Final Thoughts: ‘True Detective’ Wraps Up With Too Much Exposition and Shade at the True Crime Genre – and Us?
We got in an heated discussion on the Pajiba Slack the other day about whether the first season finale of True Detective was good. I say yes: Although it was weirdly earnest, we had seen throughout the preceding episodes that Rust Cohle hated humanity but still wanted to believe in the inherent goodness of the universe. Why else try to keep the bad men from the door? But Dustin and Mike disagreed, and Dustin even did this thing where he called me “Roxana” in a very Dad tone, and it sent me into a spiral! Maybe the first season finale was too slow? Maybe it had too much exposition? Maybe the characters made undeserved swerves? Maybe the whole supernatural element fell apart too easily?
But now, after having watched third season finale “Now Am Found”—which shares many of those elements that I listed with the first season finale, I stand by this: “Form and Void” was pretty good, and “Now Am Found” was fine, bordering on eh. By the end of the episode, we know what happened to everyone: Hoyt’s daughter Isabel kidnapped Julie as a replacement for her own dead child and kept her captive with years of lithium and Mr. Watts by her side; Will was accidentally killed by Isabel during the kidnapping; Julie escaped after being held in captivity for years; and then she faked her own death and married that nice boy Mike who was so upset all those years ago when she disappeared, and now they have a daughter. Surface-level, that is the conclusion of this story. A girl was lost, and now she is found.
But how this was presented to us—with so much exposition and so many flashbacks and just these long stretches of uninterrupted talking—this is where I think “Now Am Found” faltered. The pacing was off, wasn’t it? And this isn’t to say that I demand plot twists, but I look over my notes for this season finale and they are a fraction the length of my notes from preceding episodes. Most everything is tidily resolved in a way we would expect, and some of the mysteries were never really mysteries at all, and overall it feels like Nic Pizzolatto telling us, “You wanted some season one shit? You’re not getting any of that season one shit.”
Is the entire season Pizzolatto’s rebuke of the true crime genre, of people searching his show for clues, of viewers like us? Honestly, it kind of feels like it! Elisa’s true crime documentary was used as a framing device and then thoroughly abandoned; we never see or hear from her again in the finale, and there’s no explanation of whether her production will ever be released. Think of those blogs that she shows to Wayne; think of his sneering disdain at the idea that people would spend so much time trying to unravel a mystery. But that is also exactly what Pizzolatto has his characters do, for us! It’s a weird juxtaposition of things, but it feels like Pizzolatto dangling candy in front of us—candy that he has trained us to expect—and then throwing it down a sewer for Pennywise to eat. Why else recreate so many elements of season one—an uncomfortable altercation between police officers and the black community on the wrong side of town, creepy objects like the chaff dolls, the household knowledge only an older black woman, a former “domestic,” can provide—and then undercut them? Those choices seemed lazy to me, and now they feel disingenuous, like Pizzolatto wanted to admonish us for expecting something that he had delivered us in the first place.
Maybe this all sounds like I’m discrediting the phenomenal acting that went into this season, and I don’t want to do that. Now two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali is goddamn riveting in every moment of every episode of this season, and I will think about his varying explorations of Wayne Hays for a long time. In 1980, the outright anger he spits at Carmen Ejogo’s Amelia for disrupting the tiny world he has cultivated for himself, his comparison of her to “a pretty bird flying around shitting on people’s heads,” his accusations that she wasn’t black enough—a reminder of the racism that permeated every corner of West Finger, Arkansas, that even affected the black man who was affected by that racism, too. In 1990, his beseeching appeal to her that they leave everything about the Purcell case behind them in order to save their marriage, even as he refuses to be fully honest with her about what happened with the case (“I walk away, you walk away, and let’s put this thing down. It’s not ours. And like you said, we’re past the beginning”). And in 2015, the way he holds his body—hunched, rigid, weary—the blank look on his face when he becomes lost in time, and the genuine smiles he reserves for his family and for Roland West, the partner whose trust he regained, the bond between them remade, the future before them.
But Ali was met, phenomenally so, by Stephen Dorff, who blew me away. I expected greatness from Ali, and he delivered it; I did not know Dorff could hold this much depth, my god. The two of them elevated this material above the clichés in which it sometimes became mired—oh, this police detective saunters into a Nazi biker bar, picks a fight with five dudes, and gets the shit beaten out of him because he’s sad his friend is dead? Yeah, that’s some Sons of Anarchy shit. But the cathartic release of tears when Roland West opens his arms to that stray dog, the gingerness with which he holds that dog and the gentleness with which he pets him, even as he weeps—that was a tragedy in and of itself. And think of West, leaning on his cane, in the police station in 1980, when Hays tells him they’ll grab a beer or see a game—words West spits back to Hays years later, when they are reunited, when it’s clear they never did those things.
Pizzolatto claimed in an Instagram comment that West isn’t gay, but I don’t buy that for a second. I think the presentation of this character was a man who followed all the typical rules of masculinity and heteronormativity and found them lacking, found them broken, and hence allowed himself to break, too. When he tells Wayne that he’s going to start sleeping over at his home, it’s the two men taking care of each other, realizing that the years they spent as partners were some of the most formative of their lives. The “big secret” that Wayne never shared with Amelia is what he lived with Roland, and that experience is one that will haunt them, but that they’ll recognize in each other, for however many years they each live.
Consider the last few scenes of the show, though: They’re devoted to Wayne Hays, and to two chapters of his life. First, at the VFW, when he opens himself up enough to Amelia to admit that he never considered love, that he never thought he would get married, that the blame he laid upon her for using his complaints about the investigation to begin her writing career in the town newspaper were tied up in his feelings about loving her and wanting to marry her. It’s a confession from a man who clearly wasn’t used to giving them, and so when they walk together to that illuminated exit—when Roland reaches his hand back for Amelia’s—it’s an attempt to leave behind that isolated part of his life. But as we know from 1990 and 2015, people don’t change very easily. The fights Amelia and Wayne had were circular. Their marriage was always about the Purcell case, about who they were and who they were pretending to be, and although we see Amelia and Wayne smile at each other in that University of Arkansas timeline between 1990 and 2015, it’s Amelia’s figure who haunts Wayne in 2015. It’s love, but it’s also guilt and regret, everything tied together, impossible to untangle.
And then there’s the final scene: Purple Hays, in the Vietnamese jungle, wide-eyed, solitary, indistinguishable from the area around him. As much a part of this place of violence as anything else that naturally occurs there, able to slip in and out of it, the hunter personified, the figure that Roland West alternately bragged about and threatened suspects with. Why end True Detective with Wayne as the person he was in the 1970s? Because time is a flat circle, and because ending with the start is what Pizzolatto wanted to achieve this entire season. If only he hadn’t tried to shade us for wanting more, this would be an effective ending for what was otherwise a finale that leaned too hard on telling us instead of showing us what happened to little Julie Purcell, the case Wayne Hays never stopped thinking about.
Finally, some odds and ends:
+ This finale begins in the same way, almost identically, as the first season finale: As T Bone Burnett’s foreboding score plays, we revisit some of the most important locations of this narrative, from Shoepick Lane to the tower where Tom Purcell is killed to the public school the Purcells attended. An effective reminder for where we’ve been as we end up where we’re going.
+ Wayne’s attempt to threaten Hoyt with his “Maybe one day I’ll come see you. Try having this talk again,” reminded me very much of Rust Cohle’s threats to mega-church leader Rev. Billy Lee Tuttle, and as you may recall, Cohle does eventually break into Tuttle’s house and steal from it the videotape that proves that little Marie Fontenot was kidnapped and raped by all these powerful, evil men.
+ I didn’t exactly love the scene where Wayne and Roland end up in the pink room and realize the full scope of Julie’s kidnapping. The scene lacked impact for me, maybe because it was what we’ve expected for so long, and maybe also because the dialogue, with Wayne talking about his family and Roland remarking, “Now, that must be nice,” was so repetitive to what we’ve heard in preceding episodes. Either way, it didn’t quite land.
+ I have to start using some of Roland West’s descriptions for people I don’t like: “butt-faced human pieces of garbage” and “hunks-of-shit people” are both pretty good! Also, yes, I smirked at “cyclops motherfucker.”
+ Pizzolatto really laid it on thick with his “This season was all about storytelling, DO YOU GET IT?” dialogue this episode, from Amelia comparing her and Wayne’s marriage to writing (“You write a story, you get past the start, it’s important to know how you want it to end”) to Roland’s discomfort with how the investigation ended (“We got an ending, I guess, but, I don’t, uh, hmm. Do you feel like any kinda closure? I don’t”). And then that whole thing with ghost Amelia telling Wayne, like, everything that happened with Julie Purcell after he miraculously opens her book to just the right page?
“What if there’s another story? What if something went unbroken? All this life, all this loss. What if it was really one long story that just kept going and going until it healed itself? Wouldn’t that be a story worth telling? Wouldn’t that be a story worth hearing?”
It was just too much.
+ Also reminiscent of season one: Remember when Rust Cohle told that woman with Munchausen by proxy that “prison is very, very hard on people who hurt kids. If you get the opportunity, you should kill yourself”? I was reminded very much of that when Mr. Junius Watts begs Wayne and Roland to kill him, only to have West disgustedly reply, while gesturing to his cupboard of guns, “You don’t wanna live with it? Fucking don’t.”
+ Anyone else think grown-up Mike Ardoin kind of looked like a hot Scoot McNairy? Sorry, I have a type, and Nathan Wetherington fits it.
+ I understand that this fits with the character, but of course Wayne would hate working in an office full of women.
+ Becca lives! And it seems like she just stays away from home because of her father’s increasingly worse dementia. Although I do think it was kind of harsh to say in front of him, “I miss you right now”?
+ OK yes I did get teary at Roland’s and Wayne’s final “Real glad to see you” and “Glad to see you too, pal,” and how they patted each other on the shoulder. Just two old dudes, being friends, someone please hand me a tissue. Where is our spinoff where Roland and Wayne just go around with their old badges investigating crimes? I know that Pizzolatto was trying to say that this desire is exactly what is wrong with our current true crime fascination … but I don’t care, I would still watch.
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