FINDING A WAY FORWARD: Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) and Wayne (Mahershala Ali) have it out in the season finale of "True Detective." HBO

Let’s appreciate for a moment what it means to a show like “True Detective” that you can stream TV now. Not simply to tape it, but watch it on devices as small as the pulpy paperback that it has, for many people, replaced. The ability to revisit it endlessly, to fast-forward and rewind and rewatch as easily as Wayne Hays’ memory skates through time. The third season of Nic Pizzolatto’s serial crime drama — destined to be remembered alongside its astonishing, fulgent first season, rather than the boggy, overcomplicated Season 2 — was a television story that skipped boldly between three timelines spread across 35 years, while living firmly in 2019.

If that seems overly specific, just consider what happened inside a space of two hours on the evening of Feb. 25, 2019: The eighth and final episode of the season aired on HBO, just as the unquestioned star of this season, Mahershala Ali, was accepting an Oscar for his role in “Green Book,” a film that at night’s end won Best Picture. (He also voiced a character in the animated category winner and stealthily the year’s best film, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”) The 45-year-old actor’s rise has been a fast one from supporting characters in the likes of “House of Cards” and “Treme” to starring roles, winning for “Moonlight” just two years ago and now for “Green Book.” The only living men with more for acting are Jack Nicholson and Daniel Day-Lewis, who picked up three Oscars apiece across 18 total nominations. Ali is two-for-two in just a couple of years. He became That Guy faster than he could become what you’d call a household name.


The net effect of Sunday was to crank up the anticipation for the “True Detective” finale just that much further: It stands as Ali’s most impressive acting achievement to date, and on a show that made Ali (and, apologies to Stephen Dorff, who co-starred as Wayne’s partner, only Ali) the face of the series. Anyone curious about this performer’s range, his ability to tell a story with just his eyes, his magnetism, his humor, his pathos, would need only to fall into this eight hours of TV that pulled him through a lifetime of pain and mistakes and dread and joy and longing. “Every time I watch him I catch another nuance of what he’s doing,” Pizzolato told Entertainment Weekly about Ali before the show’s premiere. “It’s so subtle and so controlled. I’m blown away. I really think what he does here — as far as degree of difficulty for an actor, and how he pulled it off — is just amazing.” So let’s appreciate this season for what we shared together: possibly the greatest sustained performance from an actor who’s accomplishing more, faster, than anyone else in the business right now.

The other winner here, indelibly, was Northwest Arkansas. The region was the backdrop for the story as well as the shoots, a place that TV viewers at large will now get to keep in their imaginations. Even if you know the area intimately, you won’t see it the same again. This was the show in which Arkansans re-heard the name of Devil’s Den and thought not of camping and caving but something more sinister. The show’s slow-dread sound design had a lot to do with the Ozarks noir feel, but credit also Pizzolato’s eye for slouching old barns and empty two-lane highways and overhead shots of the woody creases of the Boston Mountains. Frankly, the whole region came off looking like a good place to hide a body. Perfectly cast, in other words.


Take for instance the walk at the beginning of Episode 8, in which Ali’s Hays fends off the whiskey-soaked interrogation from the chicken magnate Hoyt (Michael Rooker, in a short but memorable turn). This is where we learned Hoyt wasn’t quite the threat he was built up to be, and that two men talking about dark confessions on the edge of a bluff towering above a river adds a layer of menace. We in Arkansas well know most Americans really don’t have a clear idea of our state, of what it is or why. We’re either the western tip of Appalachia, the lower boundary of the Midwest, the roof of the South or some unholy landlocked gradient where the humility of Texas meets the prosperity of Mississippi.

As we heard a dozen times in the run-up to this Oscars, representation matters. What people saw on-screen in this series were spooky limestone karsts and rolling fields and mountains like worn-down molars and Christ of the Ozarks in every opening credits, looking for the world like the kind of quirky flourish an author would throw into this novel, except it’s real. This will be an American reference point for the look and feel of our corner of the country for a long while. And because this dark fiction inhabited its locations so authentically, it got to feel oddly true.


If you didn’t keep up with this show in real-time, the good news is you can still stream it (via HBO or Hulu), probably for a good long while. The big reveals in the final episode landed almost as fait accompli, as the show stayed with its characters more than with its original crime. Wayne and Roland in 2015 were too late to change the outcomes of the original 1980 Purcell kids’ disappearance: Time had already dispatched with the guilty, and if anything the fallout from their investigations were shown to have made the world a more chaotic place, not least for them. Knowing the truth is not the same as helping. There’s no such thing as really forgetting in Pizzolato’s world, but if you want to survive it, you must do your best to try.