to maturity by holding fast to the expectations of the crime genre (red herrings, vivid settings, moral ambiguity) and allowing the literary moments to creep in organically.
A sense of calm, an acceptance of impermanence, even the impermanence of our sacred memories, suffuses across the finale. To refuse easy closure, to linger in character notes instead of in plot mad libs, to avoid the cliché ending (It was all a dream! His wife or the true crime podcaster was the killer all along!) — this is what we mean when we say “literary” or “prestige” or attach another hopeful, fancy modifier to the stories that we watch on TV.
It’s strange, and maybe a little bittersweet, but True Detective finally became the best version of itself by letting the best of literary impulses — don’t finish a story with cliché emotional beats and false valedictions — wash over the smallest, most everyday of things: a man tending to a stray dog; a hug between parent and grown child; a memory of being young and at war, heading into the woods, not knowing where the path will lead.