[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for the season finale of “True Detective” Season 3, Episode 8, “Now Am Found.”]
Whether it comes from a ghost or a man who would rather be one, the big talkers in “True Detective” sure love their exposition. And that’s OK, since just as much meaning could be gleaned when no one said a word. It just depends what you’re looking for in Nic Pizzolatto’s Season 3 finale. For the at-home detectives, two big speeches provide as much clarity to the case as you could desire, while the silent moments are reserved for those more invested in characters than plot. “Now Am Found” is stubbornly determined to satisfy each kind of viewer, and while the last stretch of road is a little long, the engine a tad clunky, there’s a charming ease to the drive that proves comforting.
Episode 8 takes its time covering the most pertinent hanging questions and still leaves a few unanswered, in case further exploration is warranted. Of course, no one would be talking about continuing this season if the previous episode hadn’t tied Season 1 detectives Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) to the new case. Did they come up again in the finale? Nope, and their total lack of involvement was as smart a choice for Season 3 as hinting that they could be connected was a bad one. The Fontenot case and its pedophile ring proved to be a giant red herring, as the Purcell case turned out to be the fault of one damaged woman who was given the wrong meds.
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After tracking down the one-eyed man, Junius Watts (Steven Williams), the guilty man unpacks his conscious to the gun-toting old cops, Wayne (Mahershala Ali) and Roland (Stephen Dorff). He tells them about Ellen Hoyt (unseen) and Edward Hoyt (Michael Rooker), his longterm employers. He tells them about their child, Isabelle, who grew up to a tragic fate when her husband and daughter died in a car accident. He tells them how she became sick with depression and turned to lithium as medication. He tells them that the only thing to bring her out of her funk was the sight of little Julie Purcell, who reminded Isabelle of her daughter so much that she started paying Julie’s mom, Lucy (Mamie Gummer), to let the two spend time together.
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Junius then tells them how Isabelle’s obsession went too far, and she tried to steal Julie (who Isabelle kept calling Mary, after her deceased daughter). When Julie’s brother tried to intervene, she shoved him, smashing his head on a rock and killing him. Junius explains how he got Harris James (Scott Shepherd) to help cover up the boy’s death, and then paid off Lucy to let Isabelle keep Julie. As Wayne and Roland could’ve guessed, Junius tells them how that situation ended badly, with Isabelle giving Julie lithium cocktails, Junius trying to help the little girl escape, and then Isabelle killing herself when Julie ran away. Finally, Junius tells them how he found Julie years later at a nun’s convent, but she had already died from HIV by the time he got there.
That is a lot of exposition, but it sure seems to tie up the case… until the second explanation arrives in the form of Amelia’s ghost. She comes to Old Wayne after he puts the investigation to bed, speaking to him after he reads a chapter of her book (which just so happens to fall off the table and land on the critical, mind-opening page). Now it’s Amelia’s turn to tell Wayne, “What if the ending isn’t really the ending after all?” She goes on to tell him about Mike Ardoin, the little boy who was brokenhearted over Julie’s disappearance in 1980, and whose father worked in landscaping near the very nun’s convent where Julia died in 1995. She tells Wayne (or, more accurately, reminds him) about Mike growing up to work there, too, and how when their paths crossed the other day, Mike had a little girl of his own named Lucy — the same as Julie’s mother.
Amelia then tells Wayne a not-so-crazy theory about the nun’s making up Julie’s death in order to protect her from the bad people coming to find her. She tells him that the story just kept going until “it healed itself — wouldn’t that be a story worth telling? Wouldn’t that be a story worth hearing?”
Wayne sure thinks so, as he makes the drive out to Mike’s house to see Julie all grown up for himself, but he forgets where he is and what he’s doing before he can say a word to her. And it’s here, when everyone stops talking, that “True Detective” finds a quiet moment to excel. Mahershala Ali won an Oscar while the finale was airing, but his work here puts “Green Book” to shame (and it could apparently use a little more shaming). The subtle look he gives a grown-up Julie Purcell, standing in a garden with her daughter, Lucy, is impossible to read. Is it a flash of recognition? Is it a flash of an unplaced memory? Is it merely a man straining to figure out where he is, or is it Wayne deciding in that moment whether or not to ask her if she’s the little girl he’s spent the last 35 years searching for?
Viewers have to decide for themselves, but Wayne does not. He’s the perfect detective to solve this case, this way, because if he chooses to do nothing or merely does nothing because of his disease, Julie is the same. She doesn’t need help, he just needs closure. Plus, Wayne’s arc is mainly fulfilled elsewhere, as he gets answers from his daughter (who assures him he didn’t “lose” her) and remembers why he chose a life with his wife and kids over one closing cases.
As he sits on his porch with his family and friend (Roland shows up, dog in tow), director Daniel Sackheim zooms in on Wayne’s eye, as if to reveal a deep, dark secret; a final twist to end all twists. In a season built on smart, subtle transitions, this is one of the story’s most dramatic shots, but it’s not there to serve the case. It’s there to serve Wayne. In that moment, when he remembers proposing to Amelia and why, Wayne regains his sense of self. He knows who he is, which has really been the quest all along.
The twist already happened — Julie’s alive, happy, and Wayne may or may not know as much — but that theatrical shot builds up to a scene offering true closure. After the long winding road to get here, to this ending, what matters most to Pizzolatto is Wayne. It’s a relief, but should come as no surprise to veteran viewers: The writer is most successful when he leans into his higher interests (characters), and he gets in trouble when he tries to tie too many strings together. Even though no one from Season 1 showed up, the ending to Season 3 still mimicked its ending by placing the emphasis on the detectives. Sure, it was a bit more balanced this time, but Pizzolatto didn’t even try to follow-up on the un-investigated pedophile ring he teased last episode. Maybe that’s what Season 4 will do, but for now, it’s over. Another happy ending in the books. Another story where the light is winning. And that feels good.
“True Detective” Season 3 is now streaming on HBO Now.
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Case Notes, Episode 8:
- Knowing Roland’s sexuality isn’t vital to the story, but it’s an odd aspect of the character to keep ambiguous. He had an unusually close relationship with Tom, and the way he said, “What about us?” when Wayne told him he was transferring implied more feelings than a typical partnership. Plus, there was the emphasis on his lack of a family and zero explanation for what happened between his live-in, church-going girlfriend. Was Roland gay, and the show just never clarified as much?
- Also, what’s Henry going to do with that address? Is he going to give it to his “True Criminals” reporter friend? Is he going to go out there himself? This is another odd question to leave up in the air, but there it is — go nuts, theorists.
- I can’t explain it, but I absolutely adored every one of the timeline transitions where an older version of Wayne looks at his younger self, and then the younger self looks back at where Old Wayne was sitting. On the one hand, it’s a fairly on-the-nose way to show what Wayne is thinking about. But the mysterious acknowledgement from the younger self — the one that exists purely in memory — is just mysterious enough to elevate the device. Time really is a flat circle, and all the versions of Wayne can almost see each other as they pass by.
- I mean, we got an origin story for why Roland loves dogs, but we didn’t get one for why he’s never been married?
- Prediction: There will be just as many complaints about Season 3’s heretofore unmentioned Ellen Hoyt, who turns out to be the killer and kidnapper despite never being named during the first seven episodes, as there were issues taken with how Rust and Marty pinned down the “green eared spaghetti monster” in Season 1.
- Also: So, Amelia was the truest detective — her ghost cracked the case, in the end — but we never found out how she died?