They had it. It was all right there — the acting, the plot, the growing anticipation and the drama. It seemed that creator Nic Pizzolatto and the rest of the HBO crew had hit one out of the park.
As the season finale began, I sat on my couch ready for the twist of all twists. I was ready to gasp, maybe even shed a tear. But when everything was said and done, the ending of True Detective Season 3 left me with only one feeling:
Nothing was terribly shocking or surprising and after all of the buildup, the ending was an all time let down. Many had predicted the outcome after episode six when an exasperated Tom Purcell saw Julie in in the creepy pink room below the Hoyt mansion, right before Harrison James snuck up behind him.
It’s too bad too because the show had such high potential.
Even with a widely criticized season two, True Detective launched for a season three with big expectations as many expected the show to return to its former season 1 glory.
It got off to a hot start.
The plot seemed to work. Two children — Julie and Will Purcell — with sketchy parents went missing after going to play in a nearby park, leaving two likable Arkansas state detectives tasked with solving the case. It was simple, but left plenty of room for the show creators to go in a number of different directions.
There was also an extremely interesting time concept associated with the plot, where the show was happening in three different decades, allowing viewers to examine the case and the growth of the main characters from several different angles.
The acting was superb. Mahershala Ali, who has been an Oscar machine, gave HBO a big name to run with and he lived up to expectations.
There was real authenticity behind his performance of the older Wayne Hays and Ali really hit on all of the small, yet crucial tendencies of an elderly man from the way he walked to his blunt and often frustrating tone to even the way his eyes looked when his dementia was acting up.
Stephen Dorff, playing Roland, and Carmen Ejogo as Wayne’s wife, Amelia Reardon, turned in equally good performances.
Not that I have to much knowledge of what people are like in Arkansas, but Dorff seemed to fit the mold of an Arkansas State detective perfectly, while Ejogo had this warm, yet unexpectedly dark and mysterious persona that is probably the main reason many fans thought she might have been behind the kidnappings of the two Purcell children.
The season steamed along leaving the audience with question after question up to the point where I would have been annoyed had I not believed the finale would be off the charts.
The show was not exactly action packed, but had enough to keep you interested, particularly with the shootout scene at Brett Woodward’s house and some episode cliff hangers.
But in the end, the show refused to go far enough to really shock the audience.
After hearing Tom say Julie’s name in the pink room at the Hoyt mansion in episode six, while I wouldn’t say it was obvious, many surmised that Lucy Purcell (Mamie Gummer), the mother of Will and Julie, had played some part in helping the Hoyts take Julie.
This proved to be the main twist in the finale: After losing her husband and daughter in a car accident, Isabel Hoyt, the daughter of Edward Hoyt, spotted the Purcell children at a company picnic when they were brought there by Hoyt Foods employee Lucy Purcell (Mamie Gummer).
Working with her caretaker, Junius Watts, Isabel befriended the Purcell kids, began secretly meeting with the children and convinced Lucy to agree to give up Julie for money. One day when Isabel intended to bring Julie home with her, Will fought back and a scuffle would lead to his death when he fell backwards and hit his head.
Isabel proceeded to bring Julie back to the Hoyt mansion and drug her with Lithium for years, until one day Junius helped her escape. Julie would go on to get help at a convent and we assume live a happy life after we see her at the end of the show when Wayne stumbles upon her peaceful home.
This wasn’t exactly a bad ending, but won’t be memorable and fell short, considering all of the twists the show creators could have incorporated. Given the hype throughout the show, there are three reasons why I found this ending to be so disappointing:
1. There Was No Real Twist
The idea that Julie was sold or given under consent to the Hoyts is pretty well assumed at the end of episode six. One would think with the buildup in each episode, this is the type of show that would want the season to end with a bang at the very last moment, leaving viewers holding their breath as the credits rolled in the finale. But instead we pretty much know what happened going into the last episode and there is nothing that really changes this. It was nice to learn that Julie would go on to live a nice life and marry a boy she had known in elementary school, but that didn’t answer any of the questions brought up throughout the season and seemed as random as Wayne’s son cheating on his wife with the news anchor Elisa Montgomery. When it turns out the end is really about Wayne’s character and his loving relationship with Amelia, that is even more random. I’m all about character development, but I have to think that many are watching True Detective to see a murder solved and not learn that the story was really all about Wayne’s development as a character.
2. So Many Questions Unanswered
This was a huge issue in the finale that hurt the season as a whole. The plot throughout the season raised big questions that were never answered. For one, was there a conspiracy? At the end, one could say no, given that Julie seems happy. But there were so many references to a conspiracy throughout the show. Elisa said several times that the dolls found with the Purcells were somehow related to a pedophilia group. Then out of nowhere, you see an old clip of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey’s faces in a newspaper article reprising their roles from True Detective Season 1, leading you to think maybe Season 3 is related and has to do with the cult from the first season. It doesn’t stop there. Ed Hoyt tells Hays that if he keeps prying into this case, it would put Julie in trouble from all of the “other people” interested in keeping her quiet. What other people? Then Elisa during an interview with Wayne says that all of these people related to the case keep getting killed. Maybe all of these rumors were made up by nuns at the convent to pretend that Julie is dead so she can lead a normal life, but it is ridiculous to leave all of these clues if they are not actually part of the plot. The show creators should have at least answered whether these references to pedophilia and conspiracy had any merit or not.
3. Why Not Add More Twists?
The lack of plot twists at the end is so surprising because there was so much the show creators could have done. Here are some twists I would have added if it was up to me:
— I think it would have been cool if Julie was the nun in the convent talking to Wayne and Roland at the end. The nuns lied in order to protect her so it would have been a neat surprise to see her as one of the nuns, supporting the organization that ultimately saved her life.
— The “Amelia is a killer” theory is one that gained some serious traction, given her edgy personality. But Pizzolatto debunked that one while the season was going. “That kind of twist isn’t something I really considered good storytelling — that I was lying about how I was portraying a character,” he told Esquire. This doesn’t make any sense. If enough people thought that she could have been the killer, doesn’t that mean that you portrayed her that way, at least a little bit? And I also felt that mis-portrayals of characters and plot direction were incorporated throughout the show. As I mentioned above, how many times was the audience led to believe there was a conspiracy? So you can do that, but not consider the Amelia twist? Now I don’t think Amelia should have been the killer, but I think it would have been a great twist if she had helped coordinate Julie and Will’s kidnapping to save them from their terrible parents and then maybe something had gone wrong in the process leading to Will’s death — think “Gone Baby Gone.” Baked into this plot could have been Amelia’s desire throughout the show to become a great writer and the book about Will and Julie’s disappearance would have been her ticket.
— I was very surprised when I saw the photo of Harrelson and McConnaughey portraying their old characters Marty and Rust, but I liked it. And if you’re going to do that, might as well go all the way. I would have been all for if they connected Julie’s case to the cult and related it back to season 1. Heck, there’s your next season right there.
The Root of the Problem
The reason I think Pizzolatto and the show runners didn’t go far enough is because they were probably nervous. After season 2, HBO had a lot to recover from so they likely leaned conservative, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, Season 1 worked well so why fix what wasn’t broken. TV Insider does a nice job explaining how Season 3 essentially mimicked Season 1. The strategy did pay off, as many reviews gave the show an overall positive reception. However, it was this same mentality that prevented the show creators from delivering a truly exceptional ending.