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

Is there a larger conspiracy at hand? Does the “Amelia did it” theory hold water? And just how involved were the Purcell parents?

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 fifth episode, “If You Have Ghosts.”

(Extra spoiler warning: “If You Have Ghosts” technically doesn’t air until Sunday, but HBO made it available to stream because of the Super Bowl. DO NOT keep reading unless you’ve seen the episode or you’re a monster who wants the details spoiled.)

Who Done It?

Through four episodes, this season of True Detective has been fairly light on action. It seemed likely that that would change in the fourth episode, since it was that episode of the first season that blessed us with that famously thrilling six-minute single take, and Season 3 has so frequently been compared to Season 1. But that episode came and went, all quiet on the Arkansan front. As much as I love Mahershala Ali in old-person makeup reckoning with his fragmented memories and a lifetime of regrets, we could use some action. We finally got some in the first 15 minutes of “If You Have Ghosts,” as we saw the aftermath of the standoff in 1980 between local rednecks and Native American veteran Bret Woodard (Michael Greyeyes), as the authorities tried to stop things from getting out of hand. [Narrator voice] It got out of hand.

The sequence is undeniably tense, if a bit brutally unspectacular. Woodard takes out all the locals, plus two FBI agents, but Hays (Ali) intervenes before he’s able to kill Roland (Stephen Dorff). Woodard knows he reached a point of no return after killing the two agents, and gives Hays three seconds to shoot him before he turns around and opens fire. Hays, reluctantly, pulls the trigger. We then learn in the 1990 timeline that Woodard was the person convicted for Will Purcell’s murder and Julie Purcell’s kidnapping—there wasn’t a lot of fuss, given that he was already dead, the pressure to close the case after the shootout was even greater, and the fact that officers sweeping the scene found Will’s backpack and Julie’s sweater, partially incinerated. So, case closed?

Well, not exactly. Julie’s resurfacing at a Walgreens in Oklahoma provided Hays the opportunity to give Woodard’s conviction a closer inspection. And while Will’s backpack was found in the rubble at Woodard’s home, it barely had speck of dust on it.

It was already a foregone conclusion that whoever was convicted in 1980 was probably innocent—this wouldn’t really be a compelling mystery otherwise—but now it’s confirmed that there was a widespread cover-up in effect in ’80. The question is this: Who’s responsible for that?

1. Harris James

The name might not ring a bell, but Harris James is mentioned offhand a couple of times in this week’s episode, and appears on screen briefly. Here’s what we know about him: He’s a cop who worked the 1980 Woodard crime scene, which took three days to process. (Plenty of time for someone to plant some evidence.) We also know, thanks to journalist Elisa Montgomery’s (Sarah Gadon) interview of Hays in 2015, that James went missing after the Purcell case was reopened in 1990.

Hays doesn’t remember James, which could simply be a result of his potential dementia, or because James was just anonymous enough to fall off Hays and Roland’s radar. When Hays and Roland reconvene in 2015, Hays mentions James and Dan O’Brien (Michael Graziadei)—the cousin of Lucy (Mamie Gummer), mother of the Purcell children—which immediately irks Roland. He’s worried that Hays could inadvertently spill something to investigators after “what we done,” and heavily implies they killed someone decades ago. Now, this could be in reference to Dan—all we know is he, too, disappeared in 1990, and that his remains were found in a quarry sometime between 1990 and 2015—but it’s not explicitly stated. (It’s worth noting that some fans believe the detectives did kill Dan, perhaps because they suspected or confirmed he was abusing Julie.) But still, James is probably mentioned for a reason: He may not be the person responsible for what happened to Julie, but he could be a pawn complicit in her kidnapping and planting false evidence against Woodard.

If this all seems like a bit of a stretch, I have to admit there’s a reason outside the True Detective realm that James caught my eye. The actor who plays him, Scott Shepherd, is just famous enough that there’s no way in hell he gets just 30 seconds of total screen time. He previously had a major supporting role on HBO’s The Young Pope, playing the Young Pope’s sex-crazed BFF, Cardinal Spencer Dussollier. He’s way too good of an actor to be wasted on True Detective in a nothing role. Through The Young Pope, God has given me a sign: Harris James is most certainly a person of interest heading into the final three episodes of the season.

2. Lucy Purcell

Lucy may have died of a drug overdose in 1988, but new evidence suggests she could’ve had some involvement in her own daughter’s disappearance. In her conversation with Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo) last week, Lucy said “children should laugh,” a quote Amelia included in her novel about the case. That phrase rings a bell for Old Man Hays, who’s reading his late wife’s book for the first time in 2015, because it was also used in the presumed kidnapper’s ransom note.

“The fuck?” Hays says—which is also what I said. Indeed, this opens up a lot of avenues: Why would Lucy have forged a ransom letter? Does this mean she was somehow involved in her daughter’s kidnapping? Did she have anything to do with Will’s death? Who else could be involved—cousin Dan, perhaps? The vague nature of Hays and Roland’s conversation in 2015 doesn’t help matters. “We already knew she had some connection to that guy whose name you just said,” Roland says, referring to either Dan or Harris James.

We can’t get these answers from the source since Lucy’s dead, but I suspect we’ll get some clarity in the coming weeks. I hope it’s a more nuanced explanation than Lucy saying she has the “soul of a whore” two times in a single conversation. For now, Lucy might not be the perpetrator of the crimes, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t complicit in some way.

3. Tom Purcell

Man, what a rough episode for the Purcells. Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy) begins the episode inadvertently seeing a photo of his overdosed ex-wife, and then the photo of what could be his daughter in Oklahoma, opening a wound he’d tried to close for the past decade. That’s enough to shake anyone to their core. He then gives a televised statement in front of the press, a plea for Julie to make contact so she can be saved and they can finally be reunited.

Well, Julie apparently obliges—just not in the way he probably expected. A person everyone assumes to be Julie calls the local police station and says she never wants to see the “man on TV acting like my father” again. “I know what he did,” she adds, turning the attention of the reopened case to the Purcell patriarch. Is the dad also involved? Does Julie believe her parents were responsible in some way for her kidnapping, or helped orchestrate it? Like damn, how shitty were these parents?

I don’t buy it. Maybe Scoot McNairy was just that convincing as Tom, who falls apart hearing his daughter’s voice for the first time in a decade. But turning suspicion onto the father seems like yet another red herring devised by writer-creator Nic Pizzolatto, and one that isn’t entirely convincing. If there is a parent whose actions seem suspect, it has to be Lucy (see: the ransom note). It’s not like Hays and Roland have anything to convict Tom with even if they do believe he’s guilty; one phone call from a teenager who claims to be his daughter isn’t going to hold up in court. It’s not much of a mystery if they just remain convinced of his guilt in 2015.

And if it is Julie, I also don’t think she’s in her right mind when she makes the call. For one, she could’ve been coerced into leaving that message. She also says “we left him resting” about her brother Will, which is an objectively creepy thing to say knowing how his body was discovered in the cave. (Another conversation Hays and Roland have with a teenager who used to run the streets with her suggests that she isn’t even aware her brother died, and that she described herself as a “princess from the pink rooms.”) There’s more to the Purcell case—and the Purcells—than what we’ve seen, but I don’t think this falls on Tom. I’ll put all my faith in him, and his gloriously thicc mustache.

4. Amelia Reardon

In a Slack conversation this week about the quality of True Detective’s third season, one Ringer staffer said this season is “only good if the wife is the killer.” “This is the only reason I’m hanging in there, frankly,” another responded. The Cult of the Wife Did It grows stronger by the week.

I still don’t know how much circumstantial Amelia Did It evidence is here, though there have been some compelling breakdowns on her apparent guilt. Amelia and Hays have a venomous relationship by the 1990 timeline, and it seems destined for some kind of big blowup. (We also got to see their first hookup, which happened in the post-traumatic wake of the Woodard shootout in 1980, which reinforces a theme that Hays and Amelia fornicate their problems away rather than address them.) She’s maintained a real interest in the Purcell case—as evidenced by a very heated dinner at Roland’s house in 1990—but really, who can blame her? It’s a big part of their lives and she’s about to publish the definitive book on the subject.

“Sorry, I’m a writer, I can’t help it,” she says when pressing her husband and Roland about the latest updates on the case over dinner. Well: Sorry, I’m a blogger, I can’t help it. Enough people are convinced that Amelia is the criminal mastermind that now I’m going to be suspicious of her until proved otherwise.

5. Someone We Don’t Know (Who Also Could Have Been Involved in the Season 1 Conspiracy)

It’s the same answer we’ve provided since Week 1—with a twist. As we broke down earlier this week, a teaser for the rest of the third season featured a brief shot of Elisa showing Old Man Hays a newspaper clipping referencing True Detective’s first season. The TL;DR version: This could be a clever Easter egg connecting these seasons into a shared universe, or a tacit acknowledgement that the crimes of Season 1 and the Purcell case are connected in a more meaningful way.

Again, it appears that Woodard’s crime scene was tampered with, and the primary objective of Roland’s task force in 1990 is reaffirming the original conviction for Will’s murder and Julie’s kidnapping. But as Hays discovers in 1990, the fingerprints found in the woods along with Will and Julie’s toys—a key piece of evidence that, with the aid of new fingerprint technology, could help track down a primary suspect—have gone missing from the evidence locker. Those have probably been tampered with too. (It’s not exactly cinematic if it were just archival incompetence by local law enforcement.)

That could be thanks to the aforementioned Harris James—or maybe more accurately, whoever had the power and money to pay off Harris James and make him disappear in 1990. The head of Hoyt Foods, perhaps? We still haven’t gotten clarity on how Hoyt is involved—what we do know is he was devastated after losing his granddaughter. As the leader of industry in the small Arkansas town, the Hoyts certainly have the pull to affect police investigations—and enough to lose to be driven to cover-ups. And as the former employer of Lucy Purcell, there’s a link between the company and the disappeared children. Whatever the case, it seems increasingly possible that Julie’s kidnapping is a small part of a larger conspiracy.

Theme of the Week: Politics and Establishment

We don’t know why Hays quit the force in 1990. In the last episode, he calls the ending of that investigation “more haunting than anything.” Part of it probably has to do with him and Roland possibly killing a man—how convenient that Hays can’t remember!—but it seems to also follow a pattern of Hays succumbing not just to prejudices against him because of his race, but an unwillingness to play office politics in the same way his partner does.

Roland understands how the system works: Even though he’s hoping to find the real culprit behind Julie’s kidnapping in 1990, he knows he needs to maintain the front that they’re just trying to stick to the original Woodard conviction. Roland will act only if their investigation unearths compelling evidence that unequivocally points to someone else being responsible, or something that can completely exonerate Woodard; in other words, something that can’t be ignored. And since they have only circumstantial evidence at best, Roland doesn’t want bring anything to the attention of state Attorney General Gerald Kindt (Brett Cullen) yet—much to Hays’s chagrin.

It’s understandable why this pisses Hays off—like Season 1’s flat circle enthusiast Rust Cohle, he doesn’t suffer fools. “It’s too big for that political bullshit!” he says to Roland, after telling him about the missing fingerprints in the evidence box. “It’s not bullshit to The Man,” Roland responds—which is a bit on the nose, but go off, Pizzolatto. Hays’s reluctance to work within the system is to his detriment, and probably a big reason why he left law enforcement, though that decision may also hinge on whether local authorities were actually corrupt and trying to cover up the Purcell case again in 1990. (The whole evidence-tampering thing leads me to believe that Hays is probably right, even if he hasn’t put all the pieces together.)

Hays appears to be following a similar path as Rust, a man who doesn’t fit within the rigidity of his police department’s politics, and who will do his own thing at the expense of his career. (At least he never grew out a greasy ponytail.)

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. ’90s Mechanic Jumpsuit-Wearing Freddy Burns

The last decade hasn’t been too kind to Freddy Burns, if the messy ponytail and sad goatee are anything to go by. At least he’s no longer suspected of killing Will, or getting threatened by Hays in interrogation rooms. But, no lie, he kind of looks like Rust Cohle in the worst possible way.

3. The Little-Seen Sixth Member of the Breakfast Club

This kid used the run with Julie on the streets; don’t you forget about him.

2. ’90s Mahershala Ali’s Date-Night Jacket

The leather jacket is the highlight, but really, this whole outfit is a winner. That brown sweater, is it cashmere? Wool, perhaps? When is True Detective auctioning off its clothes from production, and how much will this ensemble cost? I don’t have Ali’s build, but I will subsist solely on creatine for months just to fit into this look.

1. Old. Man. Dorff.

Folks, the moment you’ve been waiting for is finally here. Some True Detective viewers want to understand the machinations of the Purcell case and whether institutional corruption is an indicator of the inherent evil of man; others just want to see Stephen Dorff in old-person makeup. Pizzolatto teased us for four episodes, but finally, Old Man Dorff is here. It was worth the wait: Roland has not only amassed a respectable beer belly, but he also lives in a secluded cabin in the woods with a ton of stray dogs. (One diminutive Yorkshire terrier is afraid to eat alongside the big boys, so Roland takes the little guy inside and feeds him eggs straight out of a skillet and—no, you’re the one who’s crying!) Old Man Dorff is everything I could’ve hoped for and more: a bastion of light in a show that deals with so much darkness. What has this man been up to for the past two decades? I reckon we’ll find out over the next three episodes. I just want to listen to him talk for a while. He seems like the kind of guy you’d just listen to for hours at a bar while he’s working on his third glass of whiskey (Roland’s whiskey of choice: Crown Royal). He’d tell you this story about a fishing trip he took on a remote island, when he kept trying to catch an elusive tuna he decided to name Justice and—sorry, I’m now describing the plot of Serenity. In conclusion: Old Man Dorff rules and is living up to all my expectations. I can’t stop thinking about him.

Most Important Player of the Week

I’m going to cheat a bit here and give this award not to a single person, but to a scene: the reunion between Roland and Hays in 2015. This is something the season was building to for a while: Hays wants to put the pieces together and finally solve the case that’s haunted him for decades, but his mind is deteriorating, and he needs his old partner back to help fill in the cracks. Their reunion is bittersweet, however. Hays did something to Roland the last time they saw each other, something that seems to have irrevocably damaged their friendship, something he never apologized for. “I know what you did. What I did,” Roland says, being annoyingly vague. (Could it have something to do with them possibly killing a man?) According to Roland, they haven’t spoken in 24 years. But Hays doesn’t even remember the last time they talked—or what his old partner is angry about.

Ali and Dorff play this scene movingly, evoking a mix of anger, sadness, and pity as two old friends remiscience and—not to get too real here—consider their own mortality. As someone in his mid-20s, I have no idea what it feels like to live a full life and experience loss on this scale, an age where you’re way more likely to lose people than foster new relationships. “I’m fine,” Roland says fighting through tears. “Alone out here. No woman, no kids, and no old friends.” We can very clearly see, however, that he is not fine.

Except [fights through tears splashing the keyboard] they’ve still got each other, and the Purcell case to solve. As unlikely as it’d be for two washed old dudes to crack a decades-old crime, it’s definitely where we’re headed, and I can’t wait. True Detective Season 3 has been, at times, slow to the draw, but it appears that we’re—for the most part—leaving the 1980 timeline in the rearview to focus on how the Purcell case can be solved in the series’ present. (Not to mention, we haven’t even gotten to that Season 1 Easter egg yet.) Patience should be rewarded; in the meantime, let us solemnly reflect on the finite nature of our own existence, and the beautiful visage of Old Man Dorff.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.