What a strange career True Detective has had. Season one of the HBO cop drama swept like a blizzard through the early weeks of 2014, astonishing viewers and critics alike with movie-star performances (Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, both superb) and some of the best set design and cinematography ever seen on television. Season two of the anthology series aired a little over a year later and proved almost immediately divisive, splitting its audience between those who believed that writer and show-runner Nic Pizzolatto could rescue an inscrutable plot and terrible casting and those who had eyes in their heads. Though a full accounting of season two’s flaws is beyond the scope of this article, readers who desire a sense of them need only imagine Vince Vaughn saying the words “a good woman mitigates our baser tendencies” in a Very Serious Voice. I tuned in long enough to witness Vaughn and a paunchy Colin Farrell delivering some of the worst screen acting in the history of screens. Then, like a million other viewers, I changed the channel to literally anything else.
Given such a history, season three of the series — which concluded this past Sunday night around the time star Mahershala Ali was accepting his second Academy Award — simply had to succeed. And, for the most part, it did. Set in the Arkansan Ozarks during three separate time periods (many spoilers lie ahead), TD3 follows detective Wayne Hays (Ali) on his search for Will and Julie Purcell, a pair of preteen siblings who vanish while riding their bicycles on a November evening in 1980. Over the course of a 35-year, on-and-off-again investigation, Hays ages and leaves the force, marries and is bereaved, and watches his own children grow into adulthood. The story of the season is the story of the missing siblings, yes, but it is to an even greater extent the saga of Wayne Hays’s life in all of its complexity.
It is in its pursuit of the first of these two narratives that True Detective seems, at a glance, to be yet another vessel for stereotypically leftist anxieties regarding class and race. As was frequently the case in season one, season three takes for granted that viewers will be instinctively suspicious of white men, corporate types, and “God botherers” (to quote the inaugural season’s amusing crab-trapper Henry Olivier). Thus, scenes involving such figures often advance the plot by assuming the presence of a maliciousness that isn’t actually evident onscreen. Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon occurs in the recent season’s third episode, in which Hays and his partner visit Hoyt Foods, a thinly veiled stand-in for the multinational corporation Tyson. Though the manager with whom the detectives speak is helpful and forthcoming and not at all creepy, the encounter is clearly framed as a suspicious one, not least because the firm’s owner is revealed to be (boo!) on a safari. That the workers whom Hays observes from an office window are rural Caucasians presumably involved in the suffering of poultry only underlines the disreputability of the entire operation.
Yet despite the occasional cliché of this sort — and one wonders, frankly, if Pizzolatto is even aware of what he’s doing, steeped as he must be in Hollywood orthodoxies — True Detective is, at heart, one of the most deeply conservative television programs to air in recent years. This is true in part because all cop shows tend to be conservative, acknowledging, as they must, that evil exists and should be dealt with. True Detective, however, goes even further, arguing with an admirable moral clarity that good men, whatever their flaws, must be called upon to keep evil men at bay and that the wickedness of the human heart is ultimately ineradicable in this life. “We didn’t get ’em all,” Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle tells Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart in the final moments of season one. “Yeah, and we ain’t gonna get ’em all,” Hart responds. “That ain’t what kind of world it is.”
While season three of True Detective drinks from the same broad river, its own conservative vision is at once subtler and more specific. Because Pizzolatto’s examination of Wayne Hays’s life covers so many years (with viewers observing the detective in 1980, 1990, and 2015), his narrative is able to offer a fuller sense of what it means to live correctly, as well as how a single decision can be the point on which a whole life turns. As the season proceeds, the viewer slowly learns (and Hays gradually realizes) that the family behind Hoyt Foods is indeed responsible for the kidnapping of Julie Purcell and the murder of her brother, whose body has been found in an earlier episode. Yet Hays, in 1990, simply abandons the case on the very cusp of a solution. Why? Because Edward Hoyt has threatened his children, and the endless search for Julie has nearly ruined his marriage. Forced to decide between perfect justice and his responsibility to his family, Hays makes a choice that should remind viewers of — and that goes toward redeeming — an admission uttered by Harrelson’s Marty Hart in season one, long after that character’s infidelities have cost him his own wife and daughters: “The solution to my whole life was right under my nose: that woman, those kids. And I was watching everything else.”
Looked at with this interpretation in mind, even TD3’s controversial final image snaps into place. As the season comes to a close, the camera shows Detective Hays as a young soldier in Vietnam, stepping into an impenetrable jungle and disappearing from view. What’s important to recall is that the penultimate scene has been a flashback to Hays’s proposal to his eventual wife, Amelia. Understood as a metaphor, the subsequent jungle image suggests that Hays’s marriage has closed off one possibility even as it has opened another. Having accepted a higher calling, Hays can no longer be (forgive me) a “true” detective. Yet a late scene in which an elderly Hays watches his grandchildren at play suggests that the sacrifice has been well worth it.
And what of Julie Purcell, whose kidnapping sets in motion the season’s underlying criminal narrative? The brief look we get at her in 2015 makes clear that, despite everything, she has found a happiness of her own, having escaped her nightmarish past with the help of the Catholic Church — can this be happening on American television in 2019? — and the love of an honest man.
Given the state of the culture that produced True Detective, it’s difficult to think of a more hopeful ending than that.