Critic's Notebook: 'True Detective' Season 3 Failed as a Mystery But Confirmed Mahershala Ali's Greatness

As Ali was receiving his second Oscar, the 'True Detective' third-season finale was setting him up to win his first Emmy.
Warrick Page
'True Detective'

[This contains spoilers for the third-season finale of HBO's True Detective.]

It was a good Sunday night for Mahershala Ali.

While the actor was winning a well-deserved second Oscar in three years — and having to stand with the best-picture-winning team behind Green Book and hear his director emphasize that it was really co-star Viggo Mortensen who made the movie happen — the Ali-centric third season of True Detective was wrapping up on HBO.

If you glance at last year's lead actor in a drama series Emmy field, it's been completely decimated. Matthew Rhys won for the final season of The Americans and his competition included two co-stars from Westworld and two This Is Us co-stars, at least one of whom probably won't be a strong contender this year. It's impossible to believe Ali won't at least be in the running for his first Emmy win in September ,and it's easy to surmise that he should be a prohibitive favorite.

From the time I wrote my review of the third season of True Detective, after watching five of eight episodes, two things were clear: The first was that Ali was doing spectacular work in what was set up almost exclusively as his showcase, a three-tiered acting challenge even more impressive than sitting patiently in the back of a car pretending to find it edifying that a sentient calzone was lecturing him on the proper mechanics of eating fried chicken. The second was that, even from the very beginning, I didn't care at all about this season's True Detective mystery and I wasn't convinced series creator Nic Pizzolatto did, either.

Sunday's finale confirmed that as a mystery, this True Detective season was essentially garbage. Across three different time periods, Ali's Wayne Hays and Stephen Dorff's Roland West essentially did zero detective work in the case of the missing Julie Purcell and the murder of Will Purcell. They'd been looking for an African-American man with one dead eye from the middle of the season, and once they found him, he provided exposition on the entire case, exposition that confirmed that if you bought into any of the season's half-hearted red herrings — Satanic panic straight out of Paradise Lost, a pedophile ring literally straight out of the first season, etc. — the more fool you. No, the season boiled down to an industrialist's grief-stricken daughter, an accidental act of violence and a sad, failed and criminal piece of one-off child imprisonment in the name of family restoration. It wasn't any bigger or more conspiratorial than that, but it cost some relatively good men their lives, including Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy) and Brett Woodard (Michael Greyeyes).

If you thought that was an ultra-convenient way to reveal the season's mystery, the season's big and poignant twist was even more convenient. After a trip to the convent where Julie Purcell lived after she escaped from The Pink Room and learning that Julie had died of HIV, Wayne and Roland briefly ignored that we met a groundskeeper named Mike and a young girl named Lucy — THAT'S JULIE'S MOTHER'S NAME, YOU IDIOTS! — and went about their jobs until Old Wayne got a spooky visit from wife Amelia's ghost, who knocked over her book, which conveniently landed on a page with a passage interviewing a 10-year-old boy grieving at the loss of the girl he'd hoped to marry someday. For what followed to make sense, you have to believe that Amelia was allowed to publish a book in which she not only used the correct names of minors with no direct tie to this haunting crime, but that she used the full and legal name, rather than a pseudonym. Armed with the full name of Mike the Landscaper, Old Wayne was able to instantly track down Mike's residence and find grown-up Julie, living happily with daughter Lucy and the boy who knew he was going to marry her when he was 10.

The catch: Old Wayne's memory lapses, which were inconsistent throughout and never tailored to match a particular diagnosis, kicked in and he no longer remembered where he was going or how he got there. He wasn't able to understand that not only had he solved the case, but he'd solved a case that, amid two decades of human wreckage, had a relatively happy ending. It's an O. Henry-style twist, one that worked for me entirely because of Ali's performance, which begged you to at least wonder if he was feigning this memory lapse to close the book himself. I don't think he was.

The first-season finale of True Detective disappointed many people because the resolution felt more simplistic than what we'd come to hope for and expect. The second-season finale of True Detective disappointed many people because it was every bit as convoluted as the season surrounding it. I think if you approached the third season as a mystery, it was probably another disappointment.

I didn't. So I didn't mind how badly the season tied up a mystery that I didn't find mysterious in the first place. I wasn't like Sarah Gadon's Elisa, working on a documentary alleging a vast conspiracy and then vanishing in the finale because nothing I was doing mattered anyway. I like to imagine that Elisa and the characters played by Josh Hopkins, John Tenney and Brett Cullen were all off drinking at a bar somewhere toasting each other for having amounted to nothing this season.

What did the finale, and therefore the season, amount to? You didn't think Pizzolatto would leave you without steering you there, did you?

The finale opened with Wayne riding up into the Ozarks with Michael Rooker as Edward Hoyt. More than a few viewers surely thought that after many references to the chicken entrepreneur and after they cast an actor as familiar as Rooker that Edward Hoyt would be the key to unlocking the mystery. He wasn't. He drove Wayne out to a precipice, they exchanged some guarded threats and that was that.

"I'll let you find your own way back," Hoyt said, leaving Wayne in the wilderness.

Do I seriously need to explain to you that that was the theme of the entire season? Wayne was a long-range reconnaissance tracker in Vietnam and the season was about an old man, memories fragmented by dementia and professional confusion, trying to track his own way back through his life. The darned season began with Amelia reading to a class from Robert Penn Warren's "Tell Me a Story," with the line, "The name of the story will be Time," and the finale began with her reading to a class from "Calmly We Walk Through This April's Day" by Delmore Schwartz with the line, "Time is the school in which we learn, time is the fire in which we burn."

The third season of True Detective was a journey in which the distance traveled was represented in time, not mileage. The question was never "What was the solution to this crime?" but rather "How do you restore what has been lost?" and "Can you?" The restoration of what was lost was the center of the obsession that led to Will's death and Julie's vanishing. Julie got as hopeful a resolution as Pizzolatto can imagine, though do we know if Julie knows that her own mother sold her to the Hoyt family? How does that play into whether it's happy or really miserable that she named her daughter after her mother?

And is it happy or really miserable that Wayne finds himself restored with his daughter, his son (restored with his own wife after the disappearance of Elisa) and even Roland? The show could have tried to make us buy this as a happy ending. It mostly didn't. Sometimes you're not entitled to a happy ending and sometimes even if you get closure, that's not enough to satisfy you, because sometimes "the truth" or "an answer" isn't closure enough.

"All this life, all this loss, what if it was really one long story that just kept going and going until it healed itself?" Amelia asked. "Wouldn't that be a story worth telling? Wouldn't that be a story worth hearing?"

But where would Wayne's story have to go to heal itself? He loved Amelia and Amelia gave him two children he wants to love, yet everything with Amelia is tied to the Purcell case. His marriage proposal to her, as we saw, was a drunken moment of unmooring and loss, having refused to throw her under the bus in exchange for keeping his detective's badge. The season actually ended with Even Younger Wayne marching off into the jungle, with Vietnam presented as the root of his psychological wounding, the heart of the matter and the heart of darkness so to speak. Old Wayne may be haunted still by the ghosts of the men he killed in Vietnam, so is there healing he can find in those memories? Or will he eventually discover he has to go back beyond that? We'll never know.

So was this True Detective a story worth telling, a story worth hearing? If you took it as a mystery, it probably wasn't. If you took it as an acting piece or a character study? Much more so. If I'm going to watch a man whose greatest mystery is his own past, I want that man to be played by Mahershala Ali. Dorff gave a great complementary performance and the season had other admirable supporting work from McNairy and Greyeyes, among others, but it all hung on Ali. There wasn't enough mystery in this season for two episodes, much less eight. With Ali at the center, it only sometimes mattered.