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Friday, March 1, 2024

True Detective Season Three: Redeeming the Franchise

HBO’s crime drama wraps up in an unconventional yet satisfying way

Time is a flat circle. This is a reference to the most important story aspect from the first season of HBO’s crime drama anthology “True Detective,” where the main character Rustin Cohle, played by Matthew McConaughey, is obsessed with the cyclical, never-ending nature of time; however, Cohle never experiences the flat circle of time.  It’s Mahershala Ali’s Wayne Hays in the third season who is forced to venture into the endless and revolving depths of his mind as it fades from existence after a long life of war and policing.

The writer of “True Detective,” Nic Pizzolatto, is known for writing complicated characters, which he faithfully delivers in the third season. Yet the biggest controversy of the season, splitting fans down the middle of disappointment and delight, is when Pizzolatto refused another trope of the series he’s well known for — the final shootout, the grand finale.

In both the first and second season, the series finale resulted in tears as the fans plead for their favorite characters to survive their violent confrontation with the masked killer they were hunting. Because the entirety of the third season was presented as one large memory inside Hays’ mind — another reference to Cohle’s first season philosophy — the finale episode was from the perspective of Hays as a seventy-year-old man, which brought fans to their knees as they hoped they weren’t going to see him gutted with a knife or executed by a government militia. But, no. Pizzolatto went the optimistic route.

All eight episodes of the season were spent on the pursuit of Julie Purcell, a girl who was supposedly kidnapped at a young age, which resulted in her brother’s murder when he tried to stop the incident. The final episode was a reunion, of sorts, between the lost and found. Once again, the audience expected the worst with the missing girl since both prior seasons dealt with a pedifilic ring of kidnappers that were tied in with local government forces. In fact, those clues were even laid out for the audience. As a true-crime documentarian, Elisa Montgomery, played by Sarah Gadon, presented similar evidence between the Purcell case in Arkansas and other missing children cases in Louisiana — which ended up being a direct reference to season one as Montgomery showed newspaper clippings of hero detectives, Cohle and Martin Hart, played by Woody Harrelson.

Instead of a bloody end, this season concluded with Hays having a flashback to a piece of evidence he wholly overlooked, which then lead to him finding Purcell alive, happy and with a daughter of her own. The Arkansas community expected her dead, and so did the audience, but she was actually sold by her drug addict mother to another woman of large fortune to be her own daughter since she had lost her own. Although nothing goes over smoothly; as the sale results in Purcell’s brother’s unfortunate death and her own drugging to forget the incident.

Surprisingly, Purcell lived a happy life, albeit on copious amount of Lithium, until she escapes the “pink castle” and builds a life of her own. And while the detectives are searching for kidnappers and gunning down suspects while on the hunt, Purcell is living happily in a convent, thus steering the two roads of seekers and hiders to never merge with one another until the finale. In that final meeting, Hays finds the address to Purcell’s new family and pays them a visit. But he forgets what he’s doing and where he’s at upon walking up the driveway, resulting in a nice conversation between an elderly man and middle-aged mother who do not recognize each other despite their long history within the flat circle.

This season may refuse its audience a few aspects they’ve come to expect from Pizzolatto: the monsters in the dark and the finale shootout that reveals those monsters, but it replaces those tropes with more pertinent themes. Probably the most lovable aspect of this season is the unbreakable bond between Hays and his partner Roland West, played by Stephen Dorff, who spend over 35 years together on the Purcell case alone. Despite their unyielding partnership, external racial tensions put them at odds more often than not.

As West consistently received praise for Hays’ hard work, West is determined to the pull strings that will allow his partner shine in the light of the racially prejudice foundations the Arkansas Government is built upon, however, that’s not how Hays works. As he puts it, “I don’t play games.” His decisions to overcome the racist dispositions of his employers and working on the case on his own time leads him to find the Purcell girl while the rest of police force fades from the picture.

The bond between these two partners is what keeps a smile on the viewer’s face. Much like in every other season of True Detective, the audience is brought into the front seat of a vehicle with two partners on the hunt. But what’s different this time around is that these partners actually enjoy each others company from the start and their friendship only grows.

Season three deals less with the darkness of humanity and more with the horror of  the mind. The audience spends more time being viciously flailed around from dark corner to dark corner inside Hays’ fading memory.

That is where the brilliance of this season stays: while each scene represents a memory that Hays is experiencing, the reliability of that memory is sketchy. There might be a scene of an elderly Hays traversing the dark cellars of the pink castle, but pay attention to the mirrors on the wall and you will see a reflection of thirty-year-old Hays — is that how he sees himself, even in old age, or is that memory ever really taking place? For the first time ever in “True Detective” history, the audience must bear the weight of an unreliable narrator as they explore his most intimate memories and hazy recollections. It goes without saying, Mahershala Ali is a brilliant actor, meant to play only the most important roles on-screen. Paired with a writer like Nic Pizzolatto, the combination results in an unforgettable television performance that stands side-by-side with the greatness of the most favored first season of “True Detective.”

Written by: Clay Allen Rogers — arts@theaggie.org



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