True Detective is a universe now? An investigation
At the penultimate hour of the third season of True Detective, my favorite character is Elisa (Sarah Gadon), the documentarian mercilessly interviewing Wayne (Mahershala Ali) about the confusing trail of bodies left in the wake of the Purcell children.
Elisa is, at times, a ludicrous character. Her affair with Wayne’s son is one of the season’s most florid twists. At times, she seems to exist as a straw man, representing everything that series creator Nic Pizzolatto doesn’t like about true-crime infotainment, and internet theorizing, and millennials in general. I often joke that she is the villain of the season, because she is the most forceful presence antagonizing Wayne on screen. She’s often filmed next to a picture of Wayne’s dead wife, Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), another woman who kept asking Wayne tough questions he didn’t want to answer. Key motifs this season: Interrogated Men, Interrogating Women.
Lately, though, I’ve been wondering if Pizzolatto has been up to something with Elisa. Her mission with the Purcell case is also our mission as viewers: sifting through a confusing array of near-facts and loose ends, struggling toward the truth without all the information we need. That’s also Wayne’s story arc, of course, but Elisa is arguably a better investigator than Wayne. Like, she never accidentally killed a major suspect after torturing that suspect in a farm.
And Elisa was at the center of my favorite scene from Sunday’s episode. Read Derek Lawrence’s full recap here, but I want to zero in on the headline moment from “The Final Country.” It’s the scene where we learned True Detective is not just an anthology of different American crime stories. There is a True Detective fictional universe!
“In 2012, two former Louisiana state police stopped a serial killer associated with some kind of pedophile ring,” Elisa tells Wayne. By way of explanation, she pulls up a PDF of a newspaper’s front page on her laptop. “Former State Police Officers Stop Alleged Serial Killer,” declares the headline of The Daily Advertiser. And there are pictures of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, the faces of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson staring outward at Wayne as if judging the truthiness of his detection.
Elisa has a (fan) theory. “I think what happened to the Purcell children was connected to a similar group,” she says. “These groups, they take runaways. Kids in orphanages. Outright kidnapping… In both the Louisiana and Nebraska cases, high-level politicians and businessmen were implicated,” Elisa concludes. “People with the power to make these things go away.”
What Elisa is suggesting isn’t just that season 1 and season 3 of True Detective take place in the same fictional world, the way some deeper readers noticed some references in season 2. She thinks that the central cases are directly related, revealing an underworld of rich, child-snatching sex freaks. Could it be that the Tuttles of season 1 go to the same hellish orgies as the Hoyts of season 3?
Top-level question here, to be possibly answered in the finale: Is Elisa right? Wayne looks suspicious of her analysis. “You saw nothing that suggested obfuscation from higher quarters?” she asks. He says no, and declares he’s done with the documentary. But he also seems to be lying — covering up, maybe, for the shadowy Hoyt patriarch who carries him away in the episode’s 1990 cliffhanger.
It’s possible that Elisa’s wild speculation is a meta-goof on the wild theorizing that defines True Detective fandom. It’s also possible that Elisa is onto something — and that next week’s finale will offer some sort of continuation of the saga begun in season 1. “Despite evidence of accomplices,” she says, “the case never went wider.” In 2012, Rust and Marty didn’t get all the bad guys. At the end of season 1, that seemed like a purposefully ambiguous ending. Was it actually an ending at all?
Now, I don’t think this season will end with Rust and Marty swinging by the Ozarks to swap tales of society-corrupting skullduggery. And my gut tells me that Elisa is wrong to connect the two cases. Some of the plot nudges in “The Final Country” suggest Hoyt melodrama that’s more Miss Havisham than Yellow King.
And if there is no connection between the cases, this whole sequence will feel goofy, a nonsense cameo from former stars too busy to participate. Much of Elisa’s role in the show is confusing, and it’s becoming less clear why Wayne is participating in this documentary. Also, Elisa apparently doesn’t recognize Roland West (Stephen Dorff) when he swings by Wayne’s house mid-filming. Isn’t she an expert on the case? (Maybe she’s confused by his old age makeup too.)
Then again! This season of True Detective has, I fear, lost the mad energy that has defined the anthology. Season 1 had hallucinations, and that long-take action scene. Season 2 was a frequent dumpster fire, but certain sequences (the saddest bar singer ever! the death march through the salt fats! the phrase “Panticapaeum Institute”!) achieved a goofy poetry. Whereas season 3 has been a long simmer, mournfully depressive, elegiac when it isn’t just boring.
Viewed from that perspective, this sudden explicit act of universe building (and the promise of a finale appearance by blockbuster weirdo Michael Rooker) could be the narrative Hail Mary sending this grimgray season into the stratosphere. Pizzolatto could be unleashing his version of the twist ending of Split, the epilogue that revealed you were watching a sequel all along. Or maybe he’s aiming to create his version of the Red Riding series, a vaguely linked series of stories building toward a grand finale.
Either way, the promise of connection across True Detective seasons gives the upcoming finale an extra tension. I have no predictions, only one profound hope: If Elisa sets Wayne down for one more interview, maybe she can suggest another connection, with another curious criminal case? “In Los Angeles,” she will say, “There once was a true detective named Ray Velcoro…”