“Do you feel like any kinda closure? I don’t.” “Me neither.”
The first two seasons of True Detective play as dramas; no matter the multiple timelines of the first or multiple stories of the second, they both have rising arcs of tension leading to a climactic scene in the final episode. For all its exploration of the memory of Wayne Hays, the first seven episodes of this season have been dramatic too, so I was not expecting was the final episode’s hard slam into everyday life, the resolution of so many important questions into ordinary answers, the enigmas of seven hours simply abandoned. And, like Wayne with Amelia, I’m pretty sure I love this.
Right away, as we go inside the limo that closed out last week, we get a sign that this isn’t going to go into high drama. Michael Rooker can do the Big Boss look as well as anyone around (honestly, probably never better than in Kevin Smith’s Mallrats–I’ve been wondering all week if Wayne would pull a Stinky Palm) but here he’s exhausted, dissolute, broken. Rooker gives a strong undecidable performance: he may not have the answers, and he definitely doesn’t threaten Wayne, but instead asks “Mr. Hays, do you want me to feel threatened?” Rooker’s Hoyt just seems sick of it all (him standing near a cliff’s edge is this episode’s first suggestion of suicide) and Wayne, and we, end the scene with a lot less certainty than we had before.
Structurally, this is a weak hour of television, but there’s a way in which that works in its favor: it’s a shit-ton of exposition anchored by two great scenes between Wayne and Amelia. The exposition largely comes from Steven Williams, always underrated, always welcome (we called him the Bad Mulder in the early seasons of The X-Files) who simply fills in pretty much all the backstory about Julie Purcell, carrying almost no new information or character shading. (That Will Purcell died by accident and Julie arranged his hands in prayer is really the only revelation, and it’s not that important.) Williams’ Junius wanting to die or be arrested after telling his story is the only interesting moment, although Roland’s Jesse Pinkman-style then-do-it-yourself goodbye has some force to it.
A lot of time here is only about cleaning up loose ends that didn’t particularly need cleaning up. It’s fun watching 1990 Roland provoke a beating, it’s moving watching him crying afterwards, but it’s a little too far to see him make friends with his first dog. It’s cool, too, watching Wayne take his desk in the Public Information Office (“you hate the public!” sez Roland) like he’s going to work for the company in Joe Versus the Volcano. (It’s sobering-as-hell to think that he was stuck there for ten years.) The running time of this episode already clears an hour, though, and Ali is a good enough actor that he conveyed everything in the moment when he took this job rather than burn Amelia over the article she wrote.
The mundane nature of these scenes points to where the real emotional charge of this episode is, and how Pizzolatto honors the concept of this entire season with it. The real mystery of the season, the story where the most crucial beats have been withheld, isn’t anything about the Purcell kidnapping, but the love of Amelia and Wayne. Their first great scene gets intercut with Roland’s getting the shit kicked out of him (both Wayne and Roland have gone to bars, but only Wayne intends to get drunk), as Amelia and Wayne negotiate the terms of going forward, a scene that’s reminiscent of Diane Venora and Al Pacino in Heat, a couple coming to an understanding of who they really are and whether they can live with that. What’s different is that Amelia and Wayne decide they can live with it, just not with the Purcell case hanging over their lives; it plays into the opening of this episode, which flips last week’s opening–now we see Wayne at college as Head of Security. Also there is Amelia, reading Delmore Schwartz (the line “Time is the fire in which we burn” darn well had to show up this season) and the two of them look happy, the farthest in the narrative we have a living Amelia. (The thing Wayne will not remember, and we will not see, is her death.)
No episode this season has done more shifting between different time frames; Daniel Sackheim makes the switches happen with edits, with mirrors, and with pans, suggesting that this is the most destabilized Wayne’s mind has ever been. He also shoots a lot of moments through blurred foregrounds–rain or an out-of-focus character–further suggesting Wayne’s deterioration. When Amelia’s ghost pays Wayne one last visit, it could be a new and final truth about Julie, or it could be the delusion of a man who wants one solid answer to hold. “Wouldn’t that be a story worth telling? Wouldn’t that be a story worth hearing?” sez Amelia; she doesn’t say if it’s true. Pizzolatto makes exactly the right move with this question: he never answers it. (This would have felt like a total cheat in the first two seasons.) Wayne investigates it but he forgets why when he gets there; he meets the woman who may be Julie and her daughter but without comprehending anything, a moment that in a less obvious way has all the grace of Rust Cohle’s “you ask me, the light’s winning” at the end of season one.
Season one was about friendship, the bond between Rust and Marty; season two was trickier, but it really was about love, whether it was realized (Jordan and Frank, Ani and Ray) or choked off (Paul); this season is about family, the thing that endures across decades, even when memory fails. Wayne’s children come to pick him up; he comes home and his grandchildren are there; and Roland joins them too. (Wayne’s son Henry putting away maybe-Julie’s address rather than destroying it is a neat touch. It’s just open-ended enough, and a reminder of who he’s sleeping with, and that he is a detective’s son.) When Wayne gasps and we zoom in on his eyeball, he may be dying, and if he is, he’ll die surrounded by the people who love him, and who leaves the world on better terms than that?
At the end of the zoom is the final scene, Wayne’s most cherished memory if we follow the logic of the season. The acting in every season of True Detective has been outstanding, but this is the episode where Carmen Ejogo absolutely crushes it. In their previous scene together, Wayne threw Amelia out of his house and his life, and she was not just fierce but unbreakable, burning Wayne with how clearly she sees him and his weakness. Ejogo does all of this without coming across as anything less than a real person, and a loving person; it’s just, as she tells Wayne now, that she doesn’t permit anyone to talk to her the way he just did. (One theme that runs all through this season: can two people who see each other as clearly as Amelia and Wayne do make a love work?) Now she’s at his side, and just like the earlier-in-the-episode-later-in-narrative scene, it’s the two of them in a bar finding a way to go forward. When Wayne sez “I think I want to marry you,” it’s beautiful and exactly in character, the words of a man who desires so strongly but is never quite sure of how to make those desires live in this world. (Dig another way we’re living in Wayne’s memory: the piano seamlessly shifts from Debussy to “St. James Infirmary.” One last round of applause for T Bone Burnett.) Amelia and Wayne walk out the door, a pretty good writer and a pretty good detective who raised a pretty good family and had a pretty good life, and that’s what it looks like when the light wins. We complete the shift from maybe Wayne’s last moment through his best memory to his true origin, the jungles of Vietnam, and he disappears into them, a strange and haunting end to True Detective‘s strangest, most haunting, and possibly best season.