The third season of True Detective's finale went out on a much more uplifting note than the previous seasons, which was a refreshing change of pace. Not only did Hays (Mahershala Ali) find out the truth, but his story thankfully didn't wrap up in the tragic way the show has been teasing since episode one (the excessive focus on that gun was worrisome).
Here's how it went down:
Hays is given an ultimatum at work after Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) publishes an article that quotes an "anonymous source" that the higher-ups know was Hays — he can either disavow her in a public op-ed or be bumped down to desk jockey (or he can quit altogether).
Hays decides to take the desk jockey job rather than throw Amelia under the bus, which West (Stephen Dorff) is really hurt by. He appears to be angry, but it's clear that he's really just incredibly hurt that Hays essentially chose Amelia over their partnership. They argue and that's basically it for them until West comes for Hays in 1990 when they reopen the case.
Hays is so frustrated about his new position that he picks a fight with Amelia and she basically tells him to take a hike, which is just the thing to get him to admit he's totally in love with her. After he confesses, they get together.
Unfortunately, 10 years later, Amelia and Hays realize that their entire relationship was built around the Purcell case and they need to work on actually getting to know each other. Hays suggests they quit anything related to the case so they can work on their marriage. The timing is pretty convenient, because old man Hoyt (Michael Rooker) makes it quite clear to Hays that if he sees Hays as a threat, he'll come after him and his family.
So Hays lets the Purcell matter drop, even though he knows there's more there and he also knows Hoyt knows more than he's letting on. Ultimately, he can't put his family at risk and, as we know from the 2015 scenes, the decision pays off because Hays and Amelia must have managed to save their marriage.
It isn't quite so easy for West, unfortunately. In the wake of killing James and burying the body in the woods, he goes to a biker bar and picks a fight with an enormous bar patron. The fight is superbly choreographed and West holds his own... for about a minute before a bunch of bikers beat him senseless.
Outside the bar, West sits all alone until a stray dog approaches him and he starts to cry. And with that scene from Dorff, who's been killing it in the second half of this season, we know how West and Hays went 25 years without speaking to each other. The peek into the past is especially sad though, considering how good they are together as old men.
The two detectives basically put the puzzle together that the show has been putting out there for viewers to figure out for a few weeks now. They find Julie Purcell's "pink bedroom" in the Hoyt estate cellar and track down Junius Watts (Steven Williams), the man who procured Julie as a playmate for Isabel Hoyt (Lauren Sweetser). Junius tells them the whole story — Will's (Phoenix Elkin) death was a tragic accident when Isabel was playing with the kids one day. She then drugged Julie and kept her drugged for years as they played house in her family's estate.
What's more is that Lucy (Mamie Gummer) was in on it too and she must have told Cousin Dan (Michael Graziadei). She took money from the Hoyts to pretend she didn't know anything about Will's death and to let Isabel have Julie as a replacement for her dead daughter, Mary. Eventually Julie grew up and started asking questions, so Junius helped her escape. He was going to meet up with her and try to figure out how to do the right thing, but she never showed up and he didn't manage to track her down.
We know Julie then lived her life on the streets for quite a while, but she eventually found a convent that took her in. The convent tells Hays and West that Julie died of HIV in 1995, but on their way out, they run into a little girl who bears a strong resemblance to Julie; the girl is named Lucy. Honestly, it's a bit surprising the Julie lookalike doesn't get so much as a suspicious glance out of Hays or West. (They call themselves detectives?!) They do admit to each other later that they don't feel a sense of closure with the case even though they seemingly figured out what happened to Julie. But that's because they didn't get the whole story.
Hays later finds a passage in Amelia's book about Mike, the boy from school who had a crush on Julie. It turns out he saw her at the convent years later and they fell in love, so the sisters faked Julie's death and she ran off to live a quiet life with Mike; Julie and Mike eventually had Lucy.
Hays tracks them down, but by the time he gets there, he is in the midst of an episode and forgets where he is and why he's there, even after his son and daughter come to get him.
So the audience gets the answers, but Hays doesn't — though his son hangs on to the address Hays had in his pocket, so maybe we can all hope that Henry (Ray Fisher) eventually figures it out and tells Hays and West.
Still, it's a happy ending because West is going to basically move in with Hays, to help him out and so that neither of them will be so lonely. It's a lovely way to end the season, even if the finale could have been a little stronger overall.
Odds & Ends
The musical cues in 2015 when Hays and West investigate the Hoyt mansion and go looking for Julie at the convent were outstanding, very Hitchcockian.
Hays: "Suppose somebody catches us?"
West: "We're old and confused."
Hays and West had more excellent moments in the finale, with their hug and their moment at Julie's grave. I cannot stop marveling at how good Ali and Dorff are together. It actually makes me wish there had been more of Hays & West and less Hays & Amelia. I get why the marriage was important to the throughline of the show, but Hays & West were the true heart of the season.