True Detective is a show which enjoys keeping viewers in the dark, and, at times, succeeds because of that. This third season, in particular, has held us at arm's length, especially in those first four episodes. We've always been a step behind detectives Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) in their investigation of the Purcell case - which is worrying, seeing as they often seem as confused by what's happening as us viewers. But things are starting to change.
It began last week, with the show finally confirming some long-held theories regarding Brett Woodard (Michael Greyeyes), and it continued in "Hunters in the Dark," the most revealing episode of the series so far and the first time the audience has been privy to information unknown to the main protagonists. Not only does that help pull us into this story deeper, but it also provides us with confidence that Nic Pizzolatto might actually be able to stick the landing this time.
All the possible suspects we were introduced to in the last five episodes.
The comparisons between seasons one and three have been made countless times already. Both are broody character studies set against a backdrop of small-town murder and grand conspiracy. Yet the finish to the first season felt unsatisfying and marred what was otherwise an engrossing debut season of television drama. The intricately woven mystery and hints of high-level corruption fell by the wayside for what was a rather humdrum conclusion.
If "Hunters in the Dark" is anything to go by, then Pizzolatto seems to have learned from the mistakes of seasons past. This episode proves that the speculation and fan theories are true. The murder-kidnapping of William and Julie Purcell isn't the work of some lone madman. This is a crime involving power and money and corruption. The traces of law enforcement cover-up are not simply narrative distractions or red herrings. There is a conspiracy at work here, and we're this close to cracking it.
Let's start with the as yet unseen Mr. Hoyt, the proprietor of Hoyt Foods, a name we've heard throughout the season. There has been plenty of theorizing online that Hoyt had something to do with the case ever since we discovered that Lucy Purcell (Mamie Gummer) used to work for him. This episode doesn't so much hint at Hoyt's involvement but all but confirms it when a drunken Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy) breaks into the Hoyt mansion and finds the Pink Room where his missing daughter had been held captive.
It's a huge revelation. And one that makes sense. There have been just enough breadcrumbs leading to this trail across the preceding five episodes. One of those breadcrumbs is Harris James (Scott Shepherd), the former cop who processed the planted evidence against Woodard and who mysteriously disappeared in 1990. When his name was brought up last week, it felt like it could be another smoke screen, but no, Harris is deeply involved in this thing.
To find out more about the current season and the process Ali and Dorff went through to age for the later timelines, we chatted with the actor.
In 1990, Wayne and Roland question Harris, who left the force to become chief security officer at the Hoyt Foods factory. The fact he was the one to call in the Woodard evidence is suspicious, not to mention the salary he earns suggests he does more than check for stolen poultry off the chicken line. Well, it turns out he's also getting paid to snuff out anyone getting too close to the truth, like Tom, who meets a deadly demise at Harris's hands at the end of this episode.
The confirmation of the Hoyt family involvement is interesting because for the first time in the series we know more than Wayne and Roland. That's because, in a rare occurrence, the final sequence of the episode was from Tom's viewpoint, rather than one of the lead detectives. Right now, only the audience knows how Tom died, who did it, and why he did it, at least to a certain extent. Though one has to imagine Wayne and Roland will put two-and-two together if Tom's body is discovered.
It's been a tough road for Tom. The investigation has pulled him in every direction, ripping his soul apart. He was told both his children were murdered. The man convicted of the crime was shot dead. Then he finds out a decade later that his daughter is still alive. Now, in 1990, he's been reinvestigated for Julie's disappearance because of that haunting call to the hotline where she accused him of "pretending" to be her father.
Tom is mortified that the finger is being pointed back at him, and breaks down screaming when he can't even find support from his friend Roland, who switches on the "bad cop" face. He may have secrets, but this certainly isn't one of them. It's discovered that Tom is a closet homosexual; his former work colleagues once saw him going into a "queer club" and Roland finds "gay conversion" pamphlets in his bedside drawer. Wayne suggests that Tom's kids might have seen him at Devil's Den, apparently an area known for secret homosexual hook-ups.
Old mysteries are solved and new clues emerge in the increasingly weird Purcell case.
Despite being stern with Tom, Roland doesn't believe he would kill his kids. "There's no way we could be that wrong," he tells Wayne, and yet it's their pursuit of Tom that sends him on his downward spiral and leads him to his tragic end, perhaps the reason Wayne and Roland feel so guilty in 2015. Mr. Purcell wants answers, and after overhearing two cops talking about the reemergence of Dan O'Brien (Michael Graziadei), he tracks down Lucy's junkie cousin to a motel and beats him bloody until he tells him what he knows.
Putting all these pieces together, the suggestion seems to be that Lucy was paid off by the Hoyt family. That the Hoyts took Julie, and Lucy was perhaps a willing participant or at least had knowledge of it. That's the information Dan was scared to tell the detectives because he was aware that the people behind the crime wield immense power. Tom was killed for getting too close, and now I think we can safely assume that the Hoyts were also behind Dan's murder, not Wayne and Roland as previous theories suggested.
There are still two episodes remaining though, so while we may be able to narrow the suspects down to the Hoyt family, we still have a lot of other questions that need answering. For example, how far does this conspiracy spread? And why did the Hoyts take Julie? We learned earlier in the season that Mr. Hoyt lost his granddaughter and set up a Children's Outreach Center in her name. Could he have kidnapped Julie to replace his dead granddaughter? Is that why he only wanted the girl and not William? Or could Julie be his biological daughter? We've been told numerous times that Lucy slept around and that Julie might not be Tom's kid.
Whatever the case may be, unlike season one, which neglected its conspiracy angle for predictability and more Rust Cohle philosophizing, or season two, which became increasingly convoluted, True Detective season three is leaning into its grand mystery without comprising the incredible character work. The puzzle pieces are beginning to fit together and whether that's happening too neatly for some is a matter of personal taste, but for me, it's rewarding because I want to see these characters solve this case or at least get some measure of retribution.
Extra Case Notes
-Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) and Wayne continue to bicker in 1990. She is writing another book about the case, and he is still avoiding home by sinking into his work, something which Roland calls him out for in a tense car ride home.
-Speaking of Amelia, she may turn out to be a better investigator than her husband. In 1990, she visits a convent’s battered women’s shelter and talks with a woman who briefly lived with Julie. And her confrontation with the dead-eyed-man (Steven Williams) at her book reading suggests further paths for her to follow. "Dolls," she remembers to herself after the man leaves. If Wayne does crack this case in 2015, it will likely be due to what Amelia discovered and wrote in her books.
Does time heals or make the truth harder to grasp?
-Wayne returns to the abandoned and trashed Purcell house in 1990 where it occurs to him that the hole in William's closet wasn't a peephole, it was a way for the siblings to pass notes to each other.
-I called it two weeks ago! Henry (Ray Fisher) is having an affair with Elisa (Sarah Gadon). It doesn't particularly serve a plot point, and it certainly doesn't do anything to help Elisa, the worst written character in the series, but it does provide some development in Wayne and Henry's relationship. Wayne apologizes for being withholding and keeping secrets all these years and how that probably rubbed off on his son. It's a heartfelt moment that sadly comes at the expense of an already misused character.
True Detective, Sundays, 9/8c, HBO