True Detective 3 Explained: What’s Up With the Ending?

Arkansas police detective Wayne Hayes (Mahershala Ali) is a black Arkansas police detective serving with his white partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) in 1980. They are both veterans of the Vietnam War. Nothing particularly interesting happens in the service, so Wayne and Roland sip beer and shoot pistols at the rats in the garbage while on duty.

But suddenly the town in which they work explodes with the news that the Purcell family has lost two small children – a son and a daughter. At about four in the evening they left on bicycles to see a puppy from a friend and did not return by night, although they promised their father Tom (Scoot McNairy) to be there before dark.

Volunteer police organize search parties that comb the area, Detectives Wayne and Roland begin to investigate.

They do not yet know that this story will have an impact on their entire subsequent life, that in ten years the investigation, which in the eighties did not really lead to anything, will be resumed in connection with newly discovered circumstances, and that they will finally unravel this whole story only in far back in 2015, when a film will be made about this landmark crime and Hayes, who by that time will begin to suffer from memory lapses, will be interviewed about the investigation.


The first season of True Detective, written by Nick Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga, who directed all the episodes, was released in 2014 and made a splash. It would seem, what else can be squeezed out of such a banal plot as the work of two police partners? But in this series there was such an interesting combination of a detective story, visual component, music, shooting style and acting that everything together turned into something incredibly impressive and this work somewhat changed the concept of the series as such.

The second season was released in 2015. The script was still written by Nick Pizzolatto, and this season had multiple directors. This season it was about corruption and murders in a small industrial town of California, the detective line was very branched and not always intelligible, there were already three detectives, and in the picture a lot was built on the personality of near-criminal businessman Frank Semyon, who was completely out of his usual stereotype. Vince Vaughn, and played brilliantly.

The second season was not as successful as the first and received a lot of criticism, but I really liked it, and I don’t think it was much inferior to the first season – it’s just delivered in a completely different style.

And now – the third season, which had to wait four years. Like the previous two seasons, this is the brainchild of Nick Pizzolatto. Initially, according to the script, the main character – we are talking about police officer Wayne Hayes – was supposed to be white, however, when Nick and the producers met with actor Mahershala Ali, who was originally planned for a minor role, Ali convinced them that he could pull the main role in the third season.

The first two episodes were directed by Jeremy Saulnier, creator of the acclaimed thriller The Green Room with Anton Yelchin. According to the initial agreement with Pizzolatto, Saulnier was also supposed to stage the third episode, but after the filming of the second episode, the director withdrew: the lack of time was officially announced as the reason, but, according to rumors, Saulnier and Pizzolatto did not agree on the production.

The remaining six episodes were co-directed by Nick Pizzolatto (his first directing experience) and Daniel Sackheim, who has worked on a bunch of TV series including House, Game of Thrones, Better Call Saul, The Ozarks, and so on.

Stylistically, the third season is close to the first. The same two police partners, the same jumps in time. In the third season, the action moves more or less evenly in parallel through three time periods: 1980, when this story took place, 1990, when the investigation was reopened, and 2015, when Wayne was plagued by memory lapses, but he tried to complete the investigation and met with Roland after a twenty-five-year hiatus from the relationship.

Just like in the first season, the action here is very, very slow. Which gives reason to some viewers and critics to call the third season boring and uninteresting. But here the thing is – the series will either hook or not hook. It’s set like this: you either sink into it and can’t tear yourself away (I watched a series every day), or it doesn’t catch you, and then there’s no point in watching.

I was hooked, I looked with pleasure. Yes, slowly and leisurely, yes, the detective component here is more of a pro forma (what really happened is only fully told in the last episode, although you can more or less guess somewhere after the fifth episode), but it is very interesting to follow here how events develop, especially since they are presented to the viewer in the form of a kind of puzzle that exists in three time dimensions at once, and with each episode this puzzle manifests itself more and more clearly.

Mahershala Ali plays his character wonderfully, or rather, three different characters from each other: Wayne in the eighties, nineties and two thousand and fifteen. Here, of course, it is necessary to note the skill of the make-up artists who aged Wayne by thirty-five years, but the actor himself plays the old man with Alzheimer’s just brilliantly: a lost look, disorientation, very characteristic old man’s movements – it looks completely authentic.

Also in the other two periods, the image is built bright, solid and ambiguous. War trauma, certain uncompromising and selfishness, certain racial problems, difficulties in relationships with women and, in particular, difficulties in the family with his wife Amelia (Carmen Ejogo). Once again, I was amazed at how different characters this actor can play. Compare lobbyist Remy Danton in House of Cards, musician Don Shirley in Green Book, and Wayne in that series – fundamentally different types, completely different.

Stephen Dorff in the role of Roland West also really liked, although this is still a minor character. We know quite a bit about Roland and we can observe him practically only in conjunction with Wayne, but here, too, the image turned out to be bright and interesting. Moreover, we note that Roland in their pair, as a rule, still played second fiddle and acted more in the field of power decisions – even when he was already a lieutenant in the nineties and was Wayne’s direct superior. Dorff has played in almost a hundred films and TV shows, but I hardly remember him anywhere. And here it is immediately remembered: the character is curious and Dorff did not get lost in the shadow of Mahershala Ali at all, he played completely on an equal footing.

Scoot McNairy as this unfortunate hard worker Tom, who has lost two children, whose wife thinks only about where to drink and who to have sex with on the side, is excellent. McNairy is generally one of those actors who seem to play a seemingly small episodic role, but instantly sink into memory – I remember him well both for the role of Frankie the jerk from “Casino Heist”, and for the role of Don from the excellent film “Frank”, and for the role stump from Fargo 3. Here is his type – to play either stoners, or unfortunate hard workers, and he plays them very well.

Tom is sorry here – just to tears. Somehow, everything in his life was absurd. A good man, just tortured by everyday life and poverty. McNairy played him very well: he didn’t specifically press pity, but his character blew such hopelessness that there were no chances for an optimistic development of his story, despite the fact that Roland clearly sympathized with him and took a certain part in his fate.

Good third season, I liked it. I liked all three of them, each in its own way. But on the third season, the story of “True Detective”, apparently, is over. There, the third season was a big question after the relatively low rating of the second season. But I’m glad that the third season is still filmed. It is worth watching in my opinion.



True Detective 3 series meaning

Director: Nick Pizzolatto Cast: Stephen Dorff, Scoot McNairy, Carmen Ejogo, Mahershala Ali, Ray Fisher, Isaiah C. Morgan, Mami Gummer


Series, USA, 2018, 60 min. 3rd season, 8 episodes

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