The good news is, Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) found Julie Purcell. The bad news is, he doesn’t realize it.
Anyone who went into the True Detective finale feeling nervous about the show’s potential to walk through all the doors it had opened in one hour—you were right. There just isn’t enough bandwidth for that. For instance, we don’t know whether the mystery of Julie Purcell’s disappearance will come to light or die with Wayne’s faltering memory. We also don’t know what happened to Amelia (Carmen Ejogo). We don’t know what went down between Wayne and his daughter, Rebecca. We don’t really know what’s going on with Elisa (Sarah Gadon), the documentary filmmaker. Sometimes unanswered questions don’t feel like unfinished business. But these ones do. Is Season Three of True Detective a meta-treatise on the elusiveness of “closure?” Perhaps. The writing has generally favored the philosophical. Does it work? Not entirely, for me.
At the same time, there’s a strangely ponderous explain-athon delivered by Junius Watts, the mysterious one-eyed black man who turns out to have been the man casing Hays’ house in his car. He spells out everything that happened—his employer’s tragic family history; Hoyt’s daughter Isabel losing it after the death of her daughter Mary; how Mary had looked so much like Julie that Isabel became fixated on Julie and asked to adopt her; how Lucy had consented to be paid to let the distraught woman play with her daughter and how Will’s death had been an awful accident; how Isabel had drugged Julie out of her mind on lithium until the kid no longer recalled that the Hoyts weren’t her family; and how she’d been locked in the “pink room” in the basement for years until Junius finally helped her escape. The way it’s done makes you wonder how this case could possibly have remained unsolved for a quarter century. It’s so doofy. None of it makes sense and no one is set up to be enough of an evil mastermind to pull it off.
What definitely does work is what has always worked, which is the chemistry between Hays and his partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff); it’s seriously poignant. The relationship between Wayne and Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) is generally well-realized, too, but Wayne’s real marriage is to Roland, and this is nicely echoed in the scene where Roland offers to come and live with Wayne.
The season finale, “Now Am Found,” leans in into the “melting time” editing that marked the penultimate episode; in particular, there’s a sequence where Wayne and Roland are driving and as the camera moves they oscillate between their 1980, 1990 and 2015 selves. Normally, I have high tolerance for on-the-nose visual representation of a theme, but this felt pointed even for me. In its subtler moments, though, the concept works fine; the pacing tends to echo the time distortions and confusion that trouble people who are slipping into dementia. And it’s genuinely twinge-inducing that Wayne puts the pieces together—he realizes that the landscape maintenance guy at the convent was Mike, the kid who’d been so broken up about the Purcells in 1980, the one who loved Julie—only to track Julie down, get to her house, see her in the garden with her own child, and then forget why he was there. It’s awful to watch, even as you can’t help but feel a swell of optimism seeing that the ghost of Amelia had been right, that it was possible there was another story, one that didn’t end a tragedy-filled life with an untimely death from HIV. That perhaps the story had never ended at all. After the relentless dreariness of much of the season, it’s not amiss, and it’s tempered by the way the protagonist finds this out and then fails to realize he knows what he knows.
Time is a flat circle. Except when it’s a Möbius strip.
Amy Glynn is a poet, essayist and fiction writer who really likes that you can multi-task by reviewing television and glasses of Cabernet simultaneously. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.