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The Seven Biggest Questions Heading Into the ‘True Detective’ Finale

With only one episode remaining, there are still many loose ends in the Purcell case

HBO/Ringer illustration

With just one episode remaining, the third season of True Detective seems to have provided a broad outline for what happened in its central mystery. Barring a game-changing, tonal-shifting twist in the finale, all the evidence appears to implicate members of, as well as accomplices to, the Hoyt family, who’ve used their vast influence and power in Arkansas to cover up the 1980 kidnapping of Julie Purcell and possibly the murder of her brother, Will. But within this broad outline remain countless questions. The devil is in the details.

Edward Hoyt (to be played by Michael Rooker) has yet to appear on screen alongside Detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) in 1990; Old Man Hays is still trying to put a close to the decades-spanning Purcell case in 2015. We’ve got a lot of threads that still require some untangling in the finale. So before Sunday, here are seven pressing questions that need answers. (If you’re not up to date yet, here’s our breakdown of the penultimate episode, “The Final Country.”)

Where is Julie Purcell, and is she safe, in 2015?

As far as we know, Julie Purcell is still in the wind. Sometime between her kidnapping in 1980 and Hays and Roland West’s (Stephen Dorff) reinvestigation of the Purcell case in 1990, it appears that Julie somehow escaped the “pink rooms” of the Hoyt estate and lived on the streets with other runaway kids. The life of a drifter is not a great situation, to be sure, but it probably beats whatever she was subjected to at the Hoyt mansion.

It’s unclear what options Julie would have left in 1990. Both of her parents are dead—and while he’s only just disappeared, we know that the remains of her uncle Dan O’Brien (Michael Graziadei) will be found in a drained quarry. Is there anyone she can turn to? Will she continue to live on the streets, despite the renewed public interest in the case? And more importantly: Will we find her in 2015, and will she be safe?

Some fans on Reddit have theorized that the journalist interviewing Hays in 2015, Elisa Montgomery (Sarah Gadon), is actually Julie, having changed her identity and pursued the case to figure out what happened in her childhood. It’s a fun idea, but it doesn’t track. Elisa is, by all accounts, an accomplished investigative journalist living in New York who’s pursuing another unsolved case for the documentary series True Criminal (nice). The idea that this season was all leading to her—eventually—planning to pursue what happened during her childhood is a stretch. (Not to mention, Julie would have been in her 40s by 2015, and Sarah Gadon is 31.) Elisa certainly has her reasons to be interested in the Purcell investigation, including whether the cover-up ties into a broader conspiracy that involves high-ranking politicians and businessmen, which she believes. She doesn’t have an emotional interest in the Purcells, necessarily; their case is the means to an end, so that her investigation could potentially take down an entire pedophile/kidnapping ring. In any case, I suspect we’ll be provided an answer Sunday.

Who killed Will Purcell?

With all the attention being paid to Julie’s whereabouts, let’s not forget that we still don’t know why her brother, Will, was killed in the woods—and who was responsible for doing the deed. We do know that a white woman (likely Hoyt’s daughter, Isabel, who lost her daughter in a car accident) and a black man with a scar (a “procurer” for the Hoyts referred to as both “Watts” and “Mr. June”) were spotted around the area in the woods where Julie and Will secretly played. (They also might’ve worn ghost costumes and handed out those unsettling dolls on Halloween night in 1980, days before the Purcell kids disappeared.)

That leads us to a few possible conclusions. Perhaps Isabel and Watts/Mr. June did not plan on taking Will, and when he (quite understandably) resisted their efforts to kidnap his sister, one or both of the adults killed him. It also could’ve been even worse than that: Maybe the plan was always to kill Will, who was seen as collateral, and then to take Julie away to the “pink rooms.” Conversely, we know it’s likely that Harris James (Scott Shepherd) was something of a cleaner for the Hoyts, since he’s probably responsible for killing both Purcell parents and Dan O’Brien. Who’s to say a guy who’s probably killed several people would draw the line at killing a child?

But none of that quite explains why Will’s body was found in a creepy, staged pose in a cave, at the end of a path lined with those straw dolls. That adds cultish undertones to the killing, but whether it confirms the existence of a grander conspiracy remains to be seen.

What happened in 1990 between Hays and Edward Hoyt, and how did Hoyt know that Roland killed Harris James?

The last thing we saw in True Detective’s penultimate episode was Hays getting into a car with Edward Hoyt, who knows that Hays and Roland killed Harris James during one of their “enhanced interrogations.” We know that Hays won’t be fatally harmed—otherwise we wouldn’t have been awarded Mahershala Ali in old-man makeup in a future timeline—but their conversation should have big implications on the rest of the 1990 story line.

We know that in 1990 the Purcell case is closed again, with Tom Purcell’s (Scoot McNairy) staged suicide serving as a clean conclusion, the same way Bret Woodard’s (Michael Greyeyes) death did in ’80. We also know that Hays quit the force in 1990, and that his wife, Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), never pursued a second novel about the Purcell case. Considering the way Hoyt implicitly threatened Hays’s family at the end of “The Final Country,” it seems he made sure that Hays and his wife would steer clear of the Purcell case. When Roland reunites with Hays in 2015, he’s still mad at the way Hays up and left the force, but Hays says: “I made a decision. Had other things to think about, including the family. I let it go.”

But we still don’t know exactly what went down, nor do we know how Hoyt found out that one of his lackeys was killed. It’s possible that this will be waved away by Hoyt’s being some all-knowing force who’s kept tabs on Hays since 1980, became aware of his interest in Harris James, and then intuited that Hays and Roland killed James when the latter didn’t show up at work the next day.

But the more tangible explanation is that someone told Hoyt what happened—except the only other person who knows what went down that night is Roland. Could Roland have ratted out Hays? That’s what some viewers have surmised on Reddit, with the key being that Hays crossed a line by convincing Roland to go along with the “interrogation,” where they eventually shoot and kill James. But maybe Roland has been in on this since 1980. It would be one way to explain his ascension within the Arkansas State Police, the same way James was awarded a cushy position at Hoyt Foods after planting evidence at Woodard’s home. If that’s the case, it would also explain why Roland is helping out Hays in 2015: because he wants to make sure his old partner doesn’t uncover the truth. I don’t buy it; the season has affirmed that Roland is nothing if not the most empathetic protagonist in the True Detective universe, brought to tears by Hays’s apology on his porch in 2015, and a friend to Tom Purcell in his darkest days. That said, this theory is admittedly more realistic than the Elisa-is-Julie idea. It would be a heartbreaking reveal, but maybe that just speaks to how good Stephen Dorff has been this season.

How did Hays become estranged from his daughter, Rebecca?

At some point between when Rebecca began college—which, given her age in 1990, was probably in the early-to-mid-2000s—and 2015, she broke off her relationship with her dad. The show has been frustratingly vague on what caused this rift. “I lost Becca,” Old Man Hays tells a vision of his wife in the season’s third episode. “No you didn’t,” Amelia responds. “Not the way you think.” Four episodes have passed since that moment, and still, what the hell does that mean?

Considering that the last episode opened with Hays dropping off Rebecca for college, this is an important thread that we should be getting some concrete answers about. What happened might hinge on the Purcell case—perhaps she discovered that he was blackmailed by the Hoyts, or that he and Roland killed and buried someone. Or, it could be as simple as Hays being a difficult father, since he expresses remorse that he taught his son to repress his emotions. He also constantly, vehemently argued with his wife, and the show makes it clear both kids were privy to their marital issues.

Hays and Rebecca’s relationship might not be pertinent to the Purcell case, but it paints a picture of Hays’s crumbling domestic life and the effects that such an obsession with an investigation could have on the people closest to him. Even if their relationship is irreparable in 2015, we should be getting some clarity on what, exactly, is at the root of that.

What about Amelia?

By 2015, Amelia is dead. I don’t think her death is another disturbing mystery waiting to be unpacked; I don’t think she was killed because she wanted to reinvestigate the Purcell case with another book or anything along those lines. More likely, Amelia’s death is probably just another tragic footnote in Hays’s life. I’m more curious about how Amelia felt about the way the investigation ended in 1990, and what the Hays-Amelia dynamic was like afterward.

We know that Amelia went on to have a successful career as a writer. Early in the season, Elisa calls her book “a classic in American nonfiction.” In a teaser for the finale, we see Amelia in a new timeline (maybe the same one with college-age Rebecca) teaching at a college.

But does Amelia have any regrets about how the case ended, with Julie still on the run? Did she ever forgive Hays for the events that effectively closed the investigation and her opportunity to write a follow-up book in 1990? There might’ve been some friction in their post-1990 relationship, even more than before—if only because Old Man Hays, in his deteriorated mental state, is haunted by Amelia. I mean, look at this poor dude’s face:

Early theories about this season posited that Amelia was secretly Will Purcell’s killer, trying to jump-start her true-crime-writing career. While we can safely table that under “fun, but totally ridiculous,” that doesn’t mean we won’t still be treated to some exciting revelations regarding Amelia on Sunday night.

Will Rust Cohle and Marty Hart make a cameo?

The last episode laid out what had been hinted at in an earlier teaser: The crimes of season 1 and 3 take place in the same universe. The excitement of an actual True Detective–verse notwithstanding, there are some similarities between the central crimes of both seasons—namely, that they are set in the South, deal with missing children, and bear some cultlike undertones.

Could these crimes have a more meaningful connection? It’s something we pondered in January, and it’s what Elisa lays out to Hays in “The Final Country” while showing him a digitized newspaper clipping about Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) capturing Errol Childress, a.k.a. the Yellow King. “These groups take runaways, kids in orphanages, outright kidnapping,” she says, theorizing that the Hoyts could be part of a larger network of pedophilia. “And wider investigations are consistently curtailed. In both the Louisiana and Nebraska cases, high-level politicians and businessmen were implicated. People with the power to make these things go away.”

Hays politely dismisses her suggestion of a larger conspiracy—though we also know he’s not being completely honest with her, since he’s investigating the same thing with Roland behind her and Henry’s backs. (He also told her that he never considered the similarities between the ends of the 1980 and 1990 investigations, which we know is false, thanks to a flashback when he says, “It’s like 1980 all over again.” This is a prime example of Hays obfuscating, perhaps out of fear that the Hoyt family could retaliate against him and his family.) Harris James also laughed off this conspiracy-laden theory when he was being interrogated by Hays and Roland in last week’s episode. Though he’d of course be motivated to downplay a conspiracy, his scoffs could have been genuine, a comment that everyone—and this includes the Reddit-enthused audience at home—was getting a little too Galaxy Brain about this whole thing. Maybe the Purcell case and the Hoyts’ efforts to make it go away are an isolated incident. Maybe Elisa is more of a tinfoil conspiracist than we’ve been led to believe and her theory of a plot perpetrated by high-ranking government officials has no basis in evidence.

Or maybe it does—it’s hard to say. We’ll find out whether True Detective wants to connect these far-reaching dots Sunday, or whether Season 3 will end the way Season 1 did, with one specific crime solved and no giant conspiracy uncovered. Still, imagine if we get Rust and Marty in the finale, a few years after their big Yellow King break in 2012, meeting up with Old Man Hays and Roland in 2015. It’s a big stretch, I know, but this tweet from 2017 is giving me a glimmer of hope as my inner monologue goes alright, alright, alright.

Will justice be served?

The two previous season finales for True Detective have been, in a word, bittersweet. In the second, Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) is killed in the process of getting incriminating evidence in the murder of Vinci, California, city manager Ben Caspere. (He also fails to reconcile with his pure, perfect, Friends-loving son, Chad Velcoro, something that will haunt me to the end of my days.) And as we addressed, while Rust and Marty successfully stopped Errol Childress in Season 1, nobody else was implicated in the crimes—despite compelling evidence that he had powerful accomplices.

So what will happen with the Purcell case? Will Season 3 stick to this bittersweet ethos? Can anyone be convicted for Julie’s kidnapping and Will’s murder? If someone is incriminated, will they even be alive in 2015 to face justice for what they’ve done? And maybe most importantly: Who would a conviction matter to, especially if Julie is no longer alive?

The best we can probably hope for is that the outcome will offer some closure for Hays, so that he can finally put the Purcell case behind him, possibly make amends with Rebecca, and live out the rest of his days in peace. (One positive note: His bromance with Roland has already been rekindled.) Whatever the direction of Sunday’s finale, though, we can be certain about this: True Detective has bounced back well enough that we actually give a damn about what happens. Considering how we left things in 2015, that’s no small feat.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.