The expectation with any anthology series is the stories contained within it are suitably different, but at the same time, familiar. The vagaries of success can sometimes inform the course of the format’s narrative, however. This is where the lines cross in this third season of True Detective – with enough mileage behind it now to live or die on its own merits – but the shadow of that debut run looms larger than ever, increasingly feeling like lightning in a bottle. It’s hard to repeat something as mercurial as an overnight hit though, and the traces of that struggle run throughout this season.
This is evidenced in a telling scene which if you blinked, you’d have missed it – and most of us did. It was reported earlier this week that a glimpse of documentary maker Elisa’s laptop screen in episode two showed a newspaper article about Cohle and Hart, as well as her making mention of the Crooked Spiral from that season – a love letter reference to diehard fans that not only confirms this series connects together within a shared universe, but also that show-runner Nic Pizzolatto is playing the long game in establishing the connective tissue that binds his storytelling. But from another angle, it also shows a quiet desperation to call back to the former glories of the show in a bid to shore up its existing shortcomings in standing on its own strengths.
The explosive ending to the previous episode is quickly picked up with a deadly shoot-out at Vietnam veteran Brent Woodard’s house, which he hot-wired with mortars in anticipation of the lynch mob closing in on him. The plan works, killing off most of his pursuers whilst he picks off the arriving Federal agents with his sniper rifle as well as clipping West in the leg for good measure.
It’s down to Hays as the man with most common cause as a fellow survivor of that terrible war to try and talk him down, but Brent (played superbly by Michael Greyeyes) has other ideas. Threatening to gun Hays down unless he executes him, the detective is forced to make the fatal choice. In comparison to other season’s midway big blowouts (the single take of Cohle’s crack-house run or the gigantic gunfight in the fourth episode of Season Two), it all felt curiously truncated – with multiple locals dead or maimed we didn’t really feel much resonance from the scene’s impact.
In fact, we didn’t spend a great deal of time in the era this episode beyond that scene. The real culmination of the incident is felt days later in the wreckage of the house however, when Will’s backpack is found in a crawl space and Julie’s torn and bloodied shorts in the burning remains of Brent’s smoker. It’s enough evidence for the police to posthumously charge Brent with the abduction and murder of the Purcell children, effectively bringing a close to the original case – a decision that will have significant ramifications throughout the remaining timelines.
As the narrative shifts gears away from the original case, we get more action in the era of the reopened case this week. With an APB out on Julie Purcell across the multiple counties, Hays worries her original captors may also be still looking for her. In his desperation to rectify his own shortcomings in the original case, he shows Tom Purcell the CCTV image of her as an adult. This reckless action forces West’s hand to go public with the information, and at a press conference, Tom makes an appeal for Julie to come forward. The conference also sees Brent Woodard’s children appear, represented by a lawyer with aspirations to replace the Attorney General with himself – using the failures in the original case as leverage.
The public appeal yields two interesting strands. A street kid comes forward saying he used to hang around with a gang of vagrant children that included Julie – except she was going by another name at the time, Mary July. He also says she was a little crazy, talking about herself as a “princess from the pink rooms” – a throwaway statement to him but a chilling indication to the viewer of where she had been held previously, and the fact she wasn’t the only one there.
The other big step forward is from Julie herself, who calls into the tip hotline to denounce Tom, referring to him as “that man on TV acting like my father” and states her captor “took me and I’m never coming back”, which lends itself to an air of benevolence afforded to her kidnappers. Is this a terrifying form of Stockholm Syndrome or something infinitely more twisted? Either way, her words have a devastating impact on Tom and has the effect of chilling West’s kindness to him after he misinterprets Julie’s words to assume her father was responsible in some way for her abduction.
Elsewhere, there are growing signs the case is still being misdirected by an unseen hand. Hays goes back to the start of the case and attempts to locate the unknown fingerprints on Will’s toys, but they are missing from the evidence locker. Likewise, his review of the evidence from Brent’s house reveals a startling omission from the original case – the discovery of Will’s backpack at the time was uncontested, but with hindsight the item has no damage at all – despite being found directly underneath the area of the first mortar explosion, indicating that it was planted after the fact.
In the present day Elisa interviews Hays again, this time revealing that one of the detectives who processed the Woodard scene went missing during the second investigation in 1990 – Harris James, seen in flashback as handling Will’s bag. Could he be the inside source that was obfuscating Hays attempts to review the original evidence back then? Elisa says the people surrounding the case have a habit of dying or going missing, and she’s not wrong – it’s a deadly curse for anyone involved. With her previous revelation that Dan O’Brien’s remains were recently found and the fact that he went missing during 1987 in the same location as Lucy Purcell overdosed the following year, the focus shifts to her culpability.
This is reinforced when Hays finally begins to read Amelia’s book about the case, in which Lucy is quoted as saying “Children should laugh” – the exact same phrase used in the kidnapper’s note. Hays can’t believe he’s been so blind to this all these years. Could Lucy be responsible? It certainly seemed she had significant guilt to express when she talked to Amelia in the previous episode, and combined with Julie’s denouncement of Tom not being her father it doesn’t take too much of a mental leap to presume the origins of both the Purcell children might bear closer scrutiny, potentially with a certain local food magnate.
The spectre of Hoyt looms large throughout the show. We are yet to meet him in person, and traditionally a third act appearance normally doesn’t bode well for a character’s innocence. There is an explicit reference this episode though, when Hays finally meets up with the present day West – who is curiously about as off the grid as you can get, and slowly drinking himself to death. Hays mentions in passing he met with Hoyt in the past, but never told West. It’s clear in each other’s body language that Hoyt was the largest missing piece in their puzzle, but as Hays tells it the man didn’t seem to know much – and either way is now deceased. But as we see again in the Sedan that stalks Hays at home this episode, maybe his legacy isn’t entirely dead and buried.
The Detectives’ reunion is a melancholy affair, with West aggravated at Hays conduct years past for an unspoken slight and an oblivious Hays crippled by dementia, unable to remember or reciprocate. West has drawn a definitive line under the case, refusing the advance of the documentary makers. “I don’t want to as much as dip a toe in that bullshit again” he affirms, and his current living state certainly indicates a person trying their best to remain apart from the world. Hays is adamant that they combine their collective talents again however, and despite West thinking the idea is “some sad, senile shit” the weight of the case compels him to reluctantly agree to help. “Stir some shit up with me!” Hays implores him, and you know they will.
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