Good news, fake-crime fans: True Detective season 3 is a legitimate descendant of the first (and best) season.
In our first guide (or what I like to call our “watchthrough”), we’re going to do a few things: introduce the characters, discuss how they weave through though the plots of the first two episodes, and talk about the evidence. The first part gives us the knowledge we need to understand and analyze the show. The second part allows us to draw conclusions.
Why focus so much on characters? In an interview about the second season, creator Nic Pizzolatto talked about why he’s drawn to detectives.
“It puts you in everything,” he told Vanity Fair. “That’s why they’re great engines for stories. They go everywhere. A detective story is really just the way you tell a narrative — you start with the ending. At the end, this person is dead. Now I’m going to go back and piece together the story that led to it…. It’s about the final unknowability of any investigation.”
Closely watching characters and the show is the key to “solving” True Detective. So when the camera lingers, we’ll be there. When someone says something that seems poignant, we’ll be there. Week by week, we’ll examine the evidence and do our best to unravel the mystery.
Table of contents
First things first: Let's get True Detective season 3's multiple timelines straight.
Let’s talk about who we know.
- Wayne “Purple” Hays
- Roland West
- Amelia Reardon-Hays
- Tom Purcell
- Lucy Purcell
- Will Purcell
- Julie Purcell
- “Trash Man” Brett Woodard
- Dan O’Brien
- Alan Jones
- Freddie Burns, Ryan Peters, and Jason Lampanella
- Gerald Kindt
- Henry Hays
- Rebecca/Becca Hays
Every week, we’ll be gathering be the most relevant and interesting details here.
The Plot timelines
Series creator and writer Pizzolatto gives us new characters and three timelines:
- 1980, when the Purcell crime took place
- 1990, when the deposition takes place
- 2015, when the TV interview takes place
A crime, a gap of 10 years, and then a gap of 25 years. It’s not exactly complicated, but seeing it in a list like that makes it a little easier to grasp as we bounce around timelines.
True Detective season 3 eschews some of the bloat in its immediate predecessor to focus on a smaller group of characters. We still have many people to meet, understand, and follow, but we don’t have four main characters. So let’s talk about who we know.
Wayne “Purple” Hays (played by Mahershala Ali)
True Detective season 3 is Wayne’s story. In 1980, he’s a young detective. In 1990, he’s a salty interviewee in a deposition. In 2015, he’s a gray-haired retiree with a fading memory.
Wayne is a Vietnam War veteran (back then they called him Purple Hays like the Jimi Hendrix song) and a loner, which is more than just a bit of backstory flavoring.
“Man was an LRRP in ’Nam,” his partner Roland says in the first episode. “You know what that is? Long range reconnaissance. Drop him in the jungle alone, come out two or three weeks later with scalps. He’s like a pathfinder. Tracks wild boar for fun.”
At one point, Wayne says, he used to divide his life into two segments: before and after Vietnam. Later, he says he divided it into two different segments: before and after the Purcell case. In the 2015 interview with the reporter, Wayne says he “never stopped coming up with theories about that case.”
“Fate spared its shitty rat life, and it has no clue,” Wayne says of a rat he shot at but missed. This seems important. A few minutes later, his partner Roland suggests maybe getting a hooker at Miss Minnie’s. Wayne declines. Roland sees a fox and damn near shoots it. Wayne stops him. Wayne plays fate.
At the end of the first episode, law enforcement agencies are searching for the missing Purcell children. Wayne goes off on his own, using his Vietnam-era LRRP skills. He finds tire tracks. A bike. Deep in the woods, he finds a strange doll. Then another. Then Will Purcell’s body in a cave, hands folded as if in prayer.
Wayne left the police department after the events in 1990, according to the reporter who’s interviewing him in 2015.
Wayne is our window into this world, but he’s an unreliable narrator in a couple of ways. First he isn’t entirely honest in the deposition, and one of the men in his deposition indicates that he has memory problems even in 1990. By 2015, it’s clear that his memory is failing him. He doesn’t seem to know what he doesn’t know, and that (as much as the murder) may be what this season is about.
Then again, if you ask Pizzolatto, Wayne isn’t so unreliable.
“If you’re seeing it, it’s reliable,” he told EW in a recent interview. “I’m not playing those sorts of games with the audience, where you find out what you saw didn’t really happen, or it was a dream within a dream or something. So he is a reliable narrator. When he doesn’t know something, we know it. The times when Wayne has a full-on episode of something uncanny, like [spoiler alert], you know it. In order to tell such a complicated story across three timelines, you have to have those rules, otherwise there wouldn’t be anything for the audience to hang their hat on ….”
Roland West (played by Stephen Dorff)
Roland is Wayne’s partner in 1980. He’s also a Vietnam vet, though there’s a running gag about how he was a kind of mechanic, not in the line of fire.
In the second episode, he tells Trash Man that he was in “motorpool” in Vietnam. Maybe he was a mechanic. Maybe that’s a reference to Operation Popeye, which was a top-secret U.S. government project to win the war by controlling the weather.
Also, while he and Wayne inspect Trash Man’s house during the first episode, Roland says that he has friends from the rodeo (assuming we should take that literally and not as jargon for, say, Vietnam). That’s about as much backstory as we have on him so far.
He’s a decent enough detective, as we see in the second episode when he tracks down the name of a convicted child molester through a contact at at the local nude bar, porn shop and truck stop.
During a conversation at a restaurant in the second episode, Alan Jones tells Wayne that he’s got an appointment with Roland. That is almost certainly a deposition. Of his post-1980 life, Alan says that Roland’s “done well,” and Wayne agrees.
The dynamic between the partners seems to be that Wayne is the brain and Roland is the brawn. In the second episode, for example, they, well, kidnap a convicted child molester, Robert Hebert nee Ted Lagrange, and take him to a barn to question him. Wayne asks the questions; Roland deals the punches.
Amelia Reardon-Hays (played by Carmen Ejogo)
In 1980, Amelia Reardon is a teacher at the West Finger public school. In the second episode, she tells Wayne about her past.
She was born in the area. She dropped out of college at the University of Arkansas and fled west to San Francisco. She got involved in a lot of anti-war protests and some Black Panther-adjacent activities. “Some things happened,” she says. “Not good. And then I was alone.” She returned home to Fayetteville in 1974, finished her English degree, and wound up as an English teacher in West Finger.
Eventually, she and Wayne marry and have two children. Their relationship is a bit of a mystery: Amelia was an anti-war protestor; Wayne was a soldier. She’s a vegetarian; him, not so much. He’s a Republican; she’s probably a Democrat. She’s literary; he reads comic books. In 1980, neither of them wants to get married — and yet they wind up together.
When Amelia met Wayne in 1980, she was a teacher who wanted to be a writer. She gets her wish a decade later, publishing Life and Death and the Harvest Moon — the story of the Purcell children, the case surrounding it and their relationship — at some point around 1990, after the deposition takes place. The woman interviewing Wayne in 2015 describes it as a classic of literary nonfiction.
There’s every reason to believe that she’s just as much of a tracker and investigator as Wayne is. They use similar traits in different ways. We see her prowess in the second episode, when she finds a student who’s seen the dolls that led Wayne to Will’s body. In 2015, Wayne lauds her detective skills and offers her book as proof.
Tom Purcell (played by Scoot McNairy)
Tom is the father of Will and Julie, husband of Lucy.
In 1980, Tom sports a bushy mustache and works at Wilson Body Works, a local machine shop that makes parts for school busses. At home, he tinkers with a Chevy in the driveway. At night, he sleeps on the couch.
In the second episode, he tells Wayne and Roland that he and Lucy got married at a courthouse because she got pregnant about three months after they met. They never really knew each other, and the disastrous state of their relationship in 1980 is a reflection of that.
Tom returns to work not long after the murders, but a man with a long beard that I’m going to call the shop foreman — someone we saw (suspiciously?) interviewed by police earlier — sends him back home, ostensibly for safety reasons i.e. Tom kind of freaks out and starts yelling at everyone who was staring at him.
His wife’s cousin Danny gives an interesting perspective on Tom.
“He’s an alright guy,” Dan says, looking through a window at the weeping father. “I feel sorry for him. I felt for him even before all this. I mean, in my opinion, Lucy always need, like, a strong male.”
By the second episode, Tom appears to be drinking his feelings away.
Something strange happened in 1990, according to the reporter who interviews Wayne in 2015.
“Mr. Hays,” she says, “did you have theories after what happened with Julie Purcell and her father in ’90?”
Lucy Purcell (played by Mamie Gummer)
Lucy is the mother of Will and Julie, wife of Tom.
In 1980, Lucy is a waitress at a place called The Sawhorse. On the night that the kids disappeared, she was out drinking with friends. She’s super defensive about this in the first episode, justifying that she’s “entitled to a life” and blaming her husband for the kids’ disappearance.
The only family we know of hers at this point is her cousin, Dan O’Brien, who stayed at their house in May, several months before the kids’ disappearance in November 1980.
Her marital fidelity is in question. When she arrives home on the night of the kids’ disappearance, her husband accuses her of being out “looking for dick.” In the second episode, Tom’s mother tells Wayne and Roland that she may have gotten pregnant with Julie while Tom was working out of town in Texas.
Will Purcell (played by Phoenix Elkin)
The son of Tom and Lucy. On the day he disappeared in — Nov. 7, 1980 — he was wearing a red backpack with his name on it.
According to his English teacher, Will is a nice, sensitive and unassuming boy who probably doesn’t attract enough attention to get bullied.
“I just,” his teacher says with a hint of sadness, “well, I don’t think he got noticed much.”
Seems like a kid who doesn’t get noticed much could disappear pretty easily.
Will reads at a twelfth-grade level, far beyond his age. On the day he disappeared, Will told his dad that he and his sister were going to “the playground” (which seems to be the area by the fire tower that we saw in the first shots of the first episode) to see a friend’s dog.
One of the teenagers riding in the purple VW Beetle says he saw them at the playground, but Ronnie Ball, the friend who Will told his dad he was going to see, says they never had plans to meet, so Will’s story is suspect.
In the first episode, Wayne finds some old Playboys between the mattresses in Will’s room. He also finds a hole drilled in Will’s bedroom closet, which looks suspiciously like a creepy peephole into his sister Julie’s room. It’s not clear whether those are related to Will, to Lucy’s cousin Danny, or someone else.
While Wayne is searching Will’s room, the camera lingers on an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons book called The Forests of Leng, which is interesting for a few reasons that we’ll discuss below.
At the end of the first episode, Wayne discovers Will’s body in a cave, hands folded as if in prayer. The cause of death: blunt force trauma to the head.
Julie Purcell (played by Lena McCarthy)
The daughter of Tom and Lucy. We know nearly nothing about her in 1980 beyond her disappearance and questionable lineage.
In episode two, we learn that police found Julie’s fingerprints after a recent Walgreens pharmacy robbery. Julie, as far as we know, is alive despite a presumption of death. That discovery is likely the catalyst for the 1990 deposition and the decision to challenge the conviction 10 years later. If someone was convicted of the Purcell crime (our money is on the Trash Man) in the early ’80s, finding her fingerprints a decade later would put the conviction into question.
Also, based on what the reporter says in the second episode, it’s safe to assume that they’re going to find Julie.
“After the events of 1990 and what happened with Julie and her father,” the reporter says to Wayne, “you left the PD.”
“Trash Man” Brett Woodard (played by Michael Greyeyes)
Trash man is a Vietnam veteran who rides around town on a go-cart collecting other people’s trash. We see him as Will and Julie ride their bikes past him on the day that they disappear.
In the first episode, Wayne and Roland drive to his house after conducting some interviews in the West Finger school. Woodard’s yard is full of the trash he collects. Inside isn’t much cleaner. They find a picture of a woman and two children (presumably his estranged family) and another picture of him in Vietnam.
What Woodard does is strange; the people in town think so, and based on what he says during his interview in the second episode with Wayne and Roland, so does he. He doesn’t seem ashamed, but he’s at least proud that the peculiar living he’s eked out for himself allows him to make his own way in the world.
“I ain’t one of the burnouts,” he says, referring to other veterans. “You know, comes back busting guys up, getting high. And I ain’t a bum. I keep a house. I pay my way.”
According to what he tells Wayne and Roland, he previously worked as a carpenter. He got married. Had kids. His wife left him and took their two kids about four years before the Purcell kids’ disappearance. He implies that Vietnam changed him, that he’s not equipped for a normal life.
“You ever been somewhere you couldn’t leave?” he asks Wayne in the second episode. “And you couldn’t stay? Both at the same time?” And if that’s not the perfect summation of Wayne’s memory problems (and ours, as we bounce from timeline to timeline), I don’t know what is.
Inasmuch as he’s the resident oddball, it seems likely that he’s going to draw the ire of the townsfolk.
Dan O’Brien (played by Michael Graziadei)
Dan is Lucy’s cousin from Springfield, Missouri. He visited the house and stayed in Will’s room for a few weeks in May 1980, months before the kids disappeared in November.
We see him in the second episode, when Wayne and Roland question him on the Purcell’s front porch.
We don’t know why he was in town in May. And it’s clear (at least from his perspective) that he and the kids weren’t particularly close — and that they didn’t really know him before his visit.
He tells Wayne and Roland that he’s not sticking around after the funeral. He needs to get back to work. He gets defensive when Roland suggests that the family might need him around. And he gets double defensive when Roland asks for an alibi on the night of the disappearance. Dan says he’s not sure about his landlord, but “you could check with the Starlight Bar in Springfield. I had a couple there after work, and then I went home and watched CHiPs.” He scoffs but gives permission for Wayne and Roland to search is place.
If he’s a suspect, then the most likely connections are the Playboys between Will’s mattresses (which he tells Wayne and Roland might’ve been his) and what could be a peephole drilled into Will’s closet looking into Julie’s room.
Alan Jones (played by Jon Tenney)
Alan is the man sitting to Wayne’s right during the 1990 deposition. He and Wayne worked together earlier. He’s kinder to Wayne than the other guy in the deposition.
Alan is looking to overturn a conviction, presumably for someone convicted of the Purcell kidnapping and murder, which is why he’s in the deposition.
He also doesn’t like his previous boss, former District Attorney Gerald Kindt, very much. In fact, it seems like he relishes the opportunity to fight him and overturn the conviction.
In the second episode, he follows through with a promise he made to Wayne during the deposition. They meet at a restaurant.
“You alright going up against your old boss,” Wayne asks him.
“It’s overdue,” Alan says.
He gives Wayne more details about Julie’s fingerprints and the events surrounding their discovery — they’re waiting on security camera footage, for example.
“Somebody watching the store in case she comes back?” Wayne asks Alan.
“My understanding, Sallisaw PD’s focused on the robbery. And I couldn’t say the locals are a crackerjack investigative team or anything.”
“Man’s family didn’t have the resources for an investigator. But obviously we’d like to find her.”
Seems to me that Alan gives just enough information to incentivize Wayne to start working the case again. And, hey, if Wayne finds anything (or anyone), Alan must believe that’ll help him overturn the case.
Freddie Burns, Ryan Peters, and Jason Lampanella
These are the teenagers in the purple Beetle in the first episode. With oodles of side eye, they watch Will and Julie ride their bikes. They party at the fire tower that night. One of them rides a bike that could belong to one of the Purcell kids. And during their police interview, one of the teenagers says he saw the Purcell kids at the playground.
Two of them — Burns and Peters, based on Wayne’s post-school visit suggestion to have cops tail them — get interviewed at school.
Gerald Kindt (played by Brett Cullen)
In 1980, he’s the District Attorney overseeing West Finger. He stands behind a podium at a meeting shortly after the Purcell disappearance, attempting to calm the locals.
In Wayne’s 1990 deposition, Alan and Wayne imply that the decisions Kindt made after the Purcell disappearance were the result of political calculations more than what was best for the children.
“Gerald Kindt had an election coming up the next year,” Alan tells Wayne.
“I know,” Wayne says. “I guess that works to some point in your petition.”
“It’s worth nothing, I think. His motivations.”
In the second episode, Wayne and Roland make their case to Kindt (among others) that they should knock on neighborhood doors asking permission to search 114 houses nearby — “total surveillance,” Roland says, but without warrants. Kindt nixes the idea saying it “could be problematic at trial” — though Wayne is quick to remind him that it’s not about a trial. It’s about finding Julie. He ultimately nixes the idea for seemingly political reasons.
“Our constituents here, they value privacy and property rights,” he says. “They aren’t just going to acquiesce to random searches of their homes.”
Against Wayne and Roland’s wishes, he releases information about the dolls found near Will to the public.
By 1990, Kindt is the Arkansas State Attorney General. His office will be responsible for defending Alan Jones’ motion to overturn the conviction.
Henry Hays (played by Ray Fisher)
Henry is Wayne and Amelia’s son. He’s a middle schooler in 1990 and an adult with a wife and two kids of his own in 2015.
As an adult, Henry acts like his father’s protection. He’s there when Wayne’s being interviewed. Wayne’s recording reminds him that, if things get out of hand, Henry will take charge.
Henry gets notably frustrated on a couple of occasions. He’s clearly not sure that it’s a great idea for his dad to revisit the Purcell case in 2015. And during the second episode, he’s upset when Wayne asks where Rebecca (presumably Wayne’s daughter and Henry’s sister) is. We don’t know why.
Rebecca/Becca Hays (played by Kennedi Lynn Butler)
I’m assuming that Rebecca is Wayne and Amelia’s daughter, though I should point out that that’s only an implication. We see a child during when Wayne arrives home after the 1990 deposition.
According to Henry and Heather (as Wayne calls her at the dinner table in the second episode, so I’m assuming that she’s Henry’s wife), Rebecca is in Los Angeles in 2015 playing music. Wayne is shocked.
When Wayne asks if Rebecca might come back home for a visit, Heather plays diplomat, saying she doesn’t “think it suits her.” But Henry tells his dad that Rebecca never liked it here.
What happens to her after 1990 is, for now, a mystery. At the dinner table, Heather says she spoke to Rebecca “a few weeks ago.” Earlier in the same episode, when Wayne asks when was the last time he saw Rebecca, Henry says “mom’s funeral. I think you talked on the phone a few months back.”
Maybe that’s true. Maybe she died. Maybe she died with Amelia. Maybe they had a funeral together. Maybe this is one of the things that Wayne doesn’t remember. Maybe Henry and Heather are trying to spare him the agony of perpetually relearning about his daughter’s death.
Themes, clues, and evidence
I wrote this above, but it’s worth repeating here: If we can solve the case before True Detective season 3 reveals its mysteries, then we’ve got to examine the facts. The clues. The evidence. The themes that Nic Pizzolatto folds into the story he’s telling. Put differently: We have to be detectives, too. (I hereby deputize you, fellow true detectives.)
Every week, we’ll be gathering be the most relevant and interesting details here. I can’t promise you solutions, but I can at least give your mind something to chew on.
Wayne Hays is a man haunted (not quite literally) by his own past. He’s unstuck in time, bouncing between memories and the present, losing his memories as he does so.
“I mean, what you don’t remember you don’t know you don’t remember,” says Jim, the guy sitting across the table in the deposition. Wayne responds like Jim’s being a jerk. He may be, but Jim’s not wrong.
Jim also indicates that Wayne’s memory problems began to surface around 1990, the year of the deposition.
Old 2015 Wayne says that he believes that revisiting the Purcell case seems to be helping him and his memory. Much of what we see in the the first two episodes is not just a retelling of events, but the uncovering of events — with the strong hint that Wayne knows that he knows more than he can recall.
There are many Vietnam veterans in this show, and the leitmotif is that they come back changed — and sometimes broken.
“I ain’t one of the burnouts,” Trash Man says during the second episode, referring to other veterans. “You know, comes back busting guys up, getting high. And I ain’t a bum. I keep a house. I pay my way.”
There is something of a fraternity between the veterans in True Detective season 3. Wayne mentions that he usually drinks in the local VFW, a service organization for war veterans.
It’s a short, one-off shot, but it seems notable that tire tracks are the first thing that Wayne discovers while looking for the Purcell children.
Take a close look at that image above. The track is wide, so you’re thinking car, right? But look in the middle of the track. Looks like a bike track, too, doesn’t it?
In True Detective season 1, a seemingly inconsequential child’s drawing wound up being an important clue. In season 3, we have several more children’s drawing. What they mean, I don’t know. But I suspect they’re important.
As you can see in the first image in the gallery above, there are drawings of a wedding. It’s not exactly front page news to imagine a little girl drawing pictures of a wedding. But what in the world is that to left of the bridal party? And when you think about the dolls that Wayne found, it gets more interesting.
Wayne found two dolls on his way to discovering Will’s body. They look like women (brides?) holding bouquets. The one closest to Will’s body holds a yellow flower. (Maybe it’s a stretch, but it sure got me thinking about season 1 and the the Yellow King.)
In the second episode, thanks to the efforts of Amelia Reardon, we learn that Julie somehow got one as she was trick-or-treating not long before her disappearance. Two adults dressed as ghosts in white sheets may have something to do with them.
The Purcell family receives a note in the mail, presumably from the kidnapper. Pasted in classic newspaper cutout letters, it reads:
Do not worry
Julie is in a good
place and safe
the children shud [sic]
laugh do not
look let go
Now, look: I’m not here to justify kidnapping murders or anything, but I wonder if the line about how children should laugh is a reference to the troubled Purcell family life. And if that’s true, then the person who sent the note may have had some knowledge of Will and Julie’s situation.
It’s not so much that the first two episodes called out Satanic Panic, but they sure hint at it.
In the broadest sense, “Satanic panic” was a worry about abuse among some in the ’80s. Like any good conspiracy theory, you can have your pick of who was supposed to be involved — satanic cults, medical professionals, politicians, Dungeons & Dragons players, you name it — but the core basically involved abuse at the hands of the secretive and powerful.
In True Detective season 3’s first two episodes, we get a couple of glimpses into what could wind up being a theme. The first happens when the camera lingers on an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons book in Will’s room. (And we might as well note here that it’s underneath a Boy Scout handbook, in case that winds up being an abuse thing.)
Here’s the thing: That book The Forests of Leng doesn’t exist here in the real world. They created it for the show. So what can we glean from that? Well, if we concentrate on the last word — Leng — then we have some meat to chew on.
In the early 20th century, the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft created the Cthulhu Mythos, a fictional universe in which many of his stories took place. In the years since, other writers have set their own stories in the fictional universe that he created.
In Lovecraft’s fiction, Leng is a plateau. Our good friends over at Wikipedia have an entire page devoted not just to its appearances in Lovecraft’s works but everything from the fiction of Neil Gaiman and Stephen King to the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and Magic: The Gathering cards.
Which specific reference Pizzolatto had in mind when he created the D&D book is probably less relevant than the link between the occult (real or imagined) and Satanic Panic.
The other allusion to Satanic Panic comes in the first episode when Wayne and Roland are interviewing students at the West Finger public school. One of the kids who was in the purple VW Beetle, Ryan Peters, is wearing a Black Sabbath shirt.
“Let me ask you: What’s up with this?” Roland asks as he tugs on the kid’s black T-shirt.
“I — I mean, it’s, it’s just a band,” Ryan says.
“Black Sabbath, huh? What’s a Black Sabbath?” Roland asks Wayne.
“It’s a satanic mass,” Wayne says.
“Is that true? It’s satanic?” Wayne asks the kid.
“I think it’s just their name,” the kid says.
That line of questioning ends there.
Whether or not Satanic Panic becomes an important part of the story, it’s a very Nic Pizzolatto kind of thing to include. Both of the previous seasons dabbled in secret, powerful, and abusive societies.