Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): True Detective season 3 episode 8 - "Now Am Found"

Monday, February 25, 2019

True Detective season 3 episode 8 - "Now Am Found"


This True Detective viewing diary is being written while the new series airs. As such, future readers need not worry: there are no spoilers for upcoming episodes.

This season of True Detective ends not so much with a bang or a whimper as with a sigh, and an ambiguous one at that: a sigh of resignation, satisfaction, trepidation, or bemused awe? This is a finale determined to resolve the central mystery with due diligence, so diligent that it needs an extra fifteen minutes to allow itself the necessary breathing room for more heartfelt matters (including some that still incorporate the big mystery). But the episode unravels its secrets in a measured, muted manner, a stylistic decision both deflating and appropriate; if the first season's somewhat simplified conclusion felt like a betrayal of the grand conspiracizing that had come before, this one has more of an "of course" logic at work. That isn't to say it's entirely successful even within its own parameters; while the third season was careful not to let our expectations get out of hand, this eighth episode is by far the least dramatic and most perfunctory of any installment. The finale's strongest moments arrive when it allows itself to prioritize what has always been Pizzolatto's primary concern: the relationships between the characters.

There are some genuine disappointments here: the direction really doesn't need to be quite this flat nor the storytelling this heavily expositional (Ghost Amelia's big reveal is as hamfisted as any infodump Pizzolatto has ever written). But even these dovetail neatly with the finale's meta-concern: "Now Am Found"'s dialectical relationship with season one's "Form and Void" is exploited in turn after turn. Rather than the frazzled but still spry Rust's spooky descent into the yawning maw of Carcosa, a creaky Wayne and Roland effortlessly break into the abandoned Hoyt compound and shine their flashlights around a small little pink room that no one has lived in for years. When they confront the living participant in the long-ago central crime, he's not a hillbilly ogre trying to ritualistically sacrifice them in the Louisiana wilderness but a weary old half-blind man sitting in his kitchen, who patiently explains a series of missteps and accidents, and hopes they'll shoot or arrest him (his punishment, unlike Errol Childress', is to be allowed to live). Instead of hinting at the devious misdeeds of a sprawling, decades-long Tuttle family empire, this finale briefly introduces us to an exhausted, isolated Hoyt patriarch who seems almost as confused and impotent as Wayne himself: his threats come off more like pleas.

To me, the biggest missed opportunity may be the Hoyts, not because they should have been as nasty as the Tuttles, but because a tighter, more poignant family portrait could have been painted. As it stands, my one relatively unique theory did not pan out: that Harris James was not the mere henchman he seemed, but the cold manipulator exploiting others' weaknesses while orchestrating most of the violence himself. This would've been such a neat twist, revealing to us that we'd already witnessed our climactic confrontation (a more poetic way to render the finale an anticlimax) and explaining many elements that, in this incarnation, remain weak and muddy.  I suppose there is some dramatic force in the revelation that Harris was a mere underling (and a man "who loved his family" according to the widow the two detectives visit years after they made her one, in a scene whose dramatic subtext is remarkably underplayed). It does make it harder for them to escape the moral implications of their own violence, and prevents the story from deflecting the blame off of the wealthy, powerful Hoyt organization as a whole. But as it stands, we never really get much sense for if, why, or how much Edward's cover-up was due to his love for daughter Isabel, concern with propriety, or business sense for avoiding personal scandal. Indeed, the whole fairly fascinating Isabel backstory feels surprisingly remote (on the other hand, the attempt to directly present these incidents just comes off as silly, save for a haunting shot of Isabel, played by Lauren Sweetser, touching the window when she first glimpses Julie at an offscreen company picnic).

You're here because you've already watched the series, but for the sake of clarity as well as formality, let's quickly remind ourselves what we "discovered" in episode 8. As many predicted - as I think seemed quite clear by episode 7 - the kidnapping was orchestrated by Isabel and Junius Watts (the one-eyed servant, played by Steven Williams), and the death of Will was accidental, the result of a struggle when he tried to prevent his sister from being taken. Isabel was a fragile woman living half in fantasy who took a liking to her employee's children, paying Lucy to allow them to meet together and then keep silent about the boy's demise; we learn now that she was on lithium, and proceeded to drug Julie for the years they were together (of course, she kept her in the "pink rooms" where we see a castle painted by Julie on the wall - a recognition of her own very Grimm's fairy tale-like situation). Julie ran away as a teenager, tossing away or carelessly losing (it isn't entirely clear) the map that a sympathetic Junius had given her. Years later, he tracks her down to the girls' home that Amelia visited in the previous episode, only to discover she passed away from AIDS in the mid-nineties. Wayne and Roland visit her grave and acknowledge to one another that they don't feel any real closure for the case.

In keeping with a show endlessly fascinated (as am I) with the transformations wrought by aging and the passage of time, there's a sense that the detectives have defeated the mystery through the patience of waiting. Unlike in season one, when the threat of the Yellow King remained potent decades later, there's nothing left to stop them when they tread right into the heart of the Hoyts' secret and casually look around at what would've been impossible to see twenty-five years ago. I really liked the scene in the pink room, not just because it's a very cool location (somehow managing to feel both subversively mundane and profoundly weird) but because the disarming physical demeanor and personal dialogue of the detectives, sitting casually on the mythical furniture, is a great way to use it. Wayne and Roland are like Celine and Julie breaking into the house they can usually only visit in their imaginations, discovering that all the ghosts are blindly, impotently bumping around a sparse, cobwebbed set, too pathetic to pose any real threat except to the girl they once poisoned (hey, wait a second - maybe Pizzolatto is a Jacques Rivette fan?!).

I've already expressed my dismay, at least on first impression, of how the big twist is delivered; Wayne conveniently bumps a book off the table, opens the page up and starts reading about Mike Ardoin, Julie's childhood pal. He remembers that he and Roland (in a not very subtle telegraph) ran into a groundskeeper (Nathan Wetherington) with a young daughter named Lucy (Ivy Dubreuil) at the convent. Then Amelia's spirit/memory/projection pops up in the room to hammer home the point. She aggressively expounds not just on the plot mechanics - what if Julie didn't really die, what if she reconnected with an old friend, what if the nuns covered for her in case anyone came looking - but the emotional subtext, hitting us over the head with the idea that this offers a happy ending amidst all the sadness. And as with much of the episode, unfortunately, Sackheim's direction contains little mystery or magic: this is a very plain visitation with none of the poetry evoked by Saulnier in the early episodes (Sackheim did an often excellent job moving things along and finding nice moments in the middle episodes, but a more filmic sensibility would have been welcome for this conclusion). This moment feels, more than anything else we've seen, like a throwback to the clumsy second season.

However, despite the poorly-executed presentation, the underlying idea is strong. Of course Wayne's ultimate resolution to the case needs to be a collaboration with Amelia, even if from beyond the grave or manifesting an aspect of his own consciousness (grounded in her text he stubbornly refused to engage with). There's also a nice air of suggestion, although there's nothing onscreen to confirm this, that this entire alternate resolution is fantasy wish fulfillment after a long, hard life centered around this bleak case. And as demonstrated in a 1990 conversation between Wayne and Amelia in the veteran's bar, his marriage has always been rooted in the trauma of 1980, so the idea that its tragic arc can be arrested and transformed into something quietly beautiful has broader implications as well: Wayne is not just redeeming the Purcell case, he's redeeming his own tangled life. Most of all, I love what Pizzolatto does with the climactic moment. Wayne drives to Michael's and, yes, Julie's cozy little home, where mother and daughter play in the garden outside. His reasoning isn't entirely clear (presumably he doesn't want to blow her cover and expose her story to the world, as his son's discovery of the address in his pocket threatens to do), but most likely he just wants a sense of personal closure, final confirmation that something good came out of the foundation his entire life has rested upon. And then, just as Julie is about to wander out of the house and settle this once and for all...Wayne forgets why he's there.

It's an artful example of dramatic irony that plays less like a cruel punishment than a transformation into something more profound. Wayne wanders into the yard after calling his son to pick him up. He is able to speak briefly with Julie, as if she's a stranger who can simply offer him a glass of water. I'm reminded of a moment in Roma, which I just recently watched over the weekend, when a boy tells his nanny, "When I was old you were there, but you were someone else" (when pressed on what he means, he answers, "Before I was born"). Somehow, despite being grounded in a realistic explanation, there's a sense that Wayne and Julie are meeting in different forms in another life, with their roles reversed, and it's quite lovely. There are ominous strands to these repetitions too, of the dread as well as the deliverance if time is a flat circle, such as when Wayne watches his grandchildren bike off into the distance, or the final fleeting, metaphorical shot of the season, in which a young Wayne enters into the Vietnamese jungle. For the most part, though, the episode accentuates the positive, as when Becca comes home and we find out that, aside from any hinted but unspoken strains in their relationship, she is still in her father's life - or willing to be now that he's slipping away. Even dark scenes, like Roland provoking a vicious, self-punishing beatdown in a biker bar, are coupled with sweet denouements, like Roland's first stray dog wandering up to him as a soulful companion (a nice conclusion to his own multi-era arc as well as a callback to the sequence where he almost shot the fox that similarly stared down Wayne).

This phenomenon is perhaps most obvious in the 1980 scenes, where we learn that Wayne's career was derailed specifically because he refused to denounce Amelia's reporting on the Purcell case. Wayne and Amelia fight and separate but in the last real scene of the season they reconcile in the same bar in which we've earlier (later?) seen them confront the unpleasant truths of their lives together. Freeing itself from chronology, or rather loosening those bonds, allows True Detective to achieve a very pleasing form of dramatic structure, with emotional payoff rather than logical necessity directing the narrative flow. And Pizzolatto, as in earlier seasons, is unafraid to wear his heart on his sleeve, redeeming sentimentality with sincerity; the same earnestness that can make us roll our eyes as portentuous dialogue and long for the leavening humor or formal cool of Cory Jo Fukunaga can also be endearing amidst a TV landscape dominated by cynicism. I rewatched much of the first season the night before this finale and it had an unexpected effect which I found myself regretting: the Rust/Marty story is such a transcendent confluence of elements, glossed with Fukunaga's incredibly cinematic eye, that "Now Am Found" initially felt even more flat than it might have. There's simply no comparison to the immersive sensibility that Fukunaga rings from Pizzolatto's more ambitious worldbuilding in that season, a feeling that every face, gesture, object, and landscape onscreen is weighted with rich epochs of cultural and historical resonance, that even a momentary expression or photograph contains worlds upon worlds. Wayne inhabits a more insular universe and even the cinematography (as the World We Deserve podcast has noted) becomes constricted after Jeremy Saulnier's early departure.

Nonetheless, "Now Am Found" manages to avoid the hubris of that first True Detective, its penchant for making bold proclamations it couldn't follow up on. This season's combination of humility and gravity achieves the synthesis I hoped for after a first season whose sense of purpose cloaked occasional pomposity and a second season whose admirable risks were so frequently tripped up. Skirting the precocious immaturity of 2014 and the awkward adolescence of 2015, this 2019 version of the show builds upon the strengths of both (yes, both). If episode 8 is probably my least favorite of the season, it's still satisfactory in the ways that count most (and I'll probably be more comfortable with some of my frustrations after a re-viewing). In particular, the performances were outstanding, with Mahershala Ali concluding one of the great TV turns on the very night he won his second Academy Award for the far more controversial Green Book. Speaking of which, I have to credit Pizzolatto for deftly handling Wayne's race throughout the season, especially considering it was not originally written into the narrative before Ali was cast. I mistook his admittedly cheap dig at the interviewer in episode 2, in which the protagonist denies racial tensions during his career, as an authorial insert rather than a misdirect aimed at both viewers and the characters, an indication that Wayne wasn't being entirely truthful with his interlocutor (or, at times, his elderly self).

Where does True Detective go next? Hopefully Pizzolatto takes his time again, and while I doubt another collaboration with a Fukunaga-like figure lies on the horizon, I would like to see him hire a film director with a vision that may admittedly stretch the budget and schedule (as Saulnier apparently did) to at least bookend the series. No doubt he will return to the themes that fascinate him most, those that have been present in all three seasons and especially the first and third, and he may be well-advised to stick to the middle of the country rather than attempt another coastal urban noir. There's something to be said for sinking into the world you're most rooted in, even if it risks complacency. But if future True Detectives follows season three's footsteps, this immersion will feel like a fresh reflection rather than a rehash: an ever-expanding exploration of how time is both a trap and a journey.

Last week: "The Final Country"


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