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True Detective promises heavy lifting but shrugs off its weightiest issues

Mahershala Ali
Screenshot: True Detective/HBO
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“The Final Country” feels like it’s breaking new ground showing teenage Becca Hays (Deborah Ayorinde) as Wayne drives her to college, his truck loaded down with furniture and boxes. The absence of adult Becca looms over the third season, starting well before Wayne lost her at Walmart. It’s one more thread tying Wayne to Tom Purcell, whose daughter disappeared at 8 years old and repudiated him by phone a decade later. Strategically reserved until late in the season, grown(ish) Becca’s appearance feels significant. Maybe for a future viewer who can down the season in one long gulp, it will be significant.

Deborah Ayorinde, Mahershala Ali
Screenshot: True Detective/HBO
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When Wayne gets sentimental (and scared), Becca tells her father to stop worrying and start unpacking. “You’ll feel better once you’re lifting something heavy,” she says, knowing him well enough to cut to the truth. Then Becca disappears again (until next week’s finale, presumably). Through no fault of the actor, this isn’t a character; this is a prop to hang Wayne Hays’ feelings on, and his fear. Always his fear.

Mahershala Ali has done a staggering job playing a man embroiled in a mystery that’s half conspiracy and half missing memories, a man pulled from one decade to another with no warning. Whether speaking or silent, Hays’ expressions are layered and complex, even when so much of what he expresses is carefully contained fear: fear of intruders, fear for his life, fear for his family, fear for lost daughters—his and Tom’s.

Most of all, throughout the season, he’s fearful for his mind and his memory. He’s afraid he won’t remember enough to solve the mystery; he’s afraid the mystery is something better forgotten. He’s afraid of the spreading blankness that is his memory, and afraid of the answers beyond that blankness.

This fear—mortal terror and beyond—is best conveyed late in “The Final Country,” after Hays and West creep up on the sedan staking out the retired detective’s home. After a feigned failed confrontation with the driver (actually a successful ploy to get the car’s plate number), Wayne turns to find his partner gone, along with everything else. He’s not alone on his street; he’s alone in a vast, devastating nothingness that spreads out to every side.

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Mahershala Ali
Screenshot: True Detective/HBO

Seeing a flicker of light on the edge of that nothingness, Wayne Hays strikes out for it and walks into 1990, watching from a distance as his younger self burns the suit bloodied in the death of Harris James. And as 2015 Wayne gazes at the scene, the Wayne of 1990 looks uneasily around, feeling someone watching. It’s a loop. For Wayne Hays, time isn’t a flat circle. It’s a labyrinth, and there’s a monster inside it.

With just one episode left, the nature of the monster is getting clearer, but even here, writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto is pulling some punches.

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There’s a certain exhilaration, and a certain terror, in watching West and Hays turn the tables with their targeted traffic stop. There’s some grim satisfaction in seeing a well-to-do white man, as secure in his position as he is in his skin, being played by a couple of cops just looking for an excuse. Refusing to comply, reaching for a weapon: These are the offenses West and Hays manufacture to justify what they planned to do all along. The metaphor is clinched by Harris’ words as he kneels, cuffed to a post in the lonely old barn where they’re trying to beat the truth out of him. “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,” he coughs, pleading to be released from his cuffs and allowed up.

Scott Shepherd, Stephen Dorff, Mahershala Ali
Screenshot: True Detective/HBO
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But in the end, this scene chickens out. Harris James, bloody and wheezing, isn’t succumbing to the vicious beating. He’s not begging for his life, not really. Wily to the end, James talks his way out of his cuffs and attacks Hays, forcing West to shoot. And shoot. And shoot.

It’s a small plot point but a big loophole. These men, you can almost hear the writer say, didn’t set out to kill Harris James. They wanted to question him. They wanted to “ask hard, like we used to.” But his death is his own doing, a choice they were forced to make, not a natural consequence of their violence.

That isn’t ambiguity. It isn’t poetic. It’s narrative cowardice.

Amelia Hays can face the depth of her husband’s guilt, even if the writer who created them can’t quite. Waking in the dark to find Wayne stripped to his boxers, burning the rest of his clothing in a barrel, Amelia is able to take in the scene and its terrible implications and say simply, “In the morning, we have to talk. Will you talk to me in the morning?” And when a mysterious phone call interrupts that talk, she understands Wayne, and his fear, well enough to let him walk out one last time.

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Carmen Ejogo, Mahershala Ali
Screenshot: True Detective/HBO

As Wayne asks Amelia for that permission, knowing that walking out will kill his marriage but staying will do worse damage, Mahershala Ali shows yet another form of the submerged fear that characterizes Wayne Hays. He’s quiet, calm, and firm, but even as he’s asking, his fear sits in his eyes: fear that she won’t trust him one last time, or maybe that she can’t.

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She does. She has to, if only narratively, because a woman who’s awakened in the middle of the night to find her husband burning evidence knows how dire his situation must be, even if she doesn’t know why. And she knows the rest of their lives hinge on that phone call.

Amelia, who wrote her first book about the Purcell children, believes herself the keeper of their story. It takes Margaret (Emily Wilson), Lucy Purcell’s best friend (and another True Detective character so insubstantial, she barely exists), to point out that she’s not. Everyone has a story, and everyone believes themselves the best steward of their story. “Somebody’s got to stay,” Margaret tells Amelia, explaining why she stayed in the neighborhood when even Tom moved out. “Somebody’s got to remember.” The two women wrestle over that Halloween snapshot of the Purcell children (and two adult ghosts shadowing them) with telling determination.

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Halloween snapshot of the Purcell children, shadowed by ghosts
Screenshot: True Detective/HBO

Elisa, with her many interview subjects and sheaves of research, thinks she’s the one telling this story. She never even noticed that Wayne Hays has been playing the long game, stringing her along with half-told stories while he quietly, patiently pumps her for information. The instant she spills her suspicion—that the disappearances lead to a human trafficking ring catering to pedophiles, complete with a link back to the first season—he’s done.
The instant she spills the info he’s been waiting for (her conclusion that the disappearances lead back to a human trafficking ring, complete with a tie back to season one), he’s done. “I’m tired of walking through the graveyard,” Wayne says. “The story’s over for me.”

Wayne Hays’ story isn’t over. That’s next week, and I expect the finale to do a lot of heavy lifting that earlier episodes shrugged off. I hope so; we’ll all feel better once we’re lifting something heavy. This week, it was more of the same: a beautifully shot, beautifully performed miasma of uncertainty—not the heady, complex ambiguity of the imponderable, but the lax indecision of a writer who doesn’t know quite what he wants to say.

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Stray observations

  • “You feel like you let Tom down. This is how you make it right, Roland,” Wayne tells his partner… the same partner who told him, “This is our job. It ain’t here to make you right.”
  • Elisa’s theory notwithstanding, it seems obvious that Julie was taken for “Miss Isabel” Hoyt, who lost husband and daughter in a car accident three years before Julie’s disappearance.
  • A sad but not remotely surprising end for poor Tom Purcell, who worked so hard to pull himself “out of that hole.
  • “You manipulative, egotistical, uppity fuckin’…” Roland doesn’t have to finish that sentence, because they both know where it was going, and because “uppity” said it for him.
  • For those who didn’t recognize the voice on the phone, that’s Michael Rooker as Edmund Hoyt.
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About the author

Emily L. Stephens

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Emily L. Stephens writes about film, television, entertaining, gender, and cake. A lot about cake, really.