True Detective's first two seasons were about bringing order from chaos. Like all "cold case" stories from the mystery genre, the series has been about justice delayed but not denied, a story for the audience to feel better about as they go to bed. The bad guys get what they deserve, the good guys triumph and reconnect with their lives. However, Season 3 broke that mold, and instead became a story about how stories have no end, just people passing through a tapestry. Is Hays one of them? Is Hays dead? Warning: Spoilers for True Detective Season 3 follow.
In the end, it didn't matter whodunit in the Purcell case. By the end of the 1990 case, everyone involved in the case was gone. All signs pointed to Lucy selling Julie to an unbalanced Isabel Hoyt, with Will's death being an accident, but there were no answers. Meanwhile, in 2015, after tracking down the Hoyt family home and Mr. June Watts, West and Hays determined no one masterminded the kidnapping. Lucy was letting Isabel play with Julie. Will's death was an accident, one leading to the unplanned stealing of Julie, and all that followed.
Hays put it all together with the help of his wife's research. He even finds the still-alive Julie, in her calm and comfortable life after so much trauma in her childhood. But, as Hays pulls up to her house for the final confrontation, the gunfire of Vietnam starts playing. Suddenly, Hays has no idea why he's there, or who this nice lady is he approaches for help.
After Hays' family comes to fetch him, his daughter, Rebecca, tells her dad she misses him now, as if he's already passed. Is it because he's disappearing into his memories? Or is he already gone?
Hays doesn't disappear from the car, but as his grandkids – one son, one daughter – ride away on their bikes generations after the Purcell kids did the same, Hays suddenly is back in VFW bar, and Amelia is there. It's the night he told her he wanted to get married. She takes his hand and they walk out together, into the light. The last scene is Hays, disappearing into the Vietnam jungle.
What just happened? Did Hays pass away on the porch? Or was he already dead?
Creator Nic Pizzolatto has admitted before to being obsessed with "the Bardo," the length of time between when a person begins to die and when they pass. It's a concept behind some of the most moving stories, Time's Arrow comes to mind when a Nazi doctor lives his life in rewind in the moments before he dies. Jacob's Ladder is probably the most famous example in cinema, with Tim Robbins living an entire life in New York City before following his son into the light, only to discover he was dying on an operating table in Vietnam the whole time.
True Detective's ending bears a striking resemblance to the end of Jacob's Ladder. The idea of Hays disappearing into the jungle, never to return opens up to all sorts of interpretations. Was the entire series Hays processing his own death? Or, alternatively, is Hays dying in 2015? If so, these events of the present are his mind's way of making peace with the past so he can move on.