As indications of a loss in faith go, it was pretty definitive – the viewing figures both here and Stateside for the opening episodes of True Detective’s third season were way down on those of its sophomore premiere. It would seem the series has a long way to go to shore up the confidence of the viewers that left it behind, which is a shame as this third entry in the anthology is about as well-crafted as a police procedural can be.
But disappointment requires expectation, and as a result it seems a lot of people are cautiously watching these episodes fearful of when it turns bad – or worse, boring. Judging by the evidence of this third episode, that isn’t going to happen any time soon. Instead, we were treated to an hour of beautifully-shot character development as the initial case blossomed and an encroaching feel of mysterious terror gripped the narrative.
For the purposes of keeping things clear, I’ll split up the story as it unfolds across it’s three timelines.
At the tail end of the second episode, a note was received by Will and Julie’s parents, purportedly from the killer. In the wake of that revelation, Hays and West agree they need to re-examine everything from the start in painstaking detail. The key fact of both children arranging to play with their neighbour Ronnie is revealed to be untrue – in fact, Ronnie barely knows them. A secondary search of the children’s room unearths clues previously thought benign – a map into the woods, and a series of little notes hidden in a fantasy gamebook that promise to keep the recipient safe from harm.
These items are found wrapped up in a Hoyt Food bag, a local processing plant that Lucy Purcell worked at a few years back. A wealthy local entrepreneur, Hoyt had developed a charity called the Ozark Outreach Children’s Center in the wake of his own child’s death, with its goal to help poor families in the area. It feels like something significant, but Hoyt was supposedly in Africa on a hunting trip during the time the children went missing. Regardless, Hays asks for their full staff roster to examine for suspects.
A grid search in the state park shown in the map reveals nothing except drawing Hays closer to his future wife Amelia, but upon returning to the cave where Will’s body was found, a set of dice that would be used in the child’s game is discovered. He also uncovers a hiding place where Will’s bag is found full of toys, that his parents later identify as items they never bought. Near to this, blood and hair are identified on a rock – consistent with the injury that killed Will. It’s a big reach to assume this was all missed on the first search, or that Hays is almost supernaturally gifted in his ground reconnaissance to identify clues his colleagues cannot – a leap of faith for viewers that reminded me of some of the more looser plot ends in Season One masked by Cohle’s ethereal intuition. Luckily, both characters have the requisite charm to make it feel like an organic development rather than an erratic script.
The trail leads to a remote house in the woods which didn’t feature in the first search, but does give them a potential witness (and suspect) who saw the children playing on the edge of his property on several occasions – and also identifies a black man and a white woman in an upmarket sedan prowling around the same area at similar times to when he saw the children. It all points to the hand of a hidden perpetrator at work, luring the children into a secret rendezvous, something that might be closer to home than Hays and West first suspected when a photo in the Purcell’s family album shows Will with his hands clasped in prayer at his first communion – just as Hays found him in death.
Now a Lieutenant, West (Dorff) is re-introduced at his own deposition on the case. As with season one’s narrative, his testimony doesn’t always run in parallel with his former partner, but it’s clear whatever happened to Hays at the end of the original investigation is still raw to him – “You all fucked a good detective you know that right?” he tells his interviewers. The series plays at it’s best in this space – revealing information the characters don’t know and affording us the luxury of foresight across certain areas of the case, whilst also carefully retaining other facts that remain intriguingly nebulous.
Whatever happened to Hays in 1980, he has now been demoted and is working as State Police. He discusses with his current wife Amelia the best way about trying to track down Julie, now that he is off the case. She offers to investigate in his place, an action that sows the seeds of their future separation as she finds increasing independence in her role whilst also revealing Hays own insecurities at his personal failures around the case as well as his performance as a father. Amelia’s investigation does yield immediate results however, as she finds out Julie’s fingerprints were only found on the bullet cases discovered at the robbery and not behind the shop counter – indicating she may have been a passive participant in the crime itself.
Elsewhere, West goes to see Tom Purcell, now living in a trailer as a recovering alcoholic who has found God. His wife Lucy has fared less well – she is now dead, something relating to a separate case that West alludes to. Tom is in a state of frustrating duality around the revelation that Julie’s fingerprints – thankful she might be still alive but also emotionally drained with the case being reopened. West has been assigned to lead the new task force and visits a downbeat Hays in a veterans bar to offer him a shot at redemption – a place on the team and a chance to be a detective again.
A visit to the doctor’s reveals Hays dementia is worsening, as evidenced by his fugue state at the end of episode two. The practitioner feels Hays suffered a blackout, but the former detective knows better – he can’t recall the reason he went to the street that night, but he feels in his heart there is an importance there – something related to the case, but he can’t remember why.
Memory is the phantom that looms over his life in this era, with a rapacious TV reporter attempting to fluster him by revealing countless people that were never formally interviewed about the couple in the sedan car – something Hays cannot recall, or refuses to. It’s clear there are obscured truths here, whether Hays wants to admit it to himself or not – something that comes to the surface in a terrifying scene when he hallucinates the presence of his dead wife. Amelia warns portentously that the past, present and future will combine and reveal the secrets he wants to keep hidden. “How much do I have to lose?” Hays pleads. “Everything. You must finish this.” Amelia responds, a precursor to some dark reckoning we will bear witness to.
FOR OUR EPISODES ONE AND TWO REVIEW CLICK HERE