WARNING: Spoilers follow.
The plot of True Detective season three makes next to no sense if you think about it for even two seconds.
Late in the season finale, for instance, Detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) is prompted by the ghost of his wife Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) to realize that a group of nuns in a convent conspired to help someone fake their own death. You go with it in the moment, but then when you think about it, you realize the whole thing is patently bizarre. Wait ... what? was my primary thought process.
But where the show’s first season ultimately foundered on the rocks of how its shaggy plotting and its larger thematic ambitions never found a good way to meet, and where the second season failed because it hardly bothered to have a story at all, the third season was the show’s finest outing yet — as well as the season where creator Nic Pizzolatto’s general lack of interest in the actual mystery aspect of his show felt most wedded to the story he was telling.
True Detective season three had a mystery, but it was one that almost all attentive fans had mostly solved by the fifth or sixth episode. So when an old man gave a long, expository monologue in the finale that was designed to fill in all the gaps in the story, it had the feeling of a middle school book report on a novel you know very well.
Still, the story was told effectively, and I felt inclined to indulge for at least a little while. Because what True Detective season three excelled at most was capturing a feeling, a particular sense of being alive right now in a world that feels mired in byzantine deals that were struck by the powerful to exploit the powerless, deals we barely understand and can only catch glimpses of amid all-consuming darkness.
How do you live like that? Maybe you don’t.
Three shots that explain True Detective season three
“Now Am Found,” the season three finale, was notable for how it once again revealed that, at heart, Pizzolatto is kind of a softy. Yes, its final image was of Hays disappearing into the jungle in Vietnam, the tragedy of his life that he never quite escaped. But before that, it presented a bunch of scenes where people who had seen the worst that humanity can conjure up nevertheless decided to reach out to each other and try to build something new, even if it was as seemingly minor as a family.
True Detective has often argued that the most revolutionary act of resistance one can perform is to act like your life and those of everyone you love have inherent dignity, because the world is set up to convince you that might not be true. And in a season where the rich are so corrupt that they will literally buy children, drug them, and then try to insist to those kids that they are people other than who they are, the idea that simply breaking free of that cycle and pursuing your own destiny is an act of defiance made a kind of sense.
But the episode that drew me in was the season’s seventh, “The Final Country,” which captured the entire appeal of True Detective in three shots. (The episode was directed by Daniel Sackheim, from a script by Pizzolatto, and Germain McMicking served as director of photography.)
The first shot occurs in 2015, after an elderly Hays, who suffers from a form of dementia that causes him to frequently forget why he’s doing things and effectively slip between the past and present in his memory (a nifty way to justify the series’ signature leaps between time periods), effects a ruse to get the license plate number of a mysterious car that keeps parking outside his house.
Having secured the plate number with the help of his former partner and friend Roland West (Stephen Dorff), Hays is left alone in the middle of the road. And Sackheim and McMicking highlight this by turning on only one streetlight above him, so he is a tiny figure, isolated in an ocean of dark.
The shot is metaphorical more than literal — the street Hays is standing on isn’t that poorly lit. But the moment is meant to underline the way that his memory problems keep cutting him off from his friends and family — and it captures something visceral about True Detective’s appeal. Here is the one man who stands in the light. Here is the darkness that threatens to extinguish him. Here is what hope we have left.
Then the episode does something even more interesting. It cuts to an image of a fire in a burning barrel, then to Hays looking upon the burning barrel, then to a shot of the fire lighting up the darkness to the left. (You can just see it in the below screenshot; the effect on a large screen is really striking.) I was reminded of Tommy Lee Jones’s concluding monologue from No Country for Old Men, similarly animated by the power of seeing a far-off fire in the dark.
And then, suddenly, Hays is 25 years in the past, looking at himself in the year 1990, after he and West killed a man in the course of trying to unravel the season’s central mystery. He’s burning the bloody clothes he wore in a barrel, and in one shot, Sackheim collapses everything the season has to say about time, memory, and obsession in on itself.
The murder that Hays and West commit, also featured in “The Final Country,” is of season three’s only truly amoral character, but Pizzolatto and Sackheim stage it in such a way that it has dark resonances with instances of police brutality in our reality — right down to the man in custody saying he “can’t breathe.” The obvious difference is that the man who will die at the hands of the police is white, and one of the two officers is black.
It’s also instructive to consider Pizzolatto’s apparent interest in the idea that some might see what Hays and West do as justice. After all, the man they kill is protected by very rich, very powerful people, and three seasons of True Detective have taught us that little can be done to bring the rich and powerful to justice.
But he is still a man whose death is brutal and sad and maybe even a little pitiful. Hays and West might have killed an evil man — but they still killed him. Even time won’t let you escape that. You’ll be drawn back to it, inexorably, a moth to flame.
Something dark animates the world of True Detective, but understanding it is impossible for any one person
In the wake of “The Final Country” airing, Pizzolatto clarified certain elements of the story on his Instagram account. (It is somehow very appropriate that Pizzolatto clarifies things on his Instagram account.) In particular, he pointed viewers in the direction of the very real, very alleged “Franklin cover-up,” in which wealthy and powerful Nebraskans were accused of rampant pedophilia but were eventually exonerated by a grand jury that found scant evidence supporting the accusations. (Those who believed in the conspiracy said that its members included people in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses.)
The mention of Nebraska that had gotten Pizzolatto’s followers chattering came in close concert with an offhand reference in “The Final Country” to two detectives from Louisiana who had gotten close to busting open a pedophilia ring involving the rich and powerful. Once those two detectives were revealed to be Rust and Marty from True Detective’s storied first season, fans began to surmise that perhaps the mention of Nebraska was teasing a fourth season set in the state, and that every new season of the show would ultimately look at the same criminal conspiracy from new locations, with different detectives catching brief glimpses of the larger monster.
Pizzolatto pointing to a real-life alleged conspiracy nips that idea in the bud, but also sort of doesn’t. Another conspiracy canard mentioned in “The Final Country” is a spiral triangle tattoo, known as the “crooked spiral,” which has now popped up in both the first and third seasons of True Detective. A WikiLeaks document released in 2007 discusses symbols similar to those on the show as being identified by the FBI as a way of marking members of clandestine pedophile rings.
I don’t think, in the end, that True Detective is going to involve a whole bunch of cops from all across the country bringing down a massive, secretive ring of child abusers (often with occult undertones), but it’s fascinating to look at how the idea of some secretive organization of the most powerful preying on the most powerless has recurred throughout all three seasons of the series.
It’s clearly an idea that Pizzolatto is interested in exploring, even as all three seasons have ultimately veered away from the idea that a massive ring of horrible but powerful people might be brought to justice, in favor of smaller, more mundane explanations for the horrors the show’s characters must endure.
In season one, I felt these more mundane explanations were a cop-out, an attempt to avoid dealing with the true scope of the story and the implications of such a huge conspiracy. (It is worth noting that season two also dealt with horribly abused children caught in the grips of a massive conspiracy, but it lacked the mysterious occult feel of the first and third seasons.) But in season three, I started to realize that the smaller stories are the ones Pizzolatto tells best.
We are all caught in some larger machine that grinds up too many of us in the name of its continued operation. We can’t stop the machine any more than we can hope to understand it. But by the act of trying to live a decent life, we might slow it imperceptibly.
True Detective, at heart, is a noir, a story about how solving one mystery ultimately leads to more and how you can never find a satisfactory answer to your questions because you can never quite understand why anyone does anything.
You can explain that a woman kidnapped a little girl because she was sad about losing her own daughter, but you can never explain why a whole system of people decided to go along with her idea just because she had money and power. You can explain that some people are protected and others not, but you can never explain why.
There is a dark force animating the True Detective universe and our own, and all you might ever see is this narrow strip of light where you stand. But you can build a life there. And that can be enough.
True Detective season three is available on HBO’s streaming platforms.