The third season of HBO’s “True Detective” ended with a relative whimper compared to how thunderously it came out of the gate. Granted, this season was the first time since the show’s 2014 debut that it really had something to prove: that it was still relevant, that Season 2’s disappointment was a fluke brought on by a rushed schedule, and that HBO still had a viable franchise it could fall back on with “Game of Thrones” on its way out and “Westworld” arguably foundering in the wake of a divisive second season.
But that “relative whimper” of an ending isn’t necessarily a criticism; in fact, it may be what makes “True Detective” Season 3 so memorable in the long run. See, aside from its fantastic performances and intriguing central hook, there’s a timely meta-commentary running through all eight of this season’s episodes that speaks equally to both society’s morbid fascination with true-crime and show-runner Nic Pizzolatto’s reconcilement with his own legacy as a pop artist.
First, to recap the season finale or, more specifically, the truth about the Purcell case [SPOILERS]:
The mystery of what happened to Will and Julie Purcell on November 7, 1980, is finally explained. It turns out Julie was kidnapped by Isabel Hoyt, the daughter of Hoyt Foods scion Edward Hoyt. Isabel got pregnant when she went to college and bore a daughter, who died in a car accident with Isabel’s boyfriend/the child’s father. Stricken by grief, Isabel fell into a deep depression until one day, Lucy Purnell (who worked for Hoyt Foods) brought Julie to a company picnic and Isabel caught a look at her.
Through an arrangement struck between Lucy and her employer, Isabel was allowed to spend time with Julie, using her as a surrogate/replacement for the daughter she lost. Will accompanied the two of them, but Julie was the only one Isabel was ever interested in. Eventually, she hatched the idea of kidnapping her, using one-eyed black man Junius Watts to help her. Isabel lured the children into the woods on that fateful afternoon and attempted to abduct Julie, but when Will tried to prevent this, the ensuing scuffle led to him accidentally hitting his head on a rock and dying. Watts moved Will to the cave where his body was found, while it was Julie who folded Will’s hands in prayer. Then Isabel, Julie, and Watts all left.
Julie lived in the basement of the Hoyt manor, in a secluded room filled with everything a little girl could ever want. Isabel kept the child pacified with lithium, but as time went on, Julie started to remember pieces of her past and wanted information. Eventually, Watts agreed to help her by drawing her a map to a safe house where he would meet her and, presumably, help her plan the next phase of her life. But the night Julie escaped Hoyt manor, she never went to the safe house, choosing instead to go her own way.
Watts spent years trying to track down Julie, eventually coming to a convent where the nuns explained that Julie (known as Mary-July) spent three and a half years there before succumbing to symptoms of HIV. So Julie, as far Wayne and Roland now know, has been dead since the early 1990s. And the case is finally closed in their minds.
Or not quite. Pesky Amelia and her apparition/best-selling novel offer Wayne an alternate theory: Julie lives, and Mike — the young boy who was so distraught when Julie initially went missing — actually found her because his father’s landscaping business did free work for the convent. The two fell in love and got married, and the nuns lied about Julie’s fate in order to protect her from her past. It suddenly clicks that Wayne actually met Mike when he and Roland visited the convent for information, and so he drives up to Greenland, Arkansas to finally gain some concrete closure on this case.
But as he approaches Mike and Julie’s address, dementia kicks in and Wayne forgets not only where he is, but why he’s there. Despite cordial interactions with Julie and her daughter (named Lucy, ironically), by the time Wayne’s children pick him up to bring him back home, he has no idea that he’s just interacted with the little girl whose disappearance irrevocably altered his life and the lives of those around him.
So essentially, after all the tantalizing leads dangled by documentarian Elisa and the theories that the children’s murder/disappearance may have been tied to the Yellow King murders of Season 1, it turns out that the Purcell case’s implications were never that widespread at all. It boiled down to simple people doing horrible things to each other with a twisted sense of good intentions. Isabel wanted a replacement daughter, Lucy wanted money, and the children (along with Tom Purcell, arguably) got caught in the middle. While that can seem like a deflating ending, similar to the reaction that Season 1’s perfect denouement received five years ago, it’s honestly a great ending that encapsulates everything Season 3 was really about.
While the core plot of Season 3 has been about finding Julie Purcell, the subtext of the season and its true-crime B-plot is really a meta-commentary about us as a society and our disturbingly morbid fascination with true crime. From “Serial” to “Making a Murderer” and everything in-between, the entertainment industry has found a growing niche of support for deep dives into cold cases and old murders, even some as high-profile as the O.J. Simpson trial. Whether this is because of a younger generation that didn’t live through these trials when they initially happened, new technology and platforms that allow these cases to be re-tried in the court of public opinion, or because story-tellers know that audiences (as David Fincher likes to say) can’t look away from a trainwreck no matter how much they may want to, the fact remains that true-crime stories have staked out a huge part of the modern entertainment landscape.
What “True Detective,” Season 3 says about this is that while audiences love re-litigating these old cases in order to connect things to larger conspiracies and nefarious political machinations, more often than not, these crimes have relatively simple explanations that revolve around people simply being terrible to each other. There’s no Senator trying to keep people quiet about illicit activity, no cameos from Matthew McConaughey or Woody Harrelson, no pedophile ring operating across the Bible belt — there are just people being people. And despite how mundane the explanation for Season 3’s central mystery may be, it’s no less tragic. It still claimed the lives of all but one member of the Purcell family, not to mention Cousin Dan, Brett Woodard, and a host of other policemen and other individuals.
Moreover, Pizzolatto is running his own self-assessment. The phenomenon of the first season of “True Detective” still hangs heavily in the pop culture psyche, and so Pizzolatto has done his own part to keep true crime fascination alive and well. But he seems to be condemning the show’s second season, a murky modern noir that connected the murder of a Los Angeles-area official to all sorts of political machinations involving a new railroad, rural farmland, a gangster trying to go straight, and a litany of other elements that never fully gelled. The show-runner seems to be admitting to his mistake, saying that simpler is better when it comes to both storytelling and police-work on cases like this, and shaming audiences for wanting to connect dots that aren’t really there.
But more importantly, Pizzolatto is calling on everyone to look inward rather than outward. In the season finale’s short “Inside the Episode”-type addendum, Pizzolatto says (and I’m paraphrasing) that the final episode was about not just bringing answers to the case, but Wayne finally grappling with demons within himself. Pizzolatto had to do a lot of soul-searching of both himself and his creative baby in the interim between the show’s second and third season, and he’s calling on audiences to do the same. Not just to reconcile with our society’s increasingly disturbing addiction to dead bodies and the stories behind them, but also just generally, i.e. why Wayne blows up at Amelia only to later admit that he pushed her away because he could tell he wanted to marry her, which is something he never saw himself doing, and it scared him.
Pizzolatto has stated in interviews that he has a “wild” idea for Season 4, but there’s been no concrete movement on a subsequent season of this show and HBO has said that they won’t rush the show as they did before. But suffice it to say that while Season 3 may not have reached the highs of Season 1, its key improvements over Season 2 show a growth and maturity we don’t often see in modern television (and FYI, modern television is operating on a level it’s never even come close to in the past). What “True Detective” has done here is effectively contextualize both itself and its audience, stating harsh truths without ever really judging either side. It’s not an indictment, it’s commentary; Pizzolatto respects his audience too much to bite the hand that feeds it, and would likely be the first to admit to his own shortcomings as a show-runner (aka Season 2).
(There’s also kind of a funny take on the reconciliation between Wayne and Roland towards the end of the season, as though defeating our own demons will lead us on the road to forgiveness. Basically, Pizzolatto’s apologizing for Season 2.)
So while Season 3 may feel like it went out with a whimper, it really didn’t. Its conclusion was just as forceful as its commencement, just not in the ways most people were probably expecting. If Season 1 was a 10/10 and Season 2 was more of a 6/10 (I’m more positive on it than most), then I think Season 3 is firmly an 8/10, a synthesis of a show’s best elements with few of its lesser ones, never reaching the highs of its inaugural run but avoiding just about all of the pitfalls of its sophomore slump.
Bring on more, please.