After two True Detective episodes that trickled out details about the 1990 re-opening of the Purcell case, that storyline comes front and center in episode 3, titled "The Big Never." We finally get to check in with Det. West (Stephen Dorff), and a rather depressed Det. Hays (Mahershala Ali) finds a new reason to get out of bed in the morning.
Here’s what happens in each of the three timelines.
The attorneys depose Roland West, who is now a lieutenant for the Arkansas state police and it is this narration that guides the 1980 timeline. While West ends up being tapped to head the new Purcell taskforce, Hays is struggling with his current situation.
He hates his job, which appears to be a desk job typing up police reports. He's disconnected from his wife, Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), and a little resentful of her involvement in the case, as she's getting a book published and kind of stepping all over his final case as a detective.
It doesn't help matters that she questions the police who investigated the robbery where Julie's prints were found, and she manages to get some good information — namely, that Julie was probably just a shopper, not part of the robbery. Amelia is rightly pumped about making headway with them, but Hays is a total jerk to her about it. He is obviously depressed and possibly has a drinking problem, resentful that she's out doing investigative work while he's taking the kids to Wal-Mart. It's an ugly look on Hays, and he says some ugly things to Amelia.
Luckily, when West is tapped to steer the new task force, he insists on bringing Hays in. The two manage to reconcile with minimal verbal bloodshed. Hays is also pretty resentful of how well West has done and says it has a lot to do with West being white. He later apologizes for the comment, but he's most likely correct — though West is probably also correct in pointing out that he (West) knew when to keep his mouth shut, and Hays did not. That undoubtedly didn't help Hays' case.
Either way, the two buddies are back together, which gives the ending of the episode a real "end of Act I" feel to it. We've established the case and the characters, and now it's time to really dig into whatever is going on here.
There's a reward for information about the Purcell case, made possible by the Ozark Children's Outreach foundation, which we later come to find was founded by the CEO of Hoyt Foods after he lost his granddaughter. The foundation put the reward out there because the children's mother, Lucy (Mamie Gummer), used to work at their processing plant.
This thread is setting off major alarm bells — why is this company getting involved with some employee who worked the food line a number of years ago? What happened to Hoyt's granddaughter? Is it related to whatever's happening to Julie Purcell (Lena McCarthy)? Hmmm.
The detectives also realize that the Purcell kids were lying about their after-school plans, and they revisit the house, finding a map Will (Phoenix Elkin) drew of the woods and some odd notes Julie secreted away in a Hoyt Foods bag. They also find a photo of Will at his first communion that shows him with his eyes closed and his hands clasped in prayer, just like how Hays found the body. Well, that's creepy. Were the killers friends of the family? Were they in the Purcells' house at some point?
The kids' lies about their after-school activities lead Hays to follow Will's map, where he stumbles upon the missing backpack and also the site of Will's death — there are blood and hair on some rocks in the wood. That makes us wonder if Will's death was actually an accident, like maybe he fell and hit his head on a rock?
But Hays also finds Will's Dungeons & Dragons dice set, which is a perfect 1980s touch because there was a whole kerfuffle back then about D&D getting kids into Satanic rituals, drugs, and other nonsense like that. Maybe in this case, it's actually true.
Exploring the woods also leads Hays to a nearby farmhouse, where an old man, with his racism barely veiled, reveals that he was already questioned by someone pretending to be law enforcement. He also says he's seen a couple — a black man and a white woman — driving around in a nice car, and that they might have something to do with the Purcell kids. Do you remember the drawing Hays found in Julie's room of the two people getting married and two kids standing nearby? That seemed like it could be important at the time he saw it, and now it definitely feels that way.
Finally, there's a scene where some local rednecks beat the crap out of the trashman, Brett Woodard (Michael Greyeyes), that at first seems like just a bit of situational establishment, demonstrating what the town is like in the wake of the Purcell case. But later, a very angry Woodard carries something wrapped in a tarp out of his shed, and it looks suspiciously like a small body.
This timeline delves more into Hays' dementia, revealing that when he found himself on the Purcells' old street, he wasn't hallucinating. He really did end up there in the middle of the night in his bathrobe and didn't know how he got there. We had assumed that was either a hallucination or a dream, brought about by his interview with the TV news program focusing on the Purcell case.
They don't come right out and say it yet, but basically, Hays has Alzheimer's ,and he vows to his son and his doctor that if they try to put him in a home, he'll kill himself. He's also determined to carry on with the TV interview, even when the interviewer surprises him with some holes in the original investigation that get him all riled up.
It turns out that several people were never questioned by police, despite making reports about seeing a fancy brown sedan repeatedly driving around the Purcells' neighborhood. Obviously, this is the same couple the old farmer was talking about, and somehow the neighbors' accounts never made it into the official report. That smells like a wealthy cover-up, the kind that could be financed by the CEO of a food company and aided by a politically ambitious prosecuting attorney. Hmmm.
Later, Hays makes notes and recordings to help himself remember. He hallucinates Amelia, who says some mysterious and intriguing things to him: "At the end of all things, are you awakening to what you withheld? ... Did you think you could just go on and never once have to look back? ... You're worried what they'll find, what you left in the woods. Finish it."
Oh, Hays. What did you do?
Odds & Ends
Hays: "This is like afro-Hart to Hart, that it?"
That 1990s-era Wal-Mart was an incredible set. It's like they found an actual 1990 Wal-Mart in which to film.
It bears mentioning that in 1990, West has been a real friend to Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy), who is five years sober at that point. He's found religion and he seems to have dealt with the loss of his son and his wife (we don't know how Lucy died, but we know that she's dead in 1990). The news that Julie is alive brings him joy and hope, but also pain because he doesn't want to get his hopes up. What's interesting here is that we know from the 2015 TV interview that something happened in 1990 involving "Julie and her father." Based on that comment, we were not expecting Tom to have his life together — in fact, it felt like he might end up being involved in her disappearance. Apparently, that is not the case, so we're eagerly anticipating watching this incident play out.