Mahershala Ali in True Detective season 3 finale

'True Detective' and Where Women Fit Among the Bromance

The HBO hit bounces back with its recently concluded third season, and an evolving role for women

Courtesy: HBO

After a spellbinding first season (and a second one so terrible that it is best stuffed down the memory hole and left there, never to be discussed again), True Detective wisely returned to its roots this year. The HBO series' third run, starring Mahershala Ali, came to an ambiguous but deeply satisfying conclusion on Sunday, Feb. 24, with a story line that shared the first season's time-hopping format and central duo of driven cops, but also its pessimistic view of human affairs—particularly where human women are concerned.

True Detective, at its best, is a deeply philosophical show, where the mystery takes place against a backdrop of essential questions about what drives us, what moves us and how we use stories to define our lives. In season one, the answer to those questions was provided early on by Matthew McConaughey's Rust Cohle (with a nihilist hat tip to Nietzsche):

This is a world where nothing is solved. Someone once told me, "Time is a flat circle." Everything we've ever done or will do, we're gonna do over and over and over again.
Cohle's bleak perspective on life, informed first by the death of his daughter and later by his work on the police force, persisted through True Detective's multi-decade story line—although the finale left him in a slightly more optimistic place than before. ("I been up in that room, looking out those windows every night here, just thinking it’s just one story. The oldest. Light versus dark,” he says, before adding: "You ask me, the light’s winning.”)

But the show itself, which ruminates on the cyclical nature of not just violence, but also betrayal, love, lust and assorted other human agonies, always seemed to suggest that Cohle was onto something—and while Cohle and Hart (Woody Harrelson) were replaced in season three by Wayne Hays (Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff), everything else was strangely familiar. Hays and West, investigating the murder of one boy and the disappearance of his sister over the course of 35 years, followed the pattern established by Cohle and Hart: two men, brothers in arms, their bond complicated, tested and eventually broken by the presence of a woman.
It's undeniable that women make things difficult in the world of True Detective, a fact that has led to controversy; public opinion of the show's first season was dominated by discussion of its treatment of women generally (and of Alexandra Daddario's breasts, specifically, in an early and much-debated scene). But while the character of Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo) in season three could be seen as a response to questions about the show's handling of its female characters—here is a woman who is not just a presence but a force throughout the story—she also preserves the integrity of its original message.

Amelia is the one who hands us this season's central thesis, a slightly evolved version of Rust Cohle's earlier nihilism, as her husband meanders through his increasingly fragmented memory in search of answers. It's her ghost that surfaces to supply them: "What if the ending isn’t really the ending at all?" she asks. "What if there’s another story? What if something went unbroken? All this life, all this loss. What if it was really one long story that kept going and going until it healed itself? Wouldn’t that be a story worth telling? Wouldn’t that be a story worth hearing?"

The writers' choice to put this line in Amelia's mouth (or at least, Amelia as Hayes remembers her) is about more than finally solving the mystery of what happened to young Julie Purcell. It illuminates the show's perspective on life—and love, and sex, and connection—in a way that both echoes and builds on the themes introduced in season one. Crime-solving may be True Detective's central concern, but a close second, clearly, is to explore the stress that women, sex, love and marriage put on a close relationship between two men, and vice versa.

It might be tempting to conclude that True Detective has gone all-in on the notion that women ruin everything, or at least that their presence is mutually exclusive with the sort of close, masculine bond needed to solve crimes.

In its inaugural season, Maggie Hart (Michelle Monaghan) uses sex as a weapon, sleeping with Rust Cohle to hurt her husband, and shattering their partnership in the process. In season three, for Amelia, sex isn't a weapon but a tool: The woman is a storyteller, a detective in her own right, seeking the truth on a path that occasionally intersects with but mostly runs parallel to that of the men. The betrayal that West experiences when Hays chooses his woman over his work—and their partnership—is a foreseeable but unintended consequence. Amelia's manipulation is unconscious—"You’re just like a pretty bird, flying around, shitting on people’s heads," Hays tells her—if no less potent in its destructiveness.

It might be tempting to conclude here that True Detective has gone all-in on the notion that women ruin everything, or at least that their presence is mutually exclusive with the sort of close, masculine bond that makes it possible to solve complicated crimes. You could note that both stories end with the men reunited and riding off into the proverbial sunset together—season one finds Cohle and Hart leaning on each other, having survived to solve the mystery and settle their differences, while season three ends with the widowed Hays welcoming West as an honorary family member. Certainly, the ultimate absence of women on True Detective would be in keeping with genre tradition—dating back to 1926, when Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes ruminated irritably on Watson having thrown him over for more domestic pursuits: "The good Watson had, at that time, deserted me for a wife, the only selfish action I can recall in our association."

But observing the through line between these two separate plots, another possibility emerges: The story at the heart of True Detective, the one about who are are, how we live and who we love, is still evolving. A story where time is a flat circle, and history repeats itself, but also where, in the repetition, lies healing, grace, something unbroken. In recovering from his sophomore stumble, there's no doubt that series creator Nic Pizzolatto still has True Detective stories worth telling, worth hearing and worth watching. And maybe it's not too much to hope for, in the next telling, that a woman will be there at the end to see how it all turns out.