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Who Done It? Breaking Down the Premiere of ‘True Detective’ Season 3

Sifting through timelines, looking through peepholes, and picking up creepy makeshift dolls to determine who looks best for the crime at the center of this season

HBO/Ringer illustration

Meet the new season of True Detective, same as the first season of True Detective. OK, so Season 3 is not a complete retread of the critically acclaimed freshman season, which put this anthology series on the map, but all the hallmarks are here: We’ve got multiple timelines; the Southern setting; cops with a penchant for philosophizing, cigarettes, and liquor; brutal crimes against children; hints of the occult. You know, the good stuff. But, of course, a new season means a whole new case, and a whole new mystery to crack. While True Detective is more than the sum of its potential killer(s) (despite the timelines, this isn’t Westworld, where the only attraction is trying to guess what will happen), there’s an undeniable, compulsive thrill in looking at the clues and joining Mahershala Ali’s Detective Wayne Hays in the decades-spanning mystery about two missing children in a small Arkansas town. What really went down? Who could be responsible? What themes, dialogue, and visuals might provide clarity? Who’s wearing the best wig? That’s what we’re here to glean from week to week, beginning with Sunday night’s two-episode premiere.

Who Done It?

Short answer: Probably someone we don’t know, or at least someone whose trail we shouldn’t be on just yet. The initial crime—the disappearance of Will and Julie Purcell, the former of whom is found dead in the woods at the end of the first episode—wasn’t actually solved in 1980. In the two later timelines, it’s implied that someone was arrested and convicted, but in 1990, “the family” is seeking to get the conviction overturned thanks to newly surfaced evidence. (Meanwhile, a retired Hays—potentially suffering from dementia in 2016—still frets over the case and what went wrong, as he’s interviewed for a true crime show or documentary.) In other words, what might have seemed revealing to Hays and his partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff), in the past has clearly become murkier in the present. Nevertheless, we’ve got a few prime suspects.

1. Freddy Burns, Ryan Peters, and Jason Lampanella

The trio of high school boys arouse suspicion mostly because they are some of the last people to have seen Will and Julie before they disappeared, but also because they listen to metal groups like Black Sabbath. The kids’ disappearance happened right at the peak of the real-life Satanic Panic that spread across the United States in the 1980s, during which bands like Black Sabbath and fantasy role-playing games like Dungeons and Dragons were scapegoats for larger concerns about the country’s youth and a string of horrific crimes. The fact these boys like to hang out at the appropriately named Devil’s Den—a park with a soiled reputation in town thanks to drugs, homeless people, and its reputation as a gay hookup spot—only adds to the intrigue. And as we see in the first episode, these teens were messing around with one of the missing children’s bikes—a seemingly pretty damning detail.

Would that it were so simple. These three metal-loving teens are no saints, but I’d be shocked if they were actually responsible for anything pertaining to the Purcell case. The West Memphis Three vibes should be evidence enough that they’re being used as early red herrings, even if they continue to be persons of interest for—or arrested by—the police in future episodes. The shifty nature of the teens’ testimonies the night of Will and Julie’s disappearance may seem suspicious, but, as Hays himself acknowledges, they may have just been afraid to confess to authorities that they were drinking booze and doing drugs—regular, mostly harmless adolescent shenanigans.

2. Dan O’Brien

Dan (Michael Graziadei) is the cousin of the missing kids’ mother (Lucy Purcell, played by Mamie Gummer), and he stayed in Will’s room when Lucy and her husband, Tom (Scoot McNairy), were going through a rough patch earlier in the year. While searching the Purcells’ house, Hays and West find a small stack of Playboys hidden in Will’s room—as well as a peephole someone made into his sister’s bedroom. While Dan has a seemingly solid alibi for the night that the kids went missing, these clues point to something sinister going on within the Purcell house; the parents’ crumbling marriage might’ve been the least worrisome thing happening. As of the first two episodes, Dan’s alibi hasn’t been properly vetted—and even if he’s not responsible, it doesn’t absolve him of other potentially heinous crimes.

3. Bret Woodard

And then there’s Brett Woodard (Michael Greyeyes), a local loner who salvages trash. Like the high school boys, Woodard was one of the last people to see Will and Julie. The townsfolk are especially suspicious of Woodard—though that mostly stems from the fact he’s Native American and that collecting other people’s garbage isn’t exactly a glamorous profession. West himself doesn’t leave his biases at the door during an interrogation, asking Woodard if he “likes kids,” to which Woodard (correctly) responds, “What the fuck’s the right answer to that?”

Even if there doesn’t seem to be much actual evidence against him, Woodard’s home—which is littered with garbage and other collectibles—doesn’t give off the impression of a stable man. But considering he’s a Vietnam War veteran (more on that in a bit), there may be other theories about Woodard’s disheveled state that have nothing to do with the Purcell children.

4. Someone We Don’t Know

It’s entirely plausible that we haven’t even met the real culprit(s) yet; consider the shocking reveal in the 1990 timeline that Julie’s fingerprints were discovered at a Walgreens in Oklahoma, which all but confirms she’s somehow still alive. And consider how Hays speaks about the case extremely cautiously in both later timelines—and how much of a bureaucratic nightmare the whole thing seems to be in 1990. The case is complex, and there’s still so much we don’t know. Plus, given how True Detective Season 3 mirrors Season 1, it’s worth recalling how long it took to find out the identity of the Yellow King. He appeared very briefly in the third episode of that season, and then we didn’t see him again until the closing moments of the penultimate episode. With the killer’s identity being withheld from the audience for so long—and the overall metaphysical undertones of that first season, shout-out Cary Fukunaga—you could’ve presented me with a theory that the Yellow King was actually a Cthulhu-like monster and I’d have been like, “Sure, why not?” For now, I recommend embracing the vibe and letting the mystery slowly unravel.

Themes of the Week: Vietnam and Race

Pointing out these two themes after the first two episodes is a bit like informing you the sky is blue, but they’re worth unpacking. We’ve got three characters—Hays, West, and Woodard—who are all Vietnam veterans, and who carry the trauma of their stints overseas in different ways. (Woodard appears to be the worst of the bunch, as his wife and children have abandoned him and his home has begun to resemble an episode of Hoarders.) But it’s the added wrinkle of race that provides Hays and Woodard a deeper, unspoken bond, which could be expanded on throughout the season.

Americans who served in the Vietnam War are often (and justifiably) considered the veterans our country hoped to forget and cast aside—much like the war itself, since it’s one that we effectively lost. But Hays and Woodard are also people of color in a predominantly white town, and have an implicit understanding that they’re viewed and judged differently because of that. Those prejudices play a big part in the townsfolk suspecting Woodard of having something to do with the Purcell kids, there’s no way around it.

But maybe—and I need to stress that I have no evidence to substantiate this wild theory and have intentionally avoided watching ahead so I can experience the episodes on a weekly basis—the Vietnam War will somewhat dovetail with the Purcell kids. With the unsettling, occult-like intimations that surround the season due to the creepy dolls found around Will’s corpse, there is a metaphysical aura that surrounds this case. And combined with several characters wearing their traumatizing Vietnam experiences on their sleeves, the work that popped into my head was Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic, which hinges on the portrayal of the renegade Colonel Walter Kurtz (played by an iconically overweight Marlon Brando) as a self-made god who cast himself into the underworld by way of the Cambodian jungle. I’m not saying CGI Marlon Brando is the True Detective Season 3 killer, but perhaps there is a broader, Yellow King 2.0–type connection between the war, the occult-like imagery, and the missing children. True Detective (like some readings of Apocalypse Now) fashions itself with imagery and symbols that can be read as pretentious—and maybe to an extent it is—but nonetheless play a vital part in the viewing experience and how the narratives can be unpacked. Even if they don’t, the characters’ connections to the Vietnam War is crucial context for how the community perceives them—and how they perceive themselves.

Iconic True Detective Looks, Ranked

Underneath the true crime mysteries at the forefront of each season, True Detective is a show that is admirably devoted to capturing the aesthetics that define each of its many eras. With that comes some pretty incredible costume and makeup work, which we’ll be highlighting throughout the season.

4. Mamie Gummer cosplaying as her mother, Meryl Streep, in Ricki and the Flash

All screenshots via HBO

3. Mahershala Ali in old-person makeup

2. Stephen Dorff’s ’80s wig

1. Scoot McNairy’s thicc mustache

Most Important Player of the Week

This award could rightfully be given to Ali every week, but it’s worth giving a shout-out to Jeremy Saulnier, who directed the first two episodes. Saulnier was initially tapped to direct the entire third season—mimicking the auteur-driven approach of Fukunaga’s Season 1—before the director and Pizzolatto reportedly had a falling out over creative differences. (Somewhere, Fukunaga is smiling, or perhaps lounging seductively in a dank sweater next to his dog.)

It’s a shame Saulnier won’t be affecting the series moving forward, because he made quite the first impression. The opening episodes feel like an extension of his ethereal Netflix film Hold the Dark, capturing an evocative and brooding tone that hints at larger, potentially otherworldly forces at play. The best moment of the two-episode premiere is Hays’s lone-man search that ultimately leads him to Will’s body, a trip that feels like a slow, steady, inevitable ascendance toward unspeakable evil—with this awaiting on the other side:

I’ll be trying to shake off that image for a while—or at least until True Detective offers something equally nightmarish in the coming weeks. Saulnier’s influence will be missed, but still, with Ali’s compelling lead performance and a captivating new mystery, True Detective has its mojo back.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.