True Detective's Season 3 finale was an oppressively strange episode of television, even by True Detective's standards. The entire hour and 20 minutes rode a tense, haunting score that had me holding my breath between every scene, waiting for some awful, final other shoe to drop. Even as Wayne's discoveries turned happy--or, at least, as happy as this show is capable of getting--the tone remained oddly ominous. And then, it was over--just like that, no final revelations or satisfying last note. True Detective Season 3 ended with a sigh, and it felt utterly flat.
The reasons for that aren't hard to discern. Series creator Nic Pizzolatto has been open about wanting to make Season 3 more straightforward; he said at a press conference before the season began airing that he wanted to have "no tricks up his sleeve."
"Because 2015 and 1990 are happening at the same time as 1980, you're sort of constantly being told what is going to happen," Pizzolatto said. "It's telling you everything that's going to happen before it happens. I wanted to be able to do that--to not play any cheap games with the viewer, to respect their attention and their time, but still reward them with revelation and reversal."
In this, he definitely succeeded. It just wasn't a great idea to begin with. The mystery genre is dependent on withholding information from the audience until it's time to make the big reveal, but True Detective Season 3 took a different tact. Instead of a shocking twist, Season 3's mystery--the missing kids--unfolded gradually throughout the entire season. There wasn't a final reveal, but a series of smaller, successive realizations that built throughout all eight episodes. As a result, the finale held no surprises for anyone who was paying attention. From the one-eyed man's magical exposition dump to the ultimate role Mike Ardoin played, every "reveal" in the final 80 minutes was clearly telegraphed and easily predicted. While that may have done the characters justice, it wasn't exactly an exciting high note on which to end.
The whole season felt deliberately written to throw off the armchair sleuths on Reddit who dissect every frame of each new episode. There were red herrings everywhere, giving rise to more outlandish new theories week after week: Was Amelia really the killer, getting close to Wayne and writing true crime books to hide in plain sight? Did the Hoyt family run a pedophilia ring to which Lucy Purcell was pimping out her kids? Were Tom and Roland secretly lovers? Had Roland actually betrayed Wayne years ago, and Wayne simply forgot because of his increasing dementia?
Turns out, nope. Amelia simply fell in love with Wayne, there was no pedophilia ring, Roland was always on Wayne's side, and Hoyt knew that Wayne had had something to do with Harris's disappearance because--unsurprisingly--security cameras caught the detectives tailing Hoyt's head of security. Like a deeply unsatisfying Occam's Razor, the answer to every question during True Detective Season 3 was simpler than fans guessed. And the whole season felt designed to guide us onto false trails.
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Compare this all to another HBO show with an unsatisfying recent arc: Westworld Season 2. The latest season of the sci-fi cowboy caper was unbelievably convoluted, with timelines, characters, and twist after twist all muddled together until viewers could hardly tell what was going on. It was the exact opposite of True Detective Season 3's problems, but it felt like it came from the same point of origin: a desire on the creators' parts to befuddle theorizing fans on the internet.
This, in turn, feels like an indictment of said fans--and nobody enjoys being admonished, especially by the creators of something we love. In True Detective Season 3, the documentary interviewer in the 2015 timeline can be read as a stand-in for us. And she's not meant to be a sympathetic character. She pries at every small crack in Wayne's story, poking and prodding in an attempt to learn truths that, at that point in the story, Wayne himself hadn't even discovered. Wayne grudgingly submits to this questioning, despite wanting to keep his secrets to himself, and he weathers the onslaught like a righteous rock facing an annoying tempest. To top it off, the interviewer is also probably sleeping with Wayne's married son, Henry--a pointless detail that just makes her that much more villainous.
True Detective Season 3 wasn't all bad by any stretch. Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff's portrayals of the two detectives throughout their lives were incredibly nuanced, and those impressive performances alone might warrant re-watching the show again in the future. But when the thing you're "reversing," as Pizzolatto put it, is fans' expectation that the show's central mysteries will conclude with a satisfying payoff, it's understandable that True Detective's Season 3 finale felt flat.