True Detective Season 3: A Roundtable Discussion

Detectives Hays and West in True Detective Season 3

Behind the scenes of 25YL, many of our writers enjoyed discussing True Detective Season 3. Our Editor in Chief Andrew Grevas recently hosted a roundtable discussion where four members of the team shared their thoughts, theories and ideas on what was undoubtedly a tremendous season of television. Joining Andrew for this discussion were Content & Experience Managers Laura Stewart and Caemeron Crain, TV Editor Bryan O’Donnell and Staff Writer Brien Allen. As always, be sure to let us know your thoughts in the comments!

AG: Lets start with a big picture question. How did Season 3 of True Detective compare to Seasons 1 and 2 for you?

BOD: I thought Season 3 was on par with Season 1. The first season was creepier and weirder and had a more complex plot, but I connected with the characters more in Season 3. Wayne, Amelia, and Roland (especially Roland) were all really interesting characters, and the actors who portrayed them did an amazing job. If I had one complaint overall with the new season (and maybe this will be expanded upon in another question), it’s that there were a lot of red herrings that didn’t lead anywhere. I don’t mind unresolved mysteries in shows, but some of these red herrings just felt more like tricks. I hated Season 2, which was clearly rushed after the success of the first season—I almost didn’t even bother to finish watching the season. I’m happy that True Detective was able to rebound back to excellence.

LS: I agree, I think I might even prefer Season 3 to Season 1, but despite their similarities, they did turn out to be two very different beasts indeed. I know what you mean about the red herrings too, Bryan. I am glad that the inclusion of Rust and Marty turned out to be one, but many of the others, I feel like I put a lot of brain effort into them—which is my favourite thing to do when it comes to TV I must admit—but they put a lot of effort into them too, which feels like a bit of a waste? Unless over time when we really think about the series, there is more to the ending than what appears on the surface.

BA: Well, I’m one of those who didn’t watch Season 2, so I can’t answer for that. To me, Season 3 wouldn’t be possible without Season 1. There are so many parallels, no doubt purposefully. In fact, looking through the Wikipedia episode descriptions for Season 1 to refresh my memory, I wonder if there aren’t scene-for-scene reinterpretations between them.

I loved Season 1, but overall I liked Season 3 better. The detectives of Season 1 were just so flawed and the story was so bleak. This season, I found the flawed heroes’ ratio of “flaw” to “hero” to be a bit more balanced and relatable. I also like the overall message of the season, at least the one that was my takeaway. There was a lot more meat to the story this go around.

CC: I didn’t think that Season 2 was bad per se. It just felt really different from the first season. Although I don’t remember it all that well, and have little desire to watch it again, so I guess this isn’t a very strong defense. I just recall thinking that it was interesting how the connection was only at a thematic level, or even a conceptual one; pertaining to nihilism. Season 3 feels like Season 1 more aesthetically. But there is less nihilism. I may have a bleaker reading of this season than others, though, regardless.

AG: Bryan, what were a few of the red herrings that stuck out to you the most? Then to everyone else, did those red herrings mean anything to you or have any additional significance?

BOD: The scene with Wayne dropping off his daughter and just being vague about his daughter throughout, basically turned out to be nothing; the hinting that Tom was not Julie’s father; the first man they interview with only one eye; the hole in the bedroom closet (this was explained but for a while it made us think Dan was spying on Julie); the suspicious priest; Lucy’s friend, who makes wreathes out of tree branches, being so hesitant to give Amelia the picture of the people dressed up as ghosts. And as Laura brought up, the brief inclusion of the Rust and Marty case.

The now iconic True Detective Season 1 pairing

LS: There really was a lot and it makes me wonder if Nic Pizzolatto has something else up his sleeve for future series, to make them all tie in somehow. We didn’t really find out what was happening to ‘girls in that town’, those who had fled and ended up at the convent and obviously Hoyt wasn’t a good man, there was something else happening behind the scenes there, he wasn’t just protecting his own daughter.

CC: I still think there was a big issue with his daughter that we don’t know the details about. I think that Wayne doesn’t remember (at least until the very end of the season), and it may have to do with Amelia as well. I don’t think their relationship was ever OK. I realize that I am disagreeing with Nic Pizzolatto on this, but he doesn’t have any more right to interpret the show than we do, in my opinion. It seemed to me that all of the things we were shown pointed in the direction of Wayne’s family life being ruined by the Purcell case.

BOD: What do you guys think Wayne’s daughter was trying to tell him in the car in the final episode? After he had to be picked up at Julie’s house.

CC: I think that maybe she wanted to try to clear the air, but realized he didn’t remember.

It would be cool if, as Laura mentioned, further seasons work in the background to allow us to draw connections between all of the seasons. But I don’t like the idea of that being foregrounded at any point, personally.

LS: Well that article was very interesting! After reading that, I feel very much less like that would be the case. It appears that it is what it is. And Wayne did not die.

CC: Well, that’s just, like, his opinion, man.

LS: There are still many loose ends even after that and I actually don’t think that the case ruined Amelia and Wayne’s relationship. Yes it caused arguments, but it was also something they shared for many years. They were very similar, driven people which attracted them to each other in the first place.

A relationship that stood the test of time.

It did perhaps ruin Roland’s life though. He didn’t get any of the things Wayne did, no-one to spend his years with, no children. Just him and his dogs (and the saddest scene of the show). I am really pleased that Roland didn’t turn out to be a bad guy, and that he was an honest and forward thinking as he was. He was a truly great and patient friend to Wayne, and to Tom Purcell and that kind of character is not shown often in shows like this.

CC: Well, I expected loose ends. Previous seasons didn’t wrap everything up with a bow. The big mystery of Season 1 was left largely open. We only learned what they learned, and while the case was solved it edged up on what seemed like a sprawling evil.

The interesting thing to me is that Season 3 maybe inverts that a bit. What we don’t know has more to do with the personal lives of Wayne and Roland through the years. The unreliable narration is less about misrepresenting the past to others, and more about Wayne’s inability to remember himself.

But I think he remained obsessed with this thing and couldn’t let it go. Yet he wouldn’t read Amelia’s book, or really collaborate with her about it, instead hiding what he knew. So I imagine the fights continuing. I even jumped to the conclusion that they split up before she died. I’ll recognize that this was not warranted by what we saw, but I do not think that Pizzolatto has the right to answer these questions, and am kind of disappointed that he said these things. The text is the text. The work is the work. It is the communication; death of the author and all of that. So, when I say it is just his opinion, I do mean that.

And, yeah, Roland was great. I never worried that he might be bad, or corrupt; just more career-oriented than Wayne and willing to play the politics, which we did see some of. I seem to recall you asserting that he was gay in one of the pieces you wrote, Laura. Was that something we were told in some way I missed, or rational speculation?

The grief stricken Tom Purcell

LS: I think at that time I assumed his relationship with Tom Purcell had become friendly because of a shared interest/secret, but I was wrong about that, Roland was just the man who looked out for those who people were often prejudiced against.

CC: Ah. I mean, he could have been, I suppose, but I tend to agree with what you said there. He did seem kind of disgusted by Tom’s “pray the gay away” pamphlet thing, didn’t he?

AG: Earlier Brien mentioned liking what he felt the overall message of this season was. I wanted to ask him to expand on that and to get everyone else’s take on what the overall message could’ve been, as well as additional themes.

CC: I am curious about that, too. Not sure I took away a “message” per se.

BA: I guess it would be the importance of family. Time and again, Wayne turned away from the mystery, sacrificing his job for his family. You know, probably the biggest, I won’t call it a red herring, maybe call it a fake out, was that Wayne and Amelia ended up divorced. In that one scene at the college, we see that they work together and their daughter is now going there as well. The family is more together than it ever was.

One line that stands out in my mind is when Amelia tells Wayne he could be a great anything. I love that line for some reason, and how he used that to spring board into his next career. I imagine he was indeed an excellent campus security officer.

CC: This is going to be my most controversial take on the show, isn’t? I don’t disagree that it was emphasizing the importance of family, but I felt that it was telling me over and over again that Wayne was putting the pursuit of the mystery over that. It’s like I read everything Brien is saying in the opposite way. I guess maybe that college scene, but is there anything else I should go back to in terms of wondering if I’m wrong? Perhaps I jumped to conclusions, but it’s also tied up with how I am reading the ending of the season.

He may well have been an excellent campus security officer, but am I the only one who finds that sad? I mean, no disrespect to the job (on the contrary), but I find the job kind of sad.

BOD: After the scene with Hoyt, where Hoyt basically says he’ll come after Wayne’s family if he keeps looking for Julie, I’m not sure if it’s immediately after or not, but he meets Amelia and he says he’s quitting being a cop and asks her to not write another book about the case. At that moment he turns away from this case and focuses fully on his family. At least that’s how I take it.

BA: He obviously couldn’t let it go. Maybe he was supposed to find a balance, I dunno.

BOD: And then he gets back into the case well after Amelia is dead, when the interview is started.

BA: He doesn’t truly find peace until he has the answers that the one-eyed man gave them. His subconscious gets and confirms the further answer from Amelia.

CC: I agree that he stopped actively pursuing things. I just don’t think he ever let it go in his heart.

BA: One of the questions in my mind, and this may be a bit out of turn, is whether Wayne’s memory loss was natural, or self imposed?

CC: I presumed it was “natural” though I guess there might be question about your question, in terms of the difference. What would it mean for it to be self-imposed? Freudian-style repression? I always took it to be more along the lines of Alzheimer’s, anyway, personally. I don’t think he ever truly finds peace.

BA: I think it’s telling that it kicks in right when he finds Julie. There was another time when he was on the trail alone and it kicked in too, wasn’t there?

BOD: Like deep down he doesn’t want to find the truth maybe. It’s an interesting thought.

CC: Yeah, I could see that. I guess I have been thinking that he doesn’t want to remember some of this stuff with his daughter and so on. I guess I don’t know how that jibes with something like Alzheimer’s, though? I don’t think we actually understand what is going on there.

Wayne Hays, True Detective Season 3
Wayne, in 2015, attempting to piece together the details of the Purcell case.

BOD: In terms of Andrew’s question about overall themes, I found the scene in the finale when Amelia’s ghost says to Wayne that it’s “one long story that kept going and going until it healed itself” was really key and cool. Not only did the Purcell case keep coming up over and over throughout the different timelines, but I thought it also called out to the overall True Detective universe and the similarities to Season 1. I think that’s a major reason the case with Marty and Rust is brought up. Time is a flat circle, etc.

AG: One of the most interesting moments to me was the only scene where we met Hoyt. He had been positioned as the villain of the season but in that scene, came across as more of an emotional wreck than a villain. What did you make of that scene and him not being a true “Big Bad”?

CC: I don’t think those things are mutually exclusive. I think he was the “Big Bad” but also a human being you could relate to, and that made sense to me. There might be some truly evil people in the world, but most of us just muddle through. It can lead people to do some reprehensible shit, but they are just people. That’s the scary thing, actually. But what do you think Andrew? I know you’re moderating, but I want you to get down in the muck with us. You had some interesting thoughts over the course of the season.

BA: The thing with Hoyt was that they implied this bigger thing behind him. Both Dan and Harris seemed to be fearing some larger conspiracy. But it ends up just being a pathetic old man using his money to try to fix his broken family. I guess those are some more of those red herrings Bryan was on about.

CC: Was it, though? I certainly didn’t forgive him.

AG: I certainly didn’t forgive Hoyt either but rather found it to be an interesting and realistic spin on the “Big Bad.” Hoyt wasn’t evil personified or someone who got their rocks off by taking what he wanted. He was a man whose family had been rocked by death and mental illness and instead of trying to get true help for his daughter, checked out himself. A lot of people died because he didn’t get his daughter help and tried to cover up the death of a child. I found it to be an interesting commentary on America’s mental health crisis.

CC: Yeah, I thought this was an example of that good ol’ idea that people don’t do bad on purpose; it’s just that they get a wrong idea of what’s good. No one sets out to make the world a worse place to live in, and so on.

I’m not sure that this is right, actually, but Hoyt did seem to me to be a figure to think about along those lines. But that doesn’t make him forgivable, unless you’re willing to forgive everyone. In a certain way I think it makes it worse if we can understand why he did what he did.

He did try to help his daughter, but just in a terrible way, right? And so what you say about mental illness strikes me as very interesting. I don’t disagree. But we also kind of don’t tend to really grasp what’s going on there either, right? I just mean it’s not like we can “cure” things. We manage. They managed in an awful way, but I do think it raises this question, I guess. Of course we can think of better ways to deal with things, what they should have done, and so on, but it all falls a bit short, doesn’t it?

Same with that mental health crisis: we could do better, for sure, but do we really know what to do?

BA: Same with Woodard, who shot up all the cops. He was a ticking time bomb primed to go off, but was it his fault, the fault of the redneck posse, or Vietnam?

This kind of reflects in how the higher ups in the force kept wanting to “heal the community” and move on, rather than getting to the root of the mystery. Knowingly leaving the problem in place, assuming they didn’t really know Hoyt was behind it.

AG: I’ll go on record and say that scene with Woodard, where he essentially uses Wayne to commit suicide, was the scene that stuck with me the most this season. It was hard to watch, the ramifications for the story and Wayne were both huge and most importantly, there was a lot of truth to it. It’s never easy for any soldier to return home from war but Vietnam obviously had its differences. What scene stuck out to you guys as the one most likely to live on with you?

BOD: For me it was the scene where Tom broke into the Pink Room, saw Julie, and then Harris James snuck up behind him to end the episode. It was one of the creepier scenes of this season, and I loved it.

BA: A lot of scenes stand out thinking about it now, but the irony is I’m sure I will have forgotten them all in a few years. Season 1 is a complete blur now, though I remember it was one of the most amazing things I had ever seen on television. I think maybe the one moment that had the hairs standing up on my arm was the confrontation at the book reading. That just came out of the blue and was a real “oh wow” moment in the narrative.

CC: I agree with all of these, but if we’re talking scene that will stick with me, I’d have to second what Andrew said about the Woodard scene most of all. Perhaps in part because we got the lead up to it at the end of the previous episode, so it had a week to just sit there in my consciousness somewhere; knowing that this was not going to end well. I thought that was an interesting aspect of how they did it, too, almost like the scene happened once in my imagination and then again on the show, with the two versions not really being all that different.

AG: Wrapping things up here, wanted to ask everyone how they felt about this season as a whole. Did it do a good enough job to erase the bad memories Season 2 left? Was the character story vs mystery balance enough to leave you feeling satisfied? Do you want to see another season of True Detective and of you do, do you have any particular hopes or wishes for what it should be like?

LS: It definitely erased all bad memories of Season 2 for me. I think I may even prefer Season 3 to Season 1.

The characters were very strong, I admit in the initial moments of the ending of the show I felt a little disappointed, but that’s because I’d been playing detective all the way along, and this last episode just gave the answers all on a plate—with a few loose ends—so the ‘fun’ was taken out of it in that sense. However, I think it was the perfect ending. This was the story of Wayne Hays, how his life was moulded by a case that haunted him, but how he always chose love when it really mattered.

I do wonder what his son would do with the note with Julie’s address. I hoped the case would be left alone, her being discovered now wouldn’t be beneficial to anyone. Did Wayne intentionally do that? Maybe his son would also leave it alone if he found that Julie was happy and that truly be the end of the story.

I do hope there are more series’ as Nic Pizzolatto is a truly great storyteller and I’d look forward to what he might come up with next, would he add a totally different spin again? I would kind of like all the stories to be linked in a vague way. Seeing Rust & Marty this series was a moment I really enjoyed, though I’m glad it didn’t go further than that.

BOD: This season of True Detective was a lot of fun. I looked forward to it every week, and it was something you could talk about and analyze after every episode. I don’t think I’ve enjoyed a season of a show as much as this one, since Twin Peaks: The Return. I didn’t want it to end.

Speaking of ending, I know immediately after the finale aired we debated internally about what exactly happens at the end of the episode, and whether Wayne dies on the porch. Even despite the article Caemeron shared above, I’m still in the “Wayne dies at the end” camp. In a different interview, Nic Pizzolatto says that Wayne doesn’t die “in Vietnam.” Which makes sense to me. I think that everything we see actually happened. But I interpret the ending as Wayne dying on the porch (or shortly thereafter) and he flashes back to the moment in the bar. I think that scene really happened in Wayne and Amelia’s life, but he was reliving the moment, making the choice of whether to continue into the afterlife with his wife. He decides he wants her by his side, like he did when he decided he wanted to marry her. And then they walk into the bright white light together. That’s my interpretation, anyway.

In terms of a new season, yes I absolutely would welcome another one. As long as we don’t get a Season 2-like dud. As Laura said, I’d like to see it link to the other seasons in some fashion. But the show would have to make sure to come up with something different enough to not become stale.

CC: Yeah, I thought it was interesting how people were jumping to the idea that Wayne died. I didn’t see that at all. By which I mean, the possibility didn’t even occur to me. But, then, same goes with the endings of the The Sopranos and Mad Men (didn’t occur to me that people would think Tony died; didn’t occur to me that people would think Don wrote the Coke ad), so maybe this all says more about me than anything else.

That said, I don’t think he died. I think that in that moment when the camera zooms in on him, and we get this tense music, he remembers. I think he remembers everything, but most importantly he remembers how his obsession with how the case wrecked his family life, the death that came in its wake, and so on. Whatever happened with his daughter, that she wants to raise now, if only to clear the air, but he can’t recall what that was even about. Tom Purcell’s death. Other deaths. All in light of how Julie was basically fine.

Then we get this scene with him and Amelia; this moment when he was thinking to give up the case. But he didn’t. He couldn’t. His time as a tracker in Vietnam defined him too much. He couldn’t ever let this thing go.

But, yes, I was very satisfied with this season. I thought it was great. And I’d be happy to get more. I agree about the thought of links between the seasons. They need to be subtle, but I’d like that a lot.

BA: I was very satisfied with this season, another perfect season of television for True Detective. One of the things I loved about it was that it actually had a happy ending (no, that wasn’t Wayne’s dying vision, couldn’t have been). That’s so rare these days it seems, it was refreshing. Not only a happy ending for the detectives, but also for the victim in this case. Wow.

I do hope they do more seasons, for sure, but take another 2 years, 3 years, or whatever it takes to come back with another great one. While that was amazeballs when they made the link to Season 1, the reality is that they were playing off it the whole time, because the red herrings wouldn’t have worked as well if this had been Season 1. We were watching for sex trafficking conspiracies run by human monsters and they knew it.

What I’d like to see out of Season 4 is a complete left turn, like something set in NYC, or the old west even. That’s the great potential for these anthology shows. The general themes are well established; now it’s time to expand the boundaries of their universe.

Thanks for joining us for all of our True Detective Season 3 coverage and analysis! We hope you check out some of the many other shows and films we write about!

Written by Andrew Grevas

Andrew is the Founder / Editor in Chief of 25YL. He’s engaged with 2 sons, a staunch defender of the series finales for both Lost & The Sopranos and watched Twin Peaks at the age of 5 during its original run, which explains a lot about his personality.

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