By Darren Franich
February 25, 2019 at 08:22 AM EST
Credit: Warrick Page/HBO
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On the third season finale of True Detective, Michael Rooker played the long-awaited Hoyt, the single most True Detective-ish character ever. He talked about losing 5,000 men in Korea, and he talked about losing a wife and a daughter. He said so many things, and yet he had nothing to say. “I’m in the f—ing dark,” he explained. “Do I look like a man with f—ing answers?”

His entire time onscreen, he slurped joylessly from a bottle labeled BOURBON WHISKEY. This season, True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto had a narrative fascination with the choreography of alcohol, always paying special attention to the drinks his drunks drank. Roland (Stephen Dorff) ordered “Bud and a shot of Jack” before his barfight against the world. Wayne (Mahershala Ali) drowned his self-pity sorrows at the VFW, waiting for Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) to rescue him towards a swooning romantic proposal. “Guess I should sober up,” he said, an implicit promise of great personal improvement. A decade later, in that very same tavern, they were middle-aged marrieds having a bleak chat about their future. You could tell their talk was turning gloomy when Amelia said, “I’ll take that drink now.”

Sometimes booze is just punctuation, though, an effective way to make a half-hearted short story look real badass for your freshman writing seminar. That’s what Hoyt’s bottle of whiskey looked like: The brooding cherry on top of a nonsense sundae. Hoyt had little connection to the great mystery of this season. He really didn’t have any f—ing answers. Forget all that chatter about some great rich-person conspiracy. Last week’s universe-stitching connection to the Yellow King case was another red herring. Now we have final proof that documentarian Elisa (Sarah Gadon) was this season’s straw man, a pastiche investigator composing a goofy fan theory whilst sleeping with her primary subject’s son.

The Purcell children went missing because Hoyt’s daughter Isabel (Lauren Sweetser) went crazy, like we’re talking One Tree Hill crazy. She lost her family in a freak accident, and developed a fixation on young Julie Purcell (Lena McCarthy). The Hoyt family’s caretaker Junius (Steven Williams) arranged freaky forest momdates in Devil’s Den with Julie and her brother Will (Phoenix Elkin). Isabel wanted to adopt Julie, and Junius even arranged a financial transaction with Lucy Purcell (Mamie Gummer). But then, in a painfully silly slow-motion flashback, Isabel and Will played tug-of-war with Julie, and Will got his skull accidentally smashed.

Then Isabel raised Julie for a couple years in a subterranean pink room. The finale’s director, Daniel Sackheim, tried hard to put a florid touch on this loopy material. Junius grinned as he butler-ishly took care of Isabel and her “daughter.” The vibe was Fascist Disney Nuclear Bunker Tea party, with crushed lithium poured into Julie’s teacups. Everything about the Pink Room felt beamed in from a vastly crazier TV show, one where we didn’t spend eight long hours with grimfaced guys talking about What Happened In ’80 or What Happened In ’90.

Junius helped Julie escape. Then [deep breath] Julie lived on the streets for many years before finding shelter at a convent, where she worked to help other runaways like herself, before a boy who loved her in grade school happened to see her because his dad did the landscaping at the convent, and yadda yadda yadda she married him, and the nuns at the convent staged her death with a fake burial.

Some of this information was dramatized in the least imaginative way possible: A very long flashback-laden confession, Junius narrating over brief explanatory clips of important plot points like some bad guy from some Criminal Minds spin-off. And then the rest of the information was dramatized in the silliest way possible: Another appearance by Ghost Amelia, who our recapper Derek Lawrence accurately named this season’s Truest Detective.

See, at the convent, Old Wayne randomly ran into a landscaper with a cute blonde daughter. Then, that night, he flipped to a random page of Amelia’s book. Would you believe that, on that page, Amelia wrote about young Mike Ardoin, a sad little boy mourning his lost preteen love, who grew up to be that very same landscaper? And would you believe that Wayne’s subconscious is the specter of his dead wife whispering plot twists in his ear? “What if it was really one long story that just kept going and going?” Amelia told Wayne, right as the episode hit the one hour mark and just kept going and going.

Every turn of this plot was goofy, on par with that moment in episode 6 when Tom Purcell heard a couple loudmouthed policeman blabbing important top secret information through a half-open door. Wayne pursued Ghost Amelia’s advice to a lovely suburban street, where he saw a blonde woman playing with her daughter. And then the final contrivance: Sudden-onset memory loss at the most inappropriate moment. Thus did Old Wayne’s mental corrosion enter fullblown Memento plot territory.

Ali’s performance was quietly heartbreaking, a triumph against ludicrous plotting. Confused, he walked up to the woman he spent 35 years searching for — and asked for directions. She kindly offered him a glass of water. Did he recognize her, just for a second? Sadder, I think, to consider that he was standing at the center of his life’s maze, clueless about the final revelation standing in front of him.

Unfortunately, this season got lost in its own maze. It’s telling, I think, that Isabel was barely even a proper character. She was a face in flashbacks, a madwoman for men to describe. And here you have to acknowledge Pizzolatto’s ongoing unabashed fascination with masculinity: Sad fellas with brutal missions, protecting women or avenging them, forever walking into the dark forest to fight their personal demons. This season, men knew truths they could never tell the womenfolk. Wayne couldn’t tell Amelia about Hoyt or Harris (Scott Shepherd), because her knowing “wouldn’t do anything but cause harm.” That was the logic he passed onto Henry (Ray Fisher), insisting that his son never speak of his illicit affair with that demoness Elisa.

In fairness, Pizzolatto wanted season 3 to be a true romance between true detectives, with Amelia challenging Wayne and making some of his same mistakes. Ejogo never got main character material, though, and Amelia proved an empty challenge for Wayne. In the finale, we saw her dress him down in ’80: “You got a badge and a gun, a couple other things you learned from watching movies. But there’s nothing here.”

Tough words, with no backup. First, she drove to the VFW and apologized for being such a pill. “A few weeks ago, your friend was shot and you almost died,” she said, flirtatiously listing off his action-star resumé. Then, she accepted his sozzled marriage proposal, modeling an I can’t stay mad at you, Ralph! smile. Ten years later, a different serious conversation in the same VFW, she told her husband: “I don’t think you realize this, Wayne. You could have been good at just about anything.” If that’s what it sounds like when married people argue, then count me in, honey!

I think Pizzolatto wants to write a compelling female character into his True Detective mythos. So season 3 was at its most convincing as a buddy-cop romance, a tale of two coworkers and their lifelong odyssey toward friendship. What did they accomplish in 35 years of accumulated investigation? Fair to say that Roland and Wayne only made things worse? Whenever they declared someone a Suspect, that would indirectly cause some new act of terror: Explosive mass murder, a botched interrogation ending with a gunshot, the immediate collapse of Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy) after his long battle toward sobriety.

Women, it turns out, were the cause and solution to all this season’s problems. There was the mentally traumatized Isabel, who “killed” Julie by giving her a new name. (Isabel swallowed a bunch of suicide pills with her wedding dress on, going full Havisham offscreen). And then there was this season’s one confirmed conspiracy: The nuns, who also “killed” Julie, burying her second name to make way for a third. In the middle of all this was poor Julie. Notably, we barely saw any of these characters, and we experienced them mainly via secondhand dudes: Hoyt and Junius mourning lost Isabel, Junius and Tom pondering wherefore Julie, Wayne’s hallucination of Amelia conjuring up a circle of secretive nuns at an empty gravesite.

Ali and Dorff gave good performances, all the more impressive when Dorff was acting under a mountain of craggly old-age makeup. But you felt that Roland and Wayne were the least interesting parts of this story, a couple steady pals becoming better friends while fascinating grotesques like Isabel or Lucy disappeared (or never appeared to begin with). It still feels strange that we only found out about Tom’s homosexuality right before he died. And yet, we saw the complete Origin Story of Roland’s Friendship with Stray Dogs!

Pizzolatto is a remarkably sentimental TV writer when the time comes to wrap everything up, and this finale leaned hard toward happy endings. There was Wayne, working campus security sometime after ’90, smiling at his professor wife. There was Wayne’s daughter, looking rather OK after a season of haunting teases, ever-so-slightly reconnecting with her emotionally distant dad.

There was that tantalizing moment when Henry pocketed grown-up Julie’s address, a son catching his dad’s disease. But then Wayne saw a couple kids riding bicycles, an echo of the long-gone Purcell children. The camera zoomed into his eyeball, and I think it’s fair to say he died, or maybe he was claimed completely by the fog consuming his brain. Pizzolatto granted him a dreamy memory of that long-gone day in ’80 at the VFW, walking into the bright light with his wife. And then one final memory, long-range recon in the ‘Nam, walking into the darkness of the jungle.

I guess you could say: “He went to heaven and hell, ah, the duality of man!” I dunno. This felt to me like a cake had and eaten. In the great beyond, Wayne settles down with his soulmate in the domestic glow — and also keeps fighting his eternal lonely war, flashbacking to a personal Valhalla when he was badass enough to earn a nickname like Purple Haze.

Meanwhile, you had to grapple with the finale’s stupidest sequence. In ’80, Wayne left his pal Roland behind, walked up to his new desk job. It was bureaucratic work, documents intaken and output. The camera pulled back gracefully, revealing two rows of desks. Besides Wayne, everyone sitting at that desk was a woman. The feeling of horror was as palpable as anything in the Pink Room. “Twelve years on the job and I’m a f—ing secretary now!” Wayne complained to Amelia.

True Detective season 3 tried hard to challenge Wayne, but the show felt his desk job as a vivid punishment: Truly, a worse Hell than Long-Range Recon. The show couldn’t escape its own broseph sensibility, a sanctified (and sanctimonious) way of worshipping its tragically awesome heroes (Roland fought six or seven dudes in that barfight!) and the truth of their detection. In the season finale, Roland asked if he could move in with Wayne, and Wayne said yes. It was a sweet moment, with a rather eerie undercurrent. Amelia’s dead, Isabel’s dead, Julie’s “dead,” that nefarious seductress Elisa has taken her cameras home. True Detective ended with the men planning an eternal sleepover, finally having fun now that all the women were gone. C

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