Entertainment

What the Twist-Filled Final Moments of 'True Detective' Season 3 Actually Mean

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'True Detective' | Warrick Page/HBO
'True Detective' | Warrick Page/HBO

This story contains spoilers for True Detective Season 3including a discussion of the finale.

Just when you think the finale of True Detective Season 3 has landed on a surprisingly serene ending, the score keeps a throbbing undercurrent of dread alive. In the end, there's no grand conspiracy. Documentarian Elisa Montgomery's theories are wrong. Instead, we're left with a tragic story of mental illness and accidents, covered by a thin layer of optimism that seems to prove not everything is as bad as this TV series might seem to insist.

Then there's that final shot: an intentionally perplexing image of a young Wayne Hays in the jungle that feels designed to ignite theories, but should maybe be taken at face value. Perhaps it's a portal to rethink the entire season? Or perhaps it's just a sad reminder of how people carry their personal versions of hell with them. However you interpreted it, the finale of True Detective's third season offered a lot of new information to chew on as the Purcell case finally drew to a close.

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HBO

The episode -- titled "Now Am Found" after a line from "Amazing Grace" -- offers a satisfying, if disturbingly sad, explanation for what happened to the Purcell children. In 2015, a reunited Wayne and Roland track down the one-eyed man known as Watts, a.k.a. Mr. June, ultimately Junius Watts, a person of interest in the original investigation. He was the one watching Wayne from a car outside his home, but his intentions weren't nefarious. He says he was building up the courage to confess; ultimately, Wayne finds him first.

Junius lays everything bare. The perpetrator was not Edward Hoyt, but his daughter, Isabel, who was grieving and falling into the depths of mental illness (and the lithium prescribed for it) after the death of her child and husband. One day, she spotted Julie and became obsessed with the girl as a stand-in for her own deceased daughter, Mary. Junius helped orchestrate a meet up through Lucy, who was working at Hoyt's factory. Lucy agrees, on two conditions: She wants money, and Julie's brother Will has to go along with them.

That's how the Purcells and Isabel wound up playing in the woods at Devil's Den. But Isabel grew more possessive, wishing to adopt Julie, and Junius says he didn't realize she had gone off her meds until the day it was too late. In a tussle over Julie, Isabel pushed Will and he fell backward, hitting his head on a rock. Junius helped hide the body, while Harris James -- the Hoyts' head of security and the former police officer who planted evidence at the Woodard scene -- paid Lucy to keep quiet, and Isabel absconded with Julie, installing her in a pink room in her mansion and calling her Mary.

Junius thought Julie was happy until he discovered that Isabel had been drugging her for nearly 10 years, obscuring her own memories of her childhood. Distraught, Junius helped Julie escape, but loses track of her. He eventually finds out that she sought therapy and employment in a shelter run by nuns, one of whom tells Wayne and Roland Julie died in 1995, having contracted HIV at some point during her life on the run.

That's seemingly the end of the story -- devastating, but not as evil as the show had been teasing. What we were watching wasn't merely a mystery about a child's disappearance; it was a story of trauma spiraling, consuming unsuspecting people in its path, leading one woman to commit murder and kidnapping.

With the case seemingly closed, Wayne packs up his wife Amelia's research, reluctant to throw it out, but largely at peace. Then Amelia's book falls open, and he reads a page about a little boy named Mike Ardoin, the one who first recognized the straw doll. Mike was infatuated with Julie, and was one of the schoolchildren most upset over her disappearance. Suddenly, something breaks open in Wayne's mind. He remembers a landscaper named Mike he and Roland met at the convent. He had a little girl named Lucy with him, whose appearance suspiciously recalled that of Julie Purcell. Wayne's mind reels, and a young Amelia emerges weaving a yarn, a peaceful ending to the story that posits that Julie did survive. "What if Julie did find a life at that convent?" the spirit version of Amelia wonders. It's all in the conditional, but it adds up.

You'll recall that in episode six, Amelia visited the same place and speaks to a girl with a birthmark on her face, who explains Julie went by the name Mary July before leaving the convent for good. The nun who tells Wayne and Roland of Julie's death has that same mark. If Julie died at the convent in 1995, then it's likely the girl was lying to Amelia in 1990. That's the conclusion Wayne and True Detective come to: Everyone at the convent decided to lie in order to protect Julie, who's alive and well.

When Amelia's at the convent in 1990, the camera lingers on a man outside. It was a shot that caught my attention for how out of place it seemed. Now we know who that man is: Mike Ardoin, who found Julie, helped her rebuild, and worked to conceal her identity before marrying her and having a child with her. Amelia probably recognized the last name on his truck. 

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HBO

Maybe Amelia came to this conclusion and just never shared it with Wayne, but as he pieces it together, Wayne decides to track Mike down at his home. When he gets there, a woman, presumably Julie, is gardening in the yard with her daughter. Wayne's memory has faltered, though, and he can't remember why he's there, so he calls his son to come and take him home. Julie's true fate remains unrevealed to him.

The ensuing scene at his house is peaceful. His children -- even his daughter, who we thought was estranged from him -- surround him, and his grandchildren play. Roland's there too, their partnership finally blossoming into a friendship. But the scene triggers two final memories. The first is from 1980, when he drunkenly decides to propose to Amelia. Their lives are still wrapped up in the Purcell case -- he's been demoted because of her work -- yet he decides that he still wants to be with her. But that bleeds into one final image: Wayne, in the jungle of Vietnam, tracking.

One theory by Vanity Fair writer Joanna Robinson posits that those final moments could imply that Wayne was dead all along. She makes a convincing case. Still, you'll recall that at the beginning of the season, creator Nic Pizzolatto said in an interview that we should take scenes at face value. (He also confirmed on Instagram that there were deleted scenes of Amelia's death, a peaceful one in 2013.) What seems similarly plausible is that we're watching Wayne's memories slip away. He'll always be hunting. What for? Even he doesn't know.

This season of True Detective has always seemed in conversation with the first. It returned to the old formula of two partners fixated on a grisly crime through the years. But in the finale it diverges. Instead of offering a confusing, bloody conclusion to the Purcell case, it wraps everything up in a neat bow, giving Julie something of a happy ending, even if Wayne can't figure that out. The fact that the landscaper turns out to be the person who helped give Julie a happy life is an ironic wink at the first season, when Errol Childress, the grass cutter, turned out to be the serial killer.

But if that last shot proves anything, it's that these episodes were never really about the Purcell case. It was all about Wayne. Even Amelia -- who solves the whole mystery in a deus ex machina appearance -- was just a prism through which to view Wayne's turmoil. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.