clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Who Done It? Breaking Down the Third Episode of ‘True Detective’

Who posed Will Purcell’s hands like that? Is the church involved? And what exactly is in Brett Woodard’s bag?

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; a 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, continuing with the third episode, “The Big Never.”


Who Done It?

We’ve yet to arrive at any definitive conclusions—not surprising, seeing as there are five episodes remaining—but there were some significant revelations in the Purcell case spread across our three timelines. Most notably, in 1980, Detective Hays discovered the actual scene of Will Purcell’s murder: an area of the woods where they found Dungeons & Dragons dice, Star Wars action figures, more of those unsettling straw dolls, and some other toys. (And, unfortunately, a rock stained in blood that’s almost certainly Will’s.) A local man who lived closest to that place, and who confirmed he’d seen the Purcell kids playing out there a few times, mentioned he’d also seen a nice, upscale brown car—something rare for that part of Arkansas—driving around, with a black man and a white woman inside.

Meanwhile, in 2015, the director of a true crime docuseries revisiting the case tells Hays—who, reminder, is possibly suffering from dementia—that some locals in 1980 told police they saw a “black man with a scar in a suit” spotted around Devil’s Den park, close to where the Purcell kids went missing, and that the authorities never followed up on that lead. Obviously, two mysterious sightings of a black man could be linked to the Purcell kids—though it’s also possible the locals felt hyperalert to people of color they didn’t know, for discriminatory reasons. (Everyone in the town seems to fear and despise Brett Woodard, a Vietnam vet and Native American, for the same reason.) Still, that this black man has a scar as a recognizable physical trait is something worth keeping an eye on in future episodes: The Yellow King was also identified thanks to scars on his face, and again, this whole endeavor has extremely Season 1 vibes. But let’s table that for now and move on to some other primary suspects who emerged this week.

1. Brett Woodard

I don’t want to blog in absolutes, but I would be shocked if Woodard (played by Michael Greyeyes) were directly linked to the Purcell case. The townsfolk treat him with contempt: This week, he’s confronted by some rednecks who warn him to stay away from their kids. “I fought for your fucking rights, you asshole!” he tells one them, before they beat him up. Through the first three episodes, Greyeyes has delivered a subtle, humane performance that’ll make anyone with a shred of decency feel bad for the guy. We know after he returned from Vietnam, his wife left with their two kids and that he’s been deprived of any meaningful connections since.

And yet. We also see Woodard enter his garage, post-redneck assault, and carry something in a sack. This is either a cynically misleading sequence from director Daniel Sackheim, or Woodard does have some (perhaps literal) skeletons he’s afraid could resurface with all this attention on him.

All screenshots via HBO

My best guess? Maybe he did something bad, but it has nothing to do with the Purcell kids. However, since the case was initially closed in 1980, perhaps Woodard served as the perfect fall guy and was arrested for the murder. It’s implied that it never sat right with Hays how the case was closed in 1980, and he seems to be the only person who treats Woodard with any respect—as veterans and, more importantly, people of color in a predominantly white area of Arkansas, they’ve clearly experienced similar prejudices. Even if it’s implicit to the townsfolk—and the parents—that Woodard wasn’t actually responsible for Will Purcell’s murder, having someone arrested means everyone can try to return to some sense of normalcy. (Which, of course, never actually happens.)

2. Dan O’Brien

Dan (Michael Graziadei) is the cousin of Lucy (Mamie Gummer), the children’s mother, who stayed in the Purcell home while Lucy and Tom (Scoot McNairy, sporting a godlike mustache) sorted through some problems with their marriage. Dan was also a person of interest last week after Hays and his partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff), found a peephole in Will’s closet, where Dan was staying, looking into Julie’s bedroom.

While Dan doesn’t appear on screen this week, Hays does scroll through a Purcell family album and finds a photo of Will during his first communion with his hands folded together for a prayer—which is exactly how Hays discovered Will’s corpse in the woods.

This strongly suggests that whoever killed Will and kidnapped Julie knew the Purcell kids well—be it through the family or the local church. Since we’ve yet to meet anyone from their congregation—and again, because there was a friggin’ peephole with a view to a little girl’s room—this means Dan remains a person of interest.

3. Lucy Purcell

She also remains a person of interest for the reasonable assumption that whoever killed Will probably knew him personally, and because she’s been generally suspicious whenever Hays and West have been poking through their home to find clues. I mean, this is just weird—they’re just trying to find your kids!

I don’t believe Lucy had anything to do with her son’s murder, but it does feel like there’s something she’s not telling them. The other key revelation about Lucy this week: By the 1990 timeline, she’s already dead. “I had the body brought back from Vegas,” Tom tells West, explaining that she had died two years prior. Not to badmouth an entire city, but the fact she moved to Las Vegas implies she never recovered from what happened to her children. And really, who could blame her?

4. … Amelia Reardon?!

Yes, that would be the same Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) who in the later timelines marries Hays and becomes a successful true crime novelist—though, sadly, she’s died by the time we’ve hit the 2015 timeline. And she could be the murderer?!

Look, these aren’t my thoughts—these are the thoughts of a few people who hit up my Twitter mentions, and it’s also been expressed on Reddit. The general thinking is this: Amelia does all of this to jump-start her writing career, which she tells Hays in 1980 is her dream. Indeed, the Purcell case—which seems to gain national recognition over time—is the perfect way for Amelia to get into crime writing, since she has such an intimate knowledge of the suspects and victims. As part of this theory, it’s possible that 2015 Hays is intentionally trying to remove some thoughts about the case from his memory because he knows Amelia was responsible all along.

The biggest problem? Amelia had no idea that Julie was still alive in 1990, when her fingerprints were uncovered at a Walgreens in Oklahoma. This seems to genuinely startle her—I mean, as it should—and what’s more, the revelation actually puts the final draft of her book in jeopardy since it’s such essential information. If she really wanted to start a writing career by kidnapping two children, I don’t think she’d let one of them escape.

Furthermore—WOW, is this what people think of writers?! That someone would actually commit murders for the chance to write the perfect story? I can’t speak for everyone, but I think most writers wouldn’t risk going to jail over content.

5. Someone We Don’t Know

For similar reasons as last week, it’s possible that the real culprit is someone we haven’t met yet—be it someone from the church congregation, the mysterious people in the fancy brown car, or someone who hasn’t yet been introduced at all. Again, the Yellow King had a few minutes of screentime in the first season’s third episode, and wasn’t seen again until the closing moments of the penultimate episode.

We’ve got a lot of red herrings to throw us off the scent—such as those metal-loving teens, who are seen this week only very briefly hanging around the school playground—which is writer-creator Nic Pizzolatto’s prerogative. As long as True Detective Season 3 remains gripping to watch each week across its three timelines, I’m here for the ride.

6. The Demogorgon

[Puts down bong.] Hold on, guys, just think about it. The Purcell kids go missing in 1980. We know they were playing Dungeons and Dragons in the woods. A kid named Will (!) went missing on a bike ride. Season 1 set up all these Lovecraftian undertones, so why shouldn’t Season 3 offer some similar hints about the Demogorgon? It’s just some food for thought and—OK, yeah, maybe I’ve been slamming too many Lone Star tall boys. Let’s just move on.

Theme of the Week: The Personal Cost of Crime-Solving

The two-episode premiere set up what we know about Hays and Amelia: They meet in 1980 after the Purcell kids go missing, and at some point between then and 1990, they get married and have two kids, and by 2015, Amelia has died after becoming a successful true crime novelist, and after the two of them had a rocky end to their marriage. This week, we get to see a little bit of the good (he asks her out for dinner in 1980, how cute!), and a lot of the bad (lots of fighting, something bad happened to their daughter Rebecca, and Old Man Hays is literally being haunted by Amelia in his dreams).

Pizzolatto has put a lot of nuance into this relationship and their eventual marriage, which I don’t want to disregard or oversimplify. But while Amelia isn’t entirely without fault for the fractures of their domestic life, you can see how Hays’s decades-long obsession with the Purcell case has affected his life and informed how he sees the world. The most startling instance is his shopping trip to Walmart with his kids in 1990, and the immediate, intense terror that hits when he turns around and can’t find his daughter. When Rebecca pops up, saying she just orbited toward some free chip samples (lol), Hays drops an F-bomb and makes her cry. It’s rough, even if you shared a bit of his anxiety in the moment.

This has been a through line for the entire series: the considerable personal cost that’s required to crack the most complex cases, the trauma that comes from looking deep at the worst things people can do to one another, and how everything in the detectives’ lives suffers from that One Big Case, that ultimate obsession. These men are still Brooding and Have Their Own Vices—a true hallmark of prestige television—and not in any way perfect, but it demonstrates that even solving a case like this one day won’t provide meaningful resolutions to the rest of their lives. (I mean, do we need to talk about washed Rust Cohle and his greasy-ass ponytail?)

If Hays does solve the Purcell case in 2015, what does he have to show for it? His wife is dead; his daughter is either dead or, most likely, estranged; and even his son, who’s helping him, seems to treat him with a bit of contempt. While this has been apparent in Pizzolatto’s series, this episode was a microcosm of all the things Hays has sacrificed in his life. Being a true detective, in other words, sucks.

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 its many eras. With that comes some pretty incredible costume and makeup work, which we’ll be highlighting throughout the season.

4. Clean-shaven Scoot McNairy in an Urban Outfitters Sweater

By 1990, Tom Purcell is five years sober and has put his faith back in God. That’s all well and good, but it apparently came at the expense of an early front-runner for Mustache of the Year. It’s tragic: A face that was once accentuated by a ’stache that looked like two bushy caterpillars copulating is reduced to nothing. Thankfully, we don’t have to mourn the mustache, so long as we keep getting scenes set in 1980.

3. This Racist Redneck’s Hat

I mean, that hat choice! Pizzolatto is just slapping you across the face with that symbolism, man.

2. Mahershala Ali’s “I’m About to Get Laid in My Best Miami Vice Shirt” Face

Five minutes into Walgreens Stakeout and Chill and she gives you this look.

1. ’90s Stephen Dorff

Is this basically just present-day Stephen Dorff? Yes, but that’s not at all a bad thing. We also find out he’s driving a Camaro IROC-Z, which is about the closest you can get to saying “midlife crisis” without a character going up to the screen and saying, “He’s going through a midlife crisis.”

Most Important Player of the Week

This is Mahershala Ali’s award to win every week unless someone else does something extraordinary—and while Dorff was solid, this episode really does belong to Ali. He gives a compelling, oft-heartbreaking performance that conveys all of Hays’s suspicions, doubts, and insecurities across three timelines. Hays can be a difficult character to like—especially when he’s bad-mouthing his wife after she finds some essential evidence about Julie’s reemergence in 1990—but Ali makes you empathize with him, the prejudices he faced as a black man in the South, and the way his mind is slowly deteriorating, and, at times, haunting him.

Incidentally, this is the exact face I made watching half of this episode:

The Purcell case is heating up across our three time periods, and there’s still a lot to look forward to and pressing questions that will require some answers. What has Julie been up to for the past decade? Who was wrongfully convicted in 1980? What happened between Hays and his daughter? What does Old Man Dorff look like?

If it wasn’t already clear: I’m fully invested in this new season of True Detective. It needs to be next Sunday already.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.