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

After an intense cliffhanger, it’s time to take a closer look at the Hoyt family

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 sixth episode, “Hunters in the Dark.”

Who Done It?

After five hours of dead ends, red herrings, rigid men reckoning with the biggest mistakes of their lives, and Viet Cong ghosts, True Detective Season 3 finally unveiled its most significant breakthrough in the Purcell case, and it all comes back to the “pink rooms.” In 1990, Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy)—inebriated and looking for answers about what really happened to his now-resurfaced daughter Julie—clumsily breaks into the Hoyt family estate. (It’s worth noting this was one of the rare times this season gave us an extended viewpoint that wasn’t one of its lead detectives.) Tom’s every move in the mansion is being watched through several security cameras in and outside the Hoyt mansion, but nobody intervenes as he makes his way through the estate and into its basement. There, he happens upon a room painted a garish pink wallpaper—bringing to mind what one of the street kids who used to run with Julie told detectives Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) last episode, that she always talked about being a “princess from the pink rooms.” “... Julie?” Tom says, staring aghast at something offscreen. Then, just before the closing credits hit, we see former Arkansas highway patrolman–turned–current Hoyt Foods chief security officer Harris James (Scott Shepherd) sneak up behind him.

Have we reached a conclusion to the Purcell case? Yes and no. This is certainly a huge revelation that all but incriminates at least some, if not all, members of the Hoyt family—owners of Hoyt Foods, basically a fictional version of Tyson Foods, which is also based in Arkansas. But it also opens a Pandora’s box full of questions about what exactly happened to Julie, how many people were responsible, how wide this conspiracy spreads, and how everything was covered up between Tom’s discovery in 1990 and the 2015 timeline, in which Hays and Roland are reinvestigating the still-unsolved case. Most of these questions do not yet have clear answers, but at least we can narrow down the pool of suspects to those with a potential connection to the Hoyt family. Baby steps!

1. The Hoyt Family

Here’s what we know about the Hoyt family, who have yet to appear onscreen. They’re a wealthy family—especially relative to the rest of the people who live in this part of Arkansas—that employs a lot of locals, including, for a time, Lucy Purcell (Mamie Gummer), who used to work at the Hoyt Foods chicken factory line. The CEO of Hoyt Foods and the family patriarch—to the best of my knowledge we don’t even have a name yet, so let’s stick with Mr. Hoyt—was apparently on an African safari when the Purcell kids first disappeared. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the hints that this conspiracy includes local officials, Hoyt’s alibi wasn’t heavily scrutinized. Sticking with the 1980 timeline, the Hoyts offered a $10,000 reward for anyone with information on Julie’s whereabouts. Also in 1980, the Hoyts were running the Ozark Children’s Outreach Center, which was set up after the Hoyt patriarch lost his granddaughter.

From a brief shot we see of the Hoyt granddaughter in a picture frame in 1980, she looks around the same age as Julie when she first went missing:

Obviously, the Hoyts have a lot of influence and power that extends from their food empire, and for whatever reason, it’s heavily implied they kidnapped Julie and kept her in that basement room until either she was let go or escaped. Perhaps the Hoyts (and I should stress, this is not excusing the behavior!) were looking to fill the void from their dead granddaughter, and maybe Lucy Purcell was willing to give up her daughter for the right compensation. As Hays discovered in the 2015 timeline last week, it’s likely that Lucy forged the Purcell kids’ ransom note—suggesting she had some involvement in her own daughter’s kidnapping. (It’s unlikely that Will’s death was part of the plan.) This adds to the notion that Lucy allowed Julie to be kidnapped by the Hoyts—she knew where Julie was and wrote the note to try to give Tom a semblance of closure.

This week, in the 1990 timeline, Lucy’s cousin Dan O’Brien (Michael Graziadei) resurfaces and tells Hays and Roland that he believes Lucy didn’t die of an overdose in Las Vegas. She was murdered by “people who do not renegotiate.” Later, when Tom confronts Dan at his motel room, Dan asks him how he thinks Lucy was able to live on her own for eight years. “I know who was paying her,” he tells Tom, “and who’d have a problem if she asked for more.” The theory being that Lucy, broke in Las Vegas, began threatening whoever was paying her that she was going to reveal the truth about Julie’s disappearance if she wasn’t given more money. Instead, she was killed, and her death was staged to look like an overdose.

This all points back to the Hoyt family—who else would have the financial resources to pay someone off for nearly a decade and also have the power to stage that person’s death if they started pressing the issue? Dan knows that having this information puts him in danger—he brings it to Hays and Roland not out of some sense of moral justice, but because he’s trying to get $7,000 out of them because he’s a broke junkie. We also know Dan’s remains will be found in a drained quarry in 2015, so it’s likely the Hoyts eventually silenced him. I imagine poor Tom, having seen the most incriminating evidence against the Hoyts, has a similarly grim fate in store.

2. Harris James

Harris James is dirty. In 1980, he was the one to identify Will Purcell’s backpack at the Brett Woodard crime scene. A year later he left the force to take the job of chief security officer for Hoyt Foods, a cushy position with an absurd salary, likely a reward for playing a part in the Purcell cover-up. And then in 1990, at the end of this episode, James creeps up behind Tom in the pink room to do God knows what.

I don’t believe James had anything to do with Will’s murder or Julie’s kidnapping. Rather, he’s an important accomplice to the Hoyt family, one of the main cogs in the efforts to keep Julie’s kidnapping under wraps.

But Harris also disappears sometime in 1990, a fact that interviewer Elisa Montgomery (Sarah Gadon) brings up to Hays in 2015. What ultimately happened to James? I reckon it’s one of two things. Based on their porch conversation last week, in which West bristled at James’s name and seemed reluctant to discuss “what we did,” it’s possible that Hays and West became suspicious of James and killed him in the process of interrogating him for some answers. Alternatively, maybe there was so much heat coming James’s way that the Hoyts figured they needed to cut some loose ends and took care of him themselves. Either way, James is likely a pawn in a larger, Hoyt-centric conspiracy that’ll unfold over this season’s final two episodes.

3. Gerald Kindt

If the Hoyts have enough influence in law enforcement to have someone like James in their books, it probably extends to local politicians. Gerald Kindt (Brett Cullen) is Arkansas’s attorney general by the 1990 timeline—his political ascension came after the attention the Purcell case got in the previous decade. Kindt is the person who nudges authorities to convict Woodard after Will’s backpack and Julie’s sweater are found on his property in 1980. He’s also the one who sets up the 1990 task force investigating Julie’s reemergence, though he seems deeply intent on limiting the scope of that investigation.

Now, Kindt could just be an opportunist—someone who saw a high-profile case getting a lot of media attention and used it to advance his own career. (That totally makes him a shitty person, but not necessarily someone complicit in Julie’s kidnapping.) But what good institutional cover-up doesn’t include politicians on the payroll?

It’s also worth bringing up Julie’s phone call from last week. She talked about the “man on TV acting like my father,” after Tom begged for Julie to reach out to him at a press conference. Of course, authorities believed Julie was referring to Tom when she said this, but technically she never mentions Tom by name. And who else was visible on TV during that press conference? Gerald Kindt.

Notice how quick he was to try and get Hays and Roland to convict Tom after Julie’s phone call? He even brings up the possibility that Tom and Woodard teamed up to kidnap Julie and murder Will—which doesn’t make any sense and has no foundation in any evidence. Perhaps Kindt is more than just complicit in keeping Julie’s whereabouts hidden: Maybe he also visited Julie in the pink room.

4. The Man With a Scar

In 1990, Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo) reads a passage from her book about the Purcell case at a local library before allowing the audience to ask some questions. A man from the back of the library asks her about the case being reopened because of Julie’s fingerprints—to which Amelia responds, proudly, that she’s aware and working on a follow-up novel.

As the man slowly comes into view, and turns more aggressive as he questions her motivations for profiting off such a tragic story, we see that he has a scar on his face and a milky eye. “Oh shit!” I yelled at my TV screen.

Let’s get right to the point: This man is absolutely the same person whom townsfolk said they saw in the neighborhood and around where the Purcell kids were last seen; the man who also bought those creepy-looking straw dolls from Patty Faber. Why was he so aggressive toward Amelia? It’s possible he was trying to probe her for any answers she might’ve had on Julie’s current whereabouts. Hays and Roland aren’t the only ones looking for her.

Now, is this person connected to the Hoyts? Possibly. Is he the man the Purcell children played Dungeons & Dragons with in the woods? Maybe. Is it possible that he, while admittedly creepy, was actually a genuine friend to the children? That’d explain his anger over Amelia exploiting the case for her book. Does he have some type of connection to Will and Julie Purcell? Definitely.

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

As we previously covered, there could be a greater connection between this season’s mystery and the one that Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hays (Woody Harrelson) uncovered in Season 1. At the very least, thanks to a brief shot in a Season 3 teaser from last week, we know that Seasons 1 and 3 exist in the same fictional universe. There’s two possibilities: It was a fun Easter egg for writer-creator Nic Pizzolatto to dish out, or it was a reveal pointing toward a larger conspiracy that bridges these seasons—and the heinous crimes at the center of them.

This week’s episode provided some more evidence that we could be looking at a meaningful connection between the two seasons. (Besides, think about Pizzolatto: Does this guy look like the type of person who devises Easter eggs for the fun of it?) When Amelia, looking to talk to sources for her new Purcell book, interviews a young woman who used to run with Julie on the streets, she makes some vague hints to Season 1’s Tuttle family conspiracy and the Yellow King.

“You wanna write a book?” she tells Amelia. “Write about what happens to kids out here. What happens to girls.” Indeed, the end of Season 1 implied that there was a larger conspiracy in the greater Louisiana area in which runaway girls were kidnapped and murdered as part of some cult rituals. It’s possible that the Tuttle family—with their own Joel Osteen–like megachurch and outreach centers—could’ve been responsible for this. Meanwhile, the Hoyts have a children’s outreach center of their own. Could that be the base of some sinister operation exploiting and killing young girls? Are the crimes of the Tuttles and the Hoyts connected? It’s still to be determined, but it feels like True Detective is nudging toward this conclusion with every passing week and every delectable clue.

Theme of the Week: Repression

Finding the pink room isn’t the only crucial Tom-related discovery in this week’s episode. When Hays and Roland interview Tom’s former factory manager in 1990, we learn Tom wasn’t getting along with his coworkers after they claimed to have seen him enter a gay club. And when Hays and Roland get a warrant to search through Tom’s place, they find, among the litany of religious paraphernalia, a pamphlet that reads “Homosexuality can be cured.”

It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for Tom—not only because he lost his children and eventually his wife, but because he apparently stayed in the closet for the entirety of his life. Small-town 1980s Arkansas is not the kind of place known for its acceptance of different races or orientations; just ask Hays and Woodard. But it nonetheless means that Tom forced himself to repress his sexuality—to the point that by 1990 he’s wholly turned to religion in the hope that he can somehow change who he is.

Meanwhile, in the 2015 timeline, Hays is concerned with his own emotionally repressive behavior—he and Amelia rarely talked through their feelings, often ending confrontations by storming off or having sex. He’s beginning to recognize that this had a permanent, detrimental effect on his kids, one of whom is totally estranged from him. “Did you find—did I, uh, did I teach you to withhold?” he asks his son Henry (Ray Fischer). “I didn’t intend that. I didn’t realize it was happening.”

Intended or not, you can see the reverberating effects in the way Henry’s carried himself throughout the season. He is always at a bit of a remove from his father; they don’t talk about their feelings so much as exchange curt pleasantries while discussing the case and Hays’s mental state. In Sunday night’s episode, Henry opens up just enough to admit that he’s having an affair with Elisa, but beyond that, and even with the permission of his father to open up, he withholds.

It’s far from the first time Pizzolatto’s series has explored the way its characters are trapped by their own toxic masculinity and emotional inhibitions—in Season 2, Taylor Kitsch’s character was also in the closet, while Ray Velcoro’s relationship with his son was even more strained than Hays’s relationship with Henry.

When Hays and Amelia first have sex in 1980, the night of the Woodard shooting, Hays says he’s been good at repressing his emotions and memories since his time in the Vietnam War. “Honestly? I never gave it thought,” he says. “I really don’t spend time remembering stuff.” But while Hays may have been confident about this—and may have thought it was a positive thing—in 1980, we know that by 2015, Hays is being haunted by the ghosts of his past. Even while he’s slowly losing the memory of his wife, he remembers all of the lives he’s taken. You can only repress things for so long. And as the three timelines of this season increasingly begin to fold in on each other, the past never really stays in the past—no matter how hard you try to keep it there.

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. Diner Dan O’Brien

Sorry, Dan, but you look like the front man for a terrible Metallica cover band that performs at the world’s trashiest dive bar on Tuesday nights. Finish your breakfast and please take five showers.

3. Scoot McNairy’s Forehead Veins

I didn’t think we’d find a successor to Keri Russell’s intense forehead veins on The Americans so soon. But this is wild; I haven’t stopped thinking about it for days.

2. Mahershala Ali and Carmen Ejogo’s Post-Coitus Smoke

If you told me two characters would have sex and then smoke a cigarette after, I’d have booed True Detective off the stage for being too cliché. But then Hays said the corniest/darkest thing I’ve ever heard—“Hell of a day when a gunfight is the second-most exciting thing that happens to you”—and completely won me over. I guess when you have two objectively perfect humans in Mahershala Ali and Carmen Ejogo, you can do whatever you want. Congrats on the sex, you two.

1. Dorff Scowl

Stephen Dorff has been a revelation this season on True Detective. Roland is gruff but lovable—probably the only detective in the True Detective cinematic universe you’d actually want to grab a beer with. But my goodness, when he scowls, it is intense. My dude looks like he’s been impatiently waiting three days for the Miralax to kick in.

Most Important Player of the Week

We’ve been handing out so much (very deserved!) love to Ali and Dorff this season that it now feels like we might be underrating Scoot McNairy’s performance. Let’s change that—especially since Tom Purcell might not be around for much longer.

This week, McNairy delivered his best performance to date, a physical and emotional breakdown as we followed Tom from being tapped as the prime suspect of his own daughter’s kidnapping to going all the way down the rabbit hole to figure out the awful truth. I just mentioned the forehead veins; they showed up again when he attacked Dan in his motel room.

McNairy is devastating, fully committing as Tom pushed himself to the brink—and breaking his five-year streak of sobriety—in a brutal, last-gasp state of futility. The Purcell case has taken a massive emotional toll (and racked up a surprisingly high body count) on so many people’s lives, but nobody has borne the brunt of it more than Tom. McNairy has wonderfully evoked this pain for five episodes—cementing his status as one of prestige television’s best wingmans. (If you want more McNairy and haven’t watched Halt and Catch Fire, you should; it’s on Netflix.) Not to mention, he’s been sporting a killer mustache that’s among the best I’ve ever seen. If Tom really is about to die, I will hold a makeshift viking funeral for that ’stache.

We’re nearing the finish line—and while we can reasonably point toward the Hoyt family as the guilty party, we still don’t know just how far this thing goes. Is Julie just one kid enmeshed in a plot to kidnap runaway and unwanted girls? True Detective Season 3 has opened the door to the pink room; I’m ready to walk in and not look back.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.