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The Ultimate Connection Between ‘True Detective’ Seasons 1 and 3

In the end, the new season owed much to the original—but not in the way we thought

Images of Mahershala Ali at different ages in ‘True Detective’ HBO/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

There was no grand conspiracy—no sinister supernatural force, no elemental, unknowable evil. At the end of an eight-hour journey for the audience and a 35-year one for Detective Wayne “Purple” Hays, there was only a broken family, a long-lost partner, and his own fractured mind. Rather than uncovering the extensive pedophile ring or occult rituals dreamed up by True Criminal producers onscreen and Reddit forums off, Hays completed the much more personal mission of sifting through his past. It wasn’t what many True Detective viewers might have had in mind, and creator Nic Pizzolatto seemed to know it too. “We got an ending, I guess,” Wayne’s colleague and unlikely friend Roland West speculates. “Do you feel any kind of closure?” Subtext, meet text.

When the third volume of True Detective began this year, the natural impulse was to point out its similarities to the first. After an ill-fated sojourn to California more than three years ago, Pizzolatto had returned to his roots: the rural American South; a more streamlined focus on just two protagonists instead of four; even a multiple-timeline structure, complete with an interview as framing device. It wasn’t just the recurrence of creepy straw figurines that made some think the two seasons might be connected, with the same cabal of rich and powerful degenerates at their core. Spiritually, Season 3 read like an implicit apology for Season 2 and a return to the much more warmly received form of Season 1.

But with Sunday night’s finale, the Julie Purcell case revealed itself to be less a retread of True Detective’s debut than a slight overcorrection. Season 2’s notoriety had many ripple effects, including the delay of the next installment until HBO could be certain of its quality. An underrated one, however, may be obscuring that Season 1, too, had its flaws. After drawing audiences in with a densely woven web of Lovecraft references and beer-can philosophizing, the tale of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart failed to stick the landing, at least in a way that seemed consistent with why viewers were invested in the first place. The reduction of an almost mystical foe to a single creepy killer was not totally satisfying; the pivot to Rust’s conversion from nihilism felt like a hairpin turn. True Detective’s initial popularity was something for its successors to live up to. Its conclusion left room for improvement.

Season 3, by contrast, seemed designed to avoid a similar mismatch between outcome and expectations. By the penultimate episode, it was fairly clear to attentive viewers what had happened to Julie, the Arkansas child who’d been missing since her brother Will’s apparent murder in 1980. The Hoyt family, the Tysonlike proprietors of a chicken business dominating their small Ozarks town, had used their money and influence to kidnap Julie, pay off her mother, enlist a crooked cop as their accomplice, and silence potential investigations, including Wayne’s. The Hoyts’ reasons for doing so were unclear, but they appeared to involve Isabel, the grieving and potentially disturbed daughter of patriarch Edward. Even before the finale, it was clear that any revelations would have less to do with the what, how, or who of the central crime than the why. And because the Hoyts’ involvement was obvious, the subject of those revelations would just as likely be Wayne, whose dementia rendered his own history a mystery in and of itself.

To that end, “Now Am Found” opened with a telling anticlimax. Edward Hoyt, the previously faceless symbol of unchecked power, turns out to be a snarling, drunken mess. Even when he’s blackmailing Wayne into burying his case, Edward doesn’t come across as the puppet master we’d been led to envision—especially compared to his appearance in last week’s episode as a disembodied voice threatening the Hays family from behind tinted windows. He’s just a father who, in his own twisted way, tried to make his daughter happy and protect her from the consequences. We learn as much later in the episode, when former Hoyt consigliere Junius Watts—the milky-eyed “Mr. June” whom Wayne and Roland heard so much about—unloads everything in a thorough information dump, complete with flashbacks. In short: After losing her daughter, Isabel effectively sought a replacement, initially just playing with Julie, but then abducting her after Will’s accidental death. After years of drugged captivity, Julie escaped, eventually dying peacefully at a convent from complications related to HIV.

It’s an explanation notable for its lack of villains, or at least the primal, black-and-white kind evoked by a name like the Yellow King. Isabel took someone else’s daughter, but she was also grieving and not acting on her own; Edward aided her, but he was also acting out of misguided parental instinct. Such relativism could have come as a disappointment. Because Pizzolatto laid the groundwork, though, it plays more like a clever subversion, both of true crime as a genre and the True Detective franchise as audiences have come to understand it.

The case’s resolution, quick and matter-of-fact, also signals the finale’s priorities. Instead of dwelling on the horrors of child abuse, “Now Am Found” shifts its focus to Wayne and the two most important relationships in his life: his marriage to Amelia, a teacher turned author he first met while investigating Julie’s disappearance, and his lapsed friendship with Roland. “This marriage, our children: It’s all tied up in a dead boy and a missing girl,” Wayne observes to Amelia. In the moment, he’s expressing doubts about their relationship. But he’s also suggesting that, later in life, his fixation on Julie may be a way to process his past failings and regrets, because the Purcell case is inextricable from the life Wayne built in its aftermath. The mystery was never an end in and of itself, but an entry point into a character study of an aging man revisiting his legacy. True Detective was a buddy-slash-romantic comedy all along.

Not every issue with the True Detective ethos went addressed. Pizzolatto’s treatment of female characters remains lacking, a complaint no less valid for how stock it’s become; the season’s closest thing to a Big Bad is a madwoman straight out of a 19th-century stereotype, and Wayne’s connection with Amelia could have been more fully realized if she were made a protagonist in her own right. Nor was this new, feelings-forward version of the show without its own excesses. A scene where Roland encounters a stray dog in a parking lot in the precise moment he hits rock bottom borders on the saccharine, the connection between his penchant for broken things and his impulse to look after a declining Wayne too obvious to miss.

Yet, held up against the failings of Season 1, Season 3’s register as a conscious adjustment. This latest volume of True Detective didn’t match the popular phenomenon of the first, nor could it hope to. Taken as a whole, however, it just might be a more successful season of television, successfully crafting an ending in keeping with its themes of remorse and retrospection. The first half of the season was admittedly slow going, before the multiple timelines clarified into a coherent story and Wayne’s point of view was balanced by others. But True Detective is at its peak when it lives up to its name, centering the detective over the case. The show’s third season is the one that best internalized this—and made sure the audience did too.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.