It's no secret that True Detective had a critically-acclaimed and award-winning first season, only for its follow-up season to fall flat. Fortunately, the season 3 premiere has recaptured some of the season 1 magic. Mahershala Ali as Wayne Hays makes a compelling main character, and the central mystery is along the same lines as the "Yellow King" murders, which (hopefully) means we're in for another intense – and impressive — eight-episode detective case.
The setup for this season is very similar to that of season 1 as well. That season started with two timelines (1995 and 2012) and later added in one in 2002. Season 3 actually jumps right in with three timelines: 1980, when the original case happened; 1990, when the original conviction is being challenged in court and Det. Hays is being deposed as a result; and 2015, when an elderly Hays is being interviewed for a TV news program about the original case.
In our episode recaps, we’ll take the episodes timeline by timeline, rather than jumping back and forth the way the show does.
The season's mystery begins Nov. 7, 1980, a Friday. The day Steve McQueen died. Two siblings, 12-year-old Will and 10-year-old Julie Purcell (Phoenix Elkin and Lena McCarthy), ride off on their bikes with their father, Tom's (Scoot McNairy) permission. When he realizes it's well past dark and the kids aren't home, Tom goes looking for them and calls the police. The children never return.
Flashes of the Ozark surroundings introduce us to this mysterious characters about town. There’s a man driving a go-kart and towing a trash bin, and a group of tweens and teens getting into shenanigans out at the local state park, Devil's Den. Three of the teens stand out as especially suspicious and possibly dangerous. We see the trio give Will and Julie quite the stare down when the siblings coast by the boys' car before they go missing. Later, one of them is seen inauspiciously riding Will’s bike. Both the teens and the local man in the go-cart feel like red herrings here, even before we get to the big reveal at the end of the episode. But, there have to be some suspects for the police to zero in on right out of the gate, especially since we know from one flash forward that someone is trying to overturn what will undoubtedly be revealed as a wrongful conviction.
While Tom looks for his kids, we meet the two main detectives: Wayne Hays (Ali) and his partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff). They're drinking out at the dump and shooting at rats, which gives us a few key pieces of information about Hays. He has a code about which animals it's okay to shoot — rats are permissible, while foxes are not. Wild boar are okay because they're super dangerous; therefore, it's a level playing field. Deer are allowed, too, but only with a bow and never from a blind shot and with bait. This tangent gives the viewer more information about Hays as a man; there are rules when it comes to killing and violence.
We also find out he served in Vietnam, later learning that he was a "LRRP" (pronounced "lurp"), a scout who does long-range reconnaissance patrol. They were usually special forces and known for their extremely high body count. (TL;DR: He’s good with a gun.)
The detectives are pulled from their dump hangout and head to the Purcell house, where their behavior is typical of law enforcement, but maddening to the family of the missing children. Immediately they're suspicious of the father, they're suspicious of the mother, Lucy (Mamie Gummer), who shows up drunk and is obviously estranged from the father despite her still residing in the home, and they're suspicious of the fact that the kids could have simply run away. There's also a man who stayed with them for a while a few months ago, Lucy's cousin. Hays makes a mental note to look into the cousin after finding a peep hole going from the son’s room (where he stayed) to the bedroom of 10-year-old Julie. The discovery is both gross and upsetting.
As the detectives interact with the frantic, inebriated mother, and take a closer around the house, it becomes clear that the kids are likely missing, and not runaways. We as viewers, with this being True Detective, know that this is not going to end well. But there's only so much the police can do before daylight, even as Hays starts to put his tracking skills to use and figure out where the kids went.
In the morning, the detectives go to the school to speak with Freddy Burns (Rhys Wakefield), the little ringleader of the burnout kids seen messing with Will's bike. Hays is immediately taken with the school's English teacher Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), who eventually becomes his wife. They're very cute together, but Hays can't dawdle around with her today.
For now, the detectives grill the boys about the previous night. The three lie through their teeth about what actually goes on out at Devil's Den, but the nervous youth don't seem capable of murder. They're just teens out getting into mild trouble.
Hays and West also need to go speak with the trashman, aka Brett Woodard (Michael Greyeyes). He's not there, so the detectives peek around his home (it’s unlocked) and surrounding property. It’s definitely creepy and unsettling. Still, it feels too early to reveal the actual bad guy in town.
They do learn the trashman has a wife and kids somewhere, though there's no evidence they live with him, and that he, too, served in Vietnam. Hays and West lament that they each know a couple guys who came back from 'Nam pretty messed up and haven't had an easy time since, so you never know what this Woodard guy is like.
But we don't get to meet him just yet because the detectives are conducting a search of the state park with a team of volunteers, officers, and K-9 units. Hays goes off on his own and finds a trail that leads to Will's abandoned bike, then to a creepy straw bride doll nestled inside a tree stump, and finally to a cave where he finds another creepy doll — and Will's body. Hays' entire search lasts for nearly 10 minutes of screentime and is fraught with tension and dread; the show really builds some terrifically creepy atmosphere right here.
Unfortunately, Julie is nowhere to be found, which is almost worse than finding Will's body because it means she may still be out there. Will’s body looks peaceful. He’s posed in a strange position, though, lying in a small cave with his hands laced together as if he’s in prayer.
As West and the rest of the law enforcement catalog the scene, Hays sets out to look around for more clues in the woods.
Detective Hays is being deposed. At this time, the unknown person who ended up being convicted in the Purcell case is looking to overturn their conviction, so a pair of attorneys are re-interviewing people who were involved back in 1980. But Hays isn't actually a detective anymore. We don't yet know what he does, but he is no longer a part of the town’s law enforcement.
Hays has questions about why one of the original prosecutors, Alan Jones (Jon Tenney), is involved in getting the original conviction overturned, but the lawyers refuse to answer at first. Basically, for the majority of the episode, this timeline and the modern-day timeline serve as narration for the 1980 flashbacks. It isn't until the end of the episode, when Hays threatens to stop cooperating if he doesn't get some answers, that we get the premiere episode's big bombshell.
Jones reveals to Hays that during the 1980 case, Julie Purcell's fingerprints went into the system — and they just got a hit on the prints for a drug store robbery in Oklahoma. Now that is a twist. Hays is stunned to learn that she's still alive since they had all assumed she was dead.
So, was Julie the target all along, and her brother was collateral damage? What do the dolls mean? Is this some kind of child-bride situation? That's the first thing I thought. Ugh.
An elderly Hays is being interviewed for a documentary called True Criminal (super meta) about the Purcell case. Hays is suffering from memory problems. They don't come right out and say Alzheimer's, but it's something along those lines. He records messages to himself to help him remember important information. One of the messages establishes that he's not afraid to use his own gun on himself, if it comes to that.
During the interview, we learn that "a man" was convicted in the Purcell case, but his family had the conviction overturned. Once the case was reopened, Hays re-worked it, which is the narrative direction the 1990 storyline is heading. We also find out Hays' wife wrote a book about the case, even becoming an impressive investigator in her own right. She passed away a few years' prior to this most recent storyline, and the haunted Hays misses her terribly.
Odds & Ends
The first time we saw Amelia's book, I thought the title was The Harvest Room instead of The Harvest Moon. Thank goodness for small favors that this isn't about some kind of child "harvest room," right? That would immediately take this season to as dark of a place as season 1, and it would actually be nice if it isn’t quite that dark this time around.
Mahershala Ali is so good in this. He is magnetic to watch in all three eras — it’s great they chose to use him in all three, instead of casting someone else as the elderly version of the character. And shout-out to Stephen Dorff, whom we haven’t seen in anything for a while, but who makes a good partner for Ali. That's some solid casting right there, they have a very natural chemistry together.
What do you think, readers? Are you as into this new season as you were season 1?