In the third season of True Detective, Nic Pizzolatto has expertly circumnavigated the bait-and-switch prerogatives we’ve come to expect with the genre of true crime; he’s played on our perverse obsessions with watching the grisly, the sinister, the damned. True Detective, adored for its first season nihilism and abruptly discarded for its off-beat second season, remains aloof. The third season’s trailers, boasting Mahershala Ali as the season’s lead, seemed to be pointing its arrow back toward season one. The opening credits, the cinematography, the southern-drawl of the supporting role— it’s enough for viewers to feel that pulsating adoration and obsession we felt when we met Rust in season one. But, viewers quickly learn (if they’re paying attention), that the third season is not and was never about the crime in question; it’s about the relationships, fractured, but never broken, that have emerged and doubled down on themselves because of the Purcell case. What we all loved about season one of True Detective is what we’re looking for when we go in to viewing this season, and Pizzolatto knows that. He admonishes us for it .
Mahershala Ali’s character, affectionately nicknamed Purple Hays by his partner Roland, delivers an astounding performance as three different versions of Hays: the young Vietnam recon man in the early 80s, a hardened husband and father embittered by his past in the 90s, and an old man in 2015, facing the reality of dementia and death through the lens of hauntings both new and old. Stephen Dorff plays an equally tremendous supporting role as Roland, and his acting deliveries throughout the three timelines are just as incredible to watch. These characters’ chemistry is real; I felt, watching the season, remnants of the Rust/Marty partnership from season one, a seemingly undeniable and purposeful tie-in, that focuses on the nihilistic, tough energy that enthralled viewers as Rust and Marty prowled around in their black car. But, I find something deeper in Hays and Roland: male friendship, fleshed out entirely. Pizzolatto’s care in creating this relationship (and Hays and Amelia , Hays’ girlfriend/wife) transforms this season into something that transcends the darkness of crime. It’s what slaps us in the face when we are disappointed to unearth not a harrowing yellow-king- like narrative but instead a tale of loneliness, love, accident, and regret, both within the Purcell case and outside of it.
The case itself? A who-dunit type of crime regarding the murder of Will Purcell and the possible abduction of Julie Purcell, Will’s sister. In one of the first episodes of the season, Detective Hays finds Will’s body in Devil’s Den, a well-known forested area of the city that rebellious teenagers often smoke inside. The body is set up in prayer-like repose, and around the body lie wicker dolls in the same pose. With these details, Pizzolatto plays on our already-established (thanks to season one) obsessions with lore. What do the dolls symbolize? Are they, like the crowns in season one, symbols of a cult? Viewers are encouraged to cling even harder to this theory when in the 2015 timeline, Elisa Montgomery, a true crime journalist, interviews Hays in regards to her own conspiracy-laden theories involving sex trafficking rings in the region. Pizzolatto taunts viewers with a possible connection to Rust and Marty (they even have an on-screen cameo in the form of a newspaper clipping) and their work in season one, enforcing again an expectation that this season will deliver a sinister, evil plot showcasing demented criminals, nihilism, and an existential loophole that we can barely pull ourselves out of. True Detective has learned, it seems, that it will never shed itself of expectations from season one; Pizzolatto, seasoned from the muted and unfavorable reactions to his show’s second season, has seemingly accepted the show’s fate as forever in the long shadow that Rust, that the yellow King, casts. True Detective season three gently weaves its threads to that already established braid of season one, leading viewers to again anticipate the thrill of the anarchic setting of badness.
But, if you pay close attention to each episode of season three— if you listen to the beautifully executed dialogue— this season was not concerned with the sinister, the big evil. From the start this is a story about remorse, big and small— about mistakes, the ways in which we hurt each other, and the ways in which we make amends, even though, as Hays notes in the final episode,: “it’s always too late.”
In the 80s timeline, viewers come to suspect Lucy, Julie and Will’s opioid-addicted mother, relatively early in the season, especially because of her conversation with Amelia, Hays’ girlfriend and later wife. Lucy’s language is invocative of the ransom note she and her estranged husband Tom receive. Later, in the 90s timeline, we learn of her overdose and death, and the Hoyt-bought cop (Harris James) who most likely killed Lucy to keep her quiet. This same cop kills Tom for discovering the secret Pink Room in the Hoyt mansion’s underground; poor Tom, Roland’s friend, is framed as a suicidal drunk. Bob Woodard, too, faces a traumatically unfair end; as the outcast of town (a character Hays connects with because of their veteran status as well as their racially ‘other’ status), Woodard is instantly suspected of the murder/abduction, and is forced into a huge retaliation when men come hunting him. Hays is forced to shoot Woodard, who no longer wants to live, another PTSD-fueled regret that ultimately helps to wall his emotional intelligence up. Harris James plants Will’s backpack as evidence in the Woodard house, and the case is tied up in the 80s timeline with a conviction that Roland, Hays, and everyone involved know to be shoddy at best and absolutely wrong at worst. Pizzolatto, like Harris James, planted evidence, sprinkled in hints of the big-bad evil (especially via the symbol of the Pink Room) throughout the season. At the end, I felt ashamed that I’d been yearning for that Pink Room story instead of valuing the exploration of human relationships that the Pink Room necessitated.
Hays constantly battles to prove himself as a detective; while Roland is assumed to be competent, Hays is constantly questioned by administrators, forced to prove himself to witnesses, and held party to blatantly racist microaggressions. He is humble, though; the mystery of his recon experiences in Vietnam plague the season, only coming through in 2015 Hays’s psychotic lapses. And he’s quiet, too, until pushed. But he learns, in one of the most believable character arcs I’ve ever seen on film, that quietude doesn’t mean strength. Hays is forced to confront his own lackluster emotional intelligence, especially as he and Amelia’s relationship becomes bruised by his inability to communicate.
When the case opens back up in the 90s, Roland pushes for Hays to be put back on the case; it isn’t until the final episode of the season that we learn why Hays was pushed into secretarial work to begin with. The non-linear storytelling works superbly well, especially in regards to Hays and Amelia’s relationship. Violent and sharp discord run amok in their marriage during the 90s; viewers bear witness to Hays’s violently pointed outbursts, his prioritization of the case over his marriage, his family. We feel the tension inherent in Amelia’s work as a writer and Hays’s work as a detective, a dichotomy that feels incredibly believable and probable; their arguments over what is real and what is embellished make for a meta viewing experience, again demanding viewers question their own perverse desires of the extreme. The biting nature of Hays’s inability to view Amelia’s work as remarkable (we learn in the 2015 timeline that he never even read her book) points again to his character arc. He must ultimately learn how to love, how to communicate, how to, as he tells his son in 2015, “not hold back.” And he must learn it through the case but— and here’s the most expert element of the season— not necessarily by solving it.
There will always be a comparison in True Detective to the art created in its first season. Future seasons will most likely be plagued, as were season two and three, by high expectations and fans labeling quieter moments as let downs (peruse Reddit threads at your own discretion if you’d like). Season three proves that Pizzolatto has not only learned this— as he must have after season two— but that he’s accepted it, grown from it.
Hays’s memory problems lend this show its most earned finale. The love Hays shared with Amelia in the 90s, in 2015, and, I imagine, every day in between, leads him to a happy, serene, at peace Julie Purcell. It’s the answer he sought and wanted, and in the moment it’s in his grasp, he cannot remember. Perhaps he chooses not to remember why he’s on Julie’s lawn, or perhaps he knows his wife is correct: that the story goes on and on and on until it corrects itself, until two kids safely ride their bike down the street, until two old men allow themselves to cry and hug one another, until the black nebulous cloud of nihilism is outshined (if not entirely, at least a bit) by a front porch full of love.
Erika Gallion’s past publications include: “What’s in a Major?” a critical essay published in Robert Atwan’s tenth edition of America Now; “Fan Pilgrimage and Student Learning” an article co-written by Dr. Maura Grady and Dr. Robert Robertson published in Katherine Anderson Howell’s anthology Fandom as Classroom Practice by the University of Iowa Press; and “Trouble” a book review of Yrsa Daley-Ward’s memoir The Terrible published by Women’s Review of Books.