It has been four long years since True Detective last appeared on our screens, having been almost damned into non-existence by the mixed reviews of Season 2. While it is true that the second story did not capture that same Southern Gothic feel or the perfectly difficult charm of the relationship between Season 1’s Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson), perhaps if it had come first it would have been better received.
Nevertheless, Season 3 has been highly anticipated, with great excitement to see the breathtaking Mahershala Ali in the lead role as Detective Wayne Hays. Set in the Ozarks, the story is told from Hays’s point of view across three timelines: the first in 1980, the second in 1990, and the last in 2015. I am delighted with the way the story is going so far. That air of dread is back, and it’s not just focused on the crime Hays and his partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff) are investigating (though my mind has certainly been searching for clues along the way).
Perhaps even more foreboding is the deterioration of Hays’s memory in the modern day. It makes us question whether Hays is a reliable narrator, yet simultaneously I question my own self and argue that just because his memories are sketchy, that doesn’t mean that what he does remember isn’t true. There is as much of a lesson to be learned from the way the younger Hays was treated as a Black detective in the ’80s—his opinions and intuitions regarding the case not taken as seriously as his White counterparts, despite him being a better cop—as there is in believing that the opinions of the older generation are no longer of importance. That when you get to a certain age you should just be quiet and fade away, that your stories are just that—not to be trusted as fact.
Episode 1: The Great War and Modern Memory
In 2015 we meet Hays in his home with his son, as he prepares to be filmed for the show True Criminal. It is perhaps a slight dig at our current fascination with true crime dramas such as Making a Murderer and the several hundred podcast investigations out there. It is true that we live in a world of armchair detectives, thinking we can put the world to rights, but there is more to this tale than that. Hays has realised that putting his story out there might just help break the case and that his theories may finally be taken seriously.
From the moment filming begins it becomes clear just how difficult and frustrating it is for Hays to cast his mind back to how this story began, but through flashbacks we rewind to 1990 where he is called on to give a deposition after a major break in a case he was involved 10 years earlier. Some may say having three timelines is gimmicky; I personally do not. I believe that over the next few episodes the importance of what we are seeing (and when) will become a vital clue for us armchair detectives.
November 7, 1980: that was the day that two young children, Will and Julie Purcell, after being given permission by their father, rode off to meet friends at the playground after school. On their way there, attention is paid to four specific groups of people who see them pass by on their bikes. Firstly, a schoolboy (later learned to be called Mike, who seemingly had a crush on Julie) waves at her as she pedals by. Will and Julie pass a house and a lady waves from her porch, appearing to know them.
Then, in what is the most perfect tribute to Matthew McConaughey I could wish for, two teenage lads roll up outside their mate’s house in a purple Volkswagen Beetle. As he climbs in the back, the driver, Freddy Burns (Rhys Wakefield), says, ‘watch the leather, man’—words spoken by McConaughey in his role as David Wood in Dazed and Confused. Class.
The teens drive off, intentionally made to appear sinister. They are the outcasts, drinking and smoking underage, listening to heavy rock music and generally getting up to no good at the water tower (more Dazed referencing?). They see Julie and Will ride by on their bikes and glare at them—are we to believe that they will become people of interest, or are they just trying to look tough? Questions remain with this gang as we later see their ‘leader’ Freddy playing on what appears to be one of the children’s bikes at the water tower; later, it is found dumped in the river nearby. Chances are he’s going to be put in the frame at some point soon.
Continuing to lay on the stereotypes of people who are often misunderstood, the next person to see the children ride by is the local ‘Trashman’ Brett Woodard (Michael Greyeyes), a Native American who rides around on a tractor collecting people’s unwanted items, which he takes and sells for cash. He’s considered a bit of a loner and a weirdo to the rest of the townsfolk, which immediately puts him under suspicion. It turns out that he’s a Vietnam Vet who fought hard for his country and, in doing so, lost his wife and two children. He sells scrap to make ends meet, to pay his way in the world and does no-one any harm. Yet the people of the town don’t like him searching through their garbage; they would rather a man go hungry than make money off of the stuff they don’t want. Charity begins at home, people!
Our prejudgements of people on how they look, and our lack of understanding of who they are or why they are the way they are, play a huge part in the telling of this story. Take the next scene, for example: we meet Hays and his partner Roland shooting the shit and shooting the trash (literally) and having a beer on the job. The two of them chatter about what they should do next. They seem bored but don’t want any work to do either. Roland spies a fox and lines up his target before Hays pushes his gun away. My first thought was, ‘oh Roland is going to be a dick if he kills defenceless animals.’ Turns out he’s not—at least, not yet. He grew up thinking of foxes as vermin, and he’d get a dollar a kill to keep them from destroying livestock. Similarly, I championed Hays for stopping him, only to find out minutes later that he kills wild boar for fun; he’s a tracker, and learned to survive by doing just that out in the jungle. Our life experiences and upbringings mold us into the people we are, and who are we to judge really? We can only teach what we know.
Will and Julie were expected home by 5.30pm at the latest, but they never made it and so the nightmare begins for Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy). Tom is a tough one to scope. He appears to be a strict father at first (his kids call him Sir), but after their disappearance, we see a much softer side to him. He doted on those kids while their mother, Lucy Purcell (Mamie Gummer), was out drinking with friends—a regular occurrence for her. She returns home after learning the news that the kids are missing and treats Tom horribly, blaming him and calling him stupid. This builds a picture of a home almost unbearable to live in—have the children run away?
Upon searching the house for clues, the detectives find copies of Playboy magazine under Will’s mattress. This is typical of a boy his age, so nothing sinister there—that is until Hays finds a hole drilled in the closet between his bedroom and his sister’s room. This doesn’t bode well. Just as we are pondering that possibility, we learn that the children’s uncle (their mother’s brother) had been staying in the house up until May of that year. Suspicions move from person to person at a rate of knots in this series.
The detectives begin their investigation, trying to piece together the last known movements of the children. This takes them to the children’s school where Hays will meet his future wife (despite saying he would never marry). Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo) is an English teacher at the school and taught Will in her class. The attraction between them is immediate and electric. There is no skirting around the subject that they are Black people in a predominantly White neighbourhood, doing jobs where they have to prove their worth harder than anyone. At first, Amelia appears put off by the fact that he’s a cop—giving cause to think there may have been a darker side to her once upon a time—but she can’t help herself. They exchange numbers, all part of the investigation of course.
Freddy and his gang are interviewed but Hays and Roland don’t get very far. The boys admit they saw the missing kids, the friend in the Black Sabbath t-shirt even going so far as to say that he saw them at the playground—something we did not witness ourselves. Should we take anything we don’t see in a flashback as an untruth? They may have just been covering up the fact they were drinking and smoking, but how they got hold of one of the kids’ bikes is a mystery.
Whose bike it belonged to becomes painfully clear soon afterwards. The police and local volunteers scour the fields and wasteland looking for any evidence. Hays finds the bike, takes a photograph, and continues on his path, which is one he must take alone. Roland explains to the other officers that in Vietnam Hays was a long-range reconnaissance man, a pathfinder, so they leave him to get on with the job he can do best. On his journey he comes across straw dolls, dressed in bridal gowns with a bouquet in their hand. One would have been a bit odd to find, but there are more which lead Hays to the opening of a cave.
Inside Hays finds Will’s body laying across a stone, almost like a sacrifice, his hands positioned as if he was praying. He looks peaceful, but this is a heinous crime that shakes Hays to the core. We’ve learned by now that Hays is far from lazy, and this investigation is going to take over his life. A flash-forward to 1990 shows Hays becoming irritated at the questioning he is receiving 10 years after the fact. Whoever was locked up for this crime is going to have their conviction overturned, but why? Off the record, he is told that the fingerprints of the still-missing Julie were found at a crime scene: a store robbery a couple of months earlier. They don’t know what her involvement was, if she was part of it or a customer in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whatever the case, they haven’t tracked her down yet.
This opens a whole new world for Hays. He had been searching for the girl for a decade with no luck. Whoever is incarcerated for Will’s murder most likely is innocent and about to become free.
Hays’s relationship with Amelia in 1990 is filled with tension. They have a son and daughter of their own, and Amelia has followed her dream to become a writer, something Hays would no doubt have wanted for her. But the fact that she chose his investigation as her topic—we later learn that the book becomes a nonfiction bestseller—is a heavy weight for him to bear. He cannot feel excited about The Life and Death of the Harvest Moon as she is; for him it is personal—a tragic story of a little boy’s death, a little girl’s disappearance, the devastation of a family, and the terrible effect on a town.
Episode 2: Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye
Leading straight back into the investigation in episode 2, Hays and Roland learn that it was blunt-force trauma to the head and a broken neck that killed Will. It is likely that he was murdered elsewhere and dragged to the tomb-like cave, his hands folded after death.
The investigation splits in two at this point, with the FBI being brought in to deal with the search for Julie, while Hays and Roland carry on with the murder investigation. They attend Will’s funeral and scope out those in attendance. There are a few with guilt written all over their faces, but even the detectives feel they are red herrings and not the people they are looking for. God knows what they are hiding, though.
Will’s wake is an unpleasant affair. Tom is distraught and Lucy is angry, as she always appears to be. A conversation with Tom’s parents in the yard gives up some interesting tidbits of information. Much to Tom’s father’s annoyance, his wife spills the beans that there were rumours that Julie was not Tom’s daughter, that Lucy became pregnant while Tom was working away. Murmurings of a potential ‘other man’ are let loose in my mind now, but that’s too obvious, right? It still doesn’t explain where Julie is, and why would he, or maybe even he and Lucy, want Will dead?
After getting absolutely nowhere trying to find who made or sold the straw dolls, Hays turns to Amelia for help, knowing that she has a better rapport with the school kids than the police will have. It pays off when she shows the picture of the doll to Mike, the boy who waved at Julie as she rode by before her disappearance. He remembers seeing a similar doll on Halloween when he was trick-or-treating with Julie. She had it in her bag, but he doesn’t know who gave it to her or when. They have a lead to go on now at least—whoever gave it to her must live on the route they took trick-or-treating, which narrows it down to a couple hundred houses. Hays and Roland don’t want this information getting out as it would surely tip off the killer. Their boss doesn’t listen and holds a press conference releasing the information. This understandably angers Hays, and we see first-hand now that he’s not quite taken seriously.
In the modern day, Hays is back in the company of True Criminal producer Elisa Montgomery (Sarah Gadon). She had promised to help the 70-year-old Hays by researching the straw dolls, which can only mean they never broke that part of the case 35 years earlier. Elisa links the current case of Will and Julie Purcell to a host of other crimes. She even fleetingly references the ‘crooked spiral,’ which big fans of Season 1 will remember as the name of the paedophile ring involved in the murder of Dora Lange. Does this mean the two seasons are somehow connected? Unfortunately no. It’s just a little treat for fans, a cool little Easter Egg.
This piece of information builds some trust between Elisa and Hays. His son wasn’t convinced she would deliver him the goods, but she did. Whether it is helpful or not is another question. I suspect that Hays has been traveling down these endless rabbit holes on the quest for Julie since her disappearance. It most likely destroyed his marriage, and potentially his relationship with his daughter. It appears that Hays can’t remember what happened between him and his daughter, but continues to ask his son to make sure she visits, which makes his son uncomfortable. He tells his father that she doesn’t like to visit them there, but Hays continues to push the issue. I get the feeling that he paid more attention to someone else’s missing daughter than his own, and now he’s missing her and she’s not interested.
The friendship between Hays and Roland develops a little further in the second episode. They work well together, neither playing a good or bad cop role as such. Roland recognises that Hays is ‘unusual’ to most folks in the town due to the colour of his skin. Twice during police interviews, Roland brings Hays into the conversation by ‘humanising’ him. He tells Brett the ‘Trashman’ of Hays’s time in ‘Nam—something they can bond over—and tells the young boy, Mike, who had a Star Wars themed costume for Halloween, that it was Hays’s favourite film. This nurturing side to Roland is sweet. He wants everyone to admire Hays the same way he does. It hurts him then when Hays has a go at him for not standing up to the boss about the importance of not letting the straw doll information get out. Hays probably needs to learn to appreciate those around him a little more.
We also see a different, more brutal side to the pair of them. After getting a tip from Vice, they travel to visit a known paedophile to see what he knows about the case. There is little pity for this guy as they pummel him for information, tie him up, and leave him in the trunk of the car. It’s here, though, that you realise just what war did to them both; it’s a bond and an understanding they share, and with it comes mutual respect.
All Paths Lead to Julie
So after two episodes, where do we stand? I can’t shake the feeling that Julie is less than a victim here. She may have only been a little girl and she may have been coerced into something by an adult, but there are a few clues that put her in my frame.
Firstly the dolls. When Hays and Roland first searched the house after her disappearance looking for signs as to where they could have gone, Hays came across a drawing of a bride holding a bouquet, very similar to the image of the straw dolls. He most likely assumed at that point, with her parents arguing constantly, that this was a little girl wishing for happier times for her mom and dad. But who says anyone gave her the doll? Could she not have made it herself and kept it in her bag while she went out trick-or-treating? She may well have lied to Mike about it being a gift.
Julie’s bike was not found. If they were both snatched, why wasn’t her bike left behind too? Did she escape and just keep on cycling, or did she go willingly with someone she trusted?
Then there’s the note sent to her parents. Interesting that the word ‘Shud’ was used instead of ‘Should.’ My first thoughts were that whoever sent this was either uneducated or young (maybe even Julie herself), but then I learned from a friend about Tamam Shud, a still-unsolved mystery of The Somerton Man, a body found on a beach in Adelaide, Australia. As well as being a strange case, just look at the number of true crime podcasts and documentaries which have covered that story over the years. Is this a clue?
It’s way too early to speculate, of course. With another six episodes to go there will be a lot more to uncover. The whereabouts of adult Julie is one of them, but perhaps even more importantly, Hays’s life appears to be unraveling and his memory loss worsening. Is this dementia? Alzheimer’s? What pieces are missing from this puzzle? One moment he’s enjoying dinner with his son and family and glances at the picture of his late wife, the next he is standing in the road in his pyjamas at the intersection of Shoepick and Briarwood with no recollection of how he got there. What is his mind telling him to do? There are clues buried deep in his psyche, and his wife’s book is helping him uncover them, one piece at a time. Don’t forget that the book was published in 1990. Can he recover anything from his mind from that point forward, or is he remembering someone else’s words?
So far I am hugely intrigued by where this story might take us. Mahershala Ali and Carmen Ojogo are totally blowing it out of the water performance-wise, and the makeup department deserves all the awards for ageing the cast so impressively. We’ll be back every week with more analysis of True Detective. Let us know what you think so far of this new season.