'True Detective' Finally Connects Seasons 1 and 3

Hints at a relationship between the two seasons became explicit in the penultimate episode of the season.
Warrick Page/HBO

[This story contains spoilers for the Feb. 17 episode of True Detective, "The Final Country."]

Time really is a flat circle in the world of True Detective.

After hinting at a connection to the show's first season a few times, the seventh episode of season three made it explicit: Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) moves in the same world as Rust Cohle and Marty Hart.

That revelation came in the 2015 portion of the story, when TV producer Elisa (Sarah Gadon) showed Wayne a screenshot of a newspaper front page detailing Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Hart's (Woody Harrelson) 2012 takedown of Errol Childress (Glenn Fleshler), aka the Yellow King, in Louisiana at the climax of season one.

Is there more connection to be made in the season finale? Daniel Sackheim, an executive producer and director of half of the season's episodes (the third, sixth, seventh and eighth), won't say.

"I guess all I can say is: (a) it's sworn to secrecy, and (b) I really wouldn't want to spoil for anyone what, if any, linkage there is between season one and season three in the finale," Sackheim told The Hollywood Reporter.

Sackheim did discuss the other big reveal in "The Final Country": that Hays and partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) exacted vigilante justice on Harris James (Scott Shepherd), who had killed Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy) to cover up his own connections and those of his boss, the Hoyt family patriarch (likely Michael Rooker, based on a photo hanging in the Hoyt offices), to the 1980 murder of of Will Purcell and the disappearance of his sister Julie.

Killing James may not have been the intention when they took him to the barn where they roughed up a suspect back in episode two, but it was the end result. Sackheim discussed shooting that scene, keeping all the timelines in the show straight and his approach to the "metaphysical" aspects of the story with THR.

Episode seven reveals quite a lot about where things end with the 1990 investigation. Can you talk about building to that climax in the barn?

It's funny — they had kept it in the hopper for a long time. It was a scene that [True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto] and I were constantly going back and forth on and adjusting. Part of it was that we wanted to make sure the actors had kind of lived through a lot of it without actually having experienced it, so it was always a little bit of a mystery to them as well. It was a little bit of a trick. I want to say it was the second or third from the last day of filming that we shot it. There was a lot of anticipation about it.

It had been teased a little bit in the second episode when the two guys took that pedophile up to that same barn. It's interesting because the actors were all — while incredibly professional and ever aware of the danger of doing any kind of stunt sequence — they had lived with it so long that even on set, it was a very visceral experience. It was beyond just the mechanics of shooting a scene; you could see they were really emotionally invested in them.

It plays that way, for sure. It's a very raw scene.

And that certainly was the intention. The design of the show in general is in many ways kind of formal. I don't think we shot a lot of handheld in it. That scene was certainly an outlier in that regard.

What was your take on the story for season three?

First off, I'm a huge fan of the show. I was a big fan of season one, and I really appreciated what Nic was trying to do here in terms of sort of recapturing some of the magic of season one, both structurally and emotionally. I think what this season had going for it and what really captured my imagination was it was delving more into the metaphysical. We talked a lot about that in terms of how one might approach the storytelling from that respect.

There have been a few scenes where time sort of collapses, and Wayne seems aware of his presence in a different timeline…

And in this episode where he finds himself in that void. There was a lot of conversation about that.

There's more of that to come in episode eight. [Pizzolatto] had a really interesting notion of the fluidity of time, and it's referenced over and over again. It's referenced in the poem Amelia [Carmen Ejogo] is reading to her class when we meet her and Wayne talking about his experience in Vietnam. I think what Nic wanted to communicate is that this entire piece is in effect [Wayne's] remembrance, whether we're dealing with it in real time or not. What's important is to figure out the visual grammar to elucidate his state of mind and his remembrance in terms of the emotional throughline of the story.

From a process standpoint, when you're shooting something that has multiple timelines, do you shoot all the 1980 scenes at once, then the 1990 scenes in a block?

I wish. That would have been great. Television, probably even more so than film, is driven by speed and schedule, and it's just impractical to do that. Your schedule is dictated by what actors you have for a limited time because they have other projects to go to, or what location you have at a given time, or in the case of this, to put the actors in that makeup was a four-and-a-half-hour process in the morning. It wasn't the kind of thing you could do every day because of the wear and tear on Mahershala and Stephen.

It was random throughout the schedule when you'd be doing it, so the challenge is really tracking the story — especially because you're not shooting all the episodes sequentially. One day you'd be shooting episode three, another day might be episode six, the next day would be episode eight and the next day you might go back to episode three. So the obligation as a storyteller is helping the actors keep track of where they are at any given point, or within any given timeline. That was the additional challenge. It was [understanding] where the character is in this scene, but also here's what happened before and after within this timeline.

Did you have notebooks filled with all that?

I did. I created this kind of chart, like you might see on a crime-scene board where they're keeping track of the hierarchy of a mob. It was this thing I carried around with me as a reference for myself and the actors in terms of, here's where we are in the 1980, the 1990 and the 2015 timeline. We used that as a visual reference.

The way the show is structured, there's a lot that's been alluded to but not revealed, at least until this episode. As a director, do you have to be careful not to tip a hand to something too much?

I would say that's implicit in the writing that we were very careful not to tip our hand. One of the things you do have to do is keep in mind the arc of a character, so let's say that if there are four scenes dealing with a specific storyline or an emotional throughline over the course of [several episodes], you want to be careful how you modulate the performances in those scenes so you build them appropriately and don't blow your proverbial wad too early. That would be the greater concern.

When you're directing multiple episodes, can you put more of your own stamp on things than if you were just doing one?

I'd like to think they gave me a fair amount of freedom. But Jeremy [Saulnier, who directed the first two episodes] put a stamp on the visual grammar of the show early on. I would say where I had a lot of flexibility was anything dealing with the metaphysical elements of the show, and you'll see that in episode eight as well. So in the sequence you alluded to earlier, where Wayne is walking back after he and Roland have tricked the guy in the car so they get the shot of the license plate — that whole sequence was pretty much left up to me to design how we would approach it visually. I think the only dictate from both Nic's and my perspective was we always wanted to feel like we were in Wayne's point of view or in his head.

Is there anything you can say about the last episode?

In the broadest sense, I think the culmination of this story in the finale is pretty heartbreaking. But I also think, or at least I hope, that the audience will find it satisfying, not only in the resolution of the overarching mystery, but emotionally satisfying as well, in terms of the culmination of our characters' journeys. I think it's unusual in that respect to see something that's — again, I think and hope the finale is something of an emotional roller coaster.

This interview has been edited and condensed.