Whodunnit on ‘True Detective’ Season 3? An Investigation


[Spoiler Alert: This article contains spoilers from Season 3 of True Detective.]

Season 3 of True Detective is in full swing. The anthology series, created and produced by Nic Pizzolatto, is back to its old tricks after a long-ish hiatus from TV. [Season 2 aired in 2015.]

Mahershala Ali stars as Arkansas police detective Wayne Hays who — along with partner Roland West, played by Stephen Dorff — is called to the home of estranged couple Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy) and Lucy Purcell (Mamie Gummer) in 1980. Their children, Will and Julie Purcell, have gone missing after never returning home from riding bikes after school.

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Hays finds Will’s body in small cave deep in the woods after following a trail of creepy bride-like dolls make of twigs and straw. Will’s been laid flat on the rocks, hands in prayer position, and blood is around his head. Julie is nowhere to be found.

Fast forward a decade to 1990 and Hays is being interviewed about the Purcell case. It’s revealed that Julie Purcell’s fingerprints have shown up all these years later after a CVS drugstore was robbed. It’s also discussed that someone was convicted of the crime and put away but the state of Arkansas is seeking to overturn the wrongful conviction.

Fast forward further to 2015 and Hays is being interviewed about the Purcell case once more for a TV docuseries called True Criminal. He has kids (one son we know of, played by Ray Fisher) and is a widower. Hays’ wife Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo) was the Purcell kids’ school teacher. She wrote a best-selling book about the crime/case/town and was the one who discovered an important connection between the eerie dolls and the kids.

The story is being told through the life, experiences, and memories of Hays, who we learn is going through the early stages of dementia (or something similar to that). So can we trust him as narrator? And the first person convicted of the murder and kidnapping isn’t the right one, so who did it?

We already have a long list of suspects and, due to the show’s slow-burn nature, expect to keep guessing until the very end. Let’s break them down below:

Tom Purcell

The father is usually the first suspect in these kids of cases and there are rumors that he might not be Julie’s biological father. We see him in Episode 3 a changed man in the ’90s. He’s sober and has found strength in God. In Episode 5, in the ’90s timeline, Tom learns that Julie is still alive and makes a plea on TV for her to come home. Then, Julie calls the police tip line and tells the operator to “make him [Tom] leave me alone,” and says, “I know what he did, the man on TV acting like my father.” Then asks, “Where is Will?” The twist seems a little too easy. Hays and West then interview a runaway teen and he says that he recognizes Julie, who goes by Mary July and believes she’s a “princess from the pink room” and is searching for her brother. Has Julie been brainwashed? Is she drugged or suffering from memory loss? Now, he discovers the “pink room” where Julie was supposedly held on the Hoyt property only to be sneaked up on by a former cop turned Hoyt employee. And now he’s dead but his suicide was clearly faked. Conclusion = Not him.

Julie Purcell

She was only 10 years old when it happened but we do know she’s still alive. Did she orchestrate her brother’s murder and flee West Finger to begin again? Maybe Will was her half-brother and she resented him, Tom, and her mother? Sounds far-fetched but this wouldn’t be the first time a young girl committed a heinous act… ever heard of Slender Man? In Episode 4, Hays discovers Julie on the pharmacy’s surveillance tape. She looks disheveled and scared, like she’s avoiding someone. In Episode 5, Julie insists that Tom is not her father, so it’s looking like the town rumors are true. Could her biological father be involved? She also goes my Mary July and was living in a “pink room” before escaping and living in group homes. Conclusion = The victim… but is she?

Lucy Purcell

She likes to drink and party and doesn’t seem to take her parental responsibilities too seriously. So did she get rid of her kids to start over? Viewers discovered in the ’90s timeline that she passed away in Las Vegas… maybe after a night of partying? The grieving mother admits to Amelia she has the “soul of a whore” and cheats on her husband. This aligns with the town gossip that Tom is not Julie’s father and could play a bigger role in her disappearance. In Episode 5, Hays reads a passage from his wife’s book and it details how she believed “children should laugh”which was the same phrase used the “killer’s” note. It’s also confirmed she died of a drug overdose. It’s revealed by Cousin Dan that she was paid hush money to stop talking about the case. It can be inferred she knew who committed the crime but didn’t actually do it herself. Conclusion = Not her but she’s involved.

The Garbage Man

Brett Woodard (Michael Greyeyes) is a Native American man who collects garbage to sell for scraps. He keeps to himself and saw the Purcell kids ride by on their bikes the day they disappeared. He was previously a soldier who seems to dealing with some PTSD and his wife left him with their kids. Most recently, he’s beat up by some locals and then we see him in his shed picking up a heavy bag! It’s most likely weapons so he can protect himself but it looks really suspicious. In the final moments of Episode 4, there’s an explosion at Woodard’s house which confirms that duffel bag is full of weapons. It’s looking more likely that he’s the one who’s been wrongfully convicted of the Purcell crime. In Episode 5, Hays shoots Woodard after the fellow Vietnam veteran booby-traps his house. We also learned it was Woodard who went down for the Purcell crime after belongings of Will and Julie were conveniently found on his property after the fatal shootout. In the 90s timeline, Hays believes the evidence was planted. Conclusion = Not him.

Shady Teenagers

Three male teenagers in a purple Volkswagen Beetle watch as Julie and Will ride their bikes. We later see them partying in a part of the woods called the Devil’s Den with a bike. One of them named Freddy (Rhys Wakefield) is questioned by the police. A major discovery in Episode 4 revealed that Freddy’s fingerprints were found on Will’s bike and he admitted to bullying Will the same day he went missing. The teen is at his breaking point when the detectives are questioning him at the precinct. 1990s Freddy hasn’t progressed that far in life and blames the cops on ruining his younger years and a chance of a better life. Conclusion = Not them.

Another Family Member

We hear about a cousin named Dan (related to Lucy) who lived with Purcells the summer before the crime. He stayed in Will’s room and Hays found a small hole in the closet which shared a wall with Julie’s room. Was Dan creeping on his preteen family member? In Episode 3, there’s a connection made between how Will’s hands were placed in his communion pic and how they placed when his body was discovered. This could be the first piece of evidence it was someone in the family/neighborhood who has a religious connection. In Episode 4, we learned that Dan went missing after Julie’s disappearance and it was revealed in the 2015 timeline that his remains (aka bones) were discovered in Missouri and it looks like he’s been dead for a number of years. We learned that he knew of the Hoyt family’s involvement and how Lucy was paid off. Dan could very possibly be part of the coverup but didn’t commit the crime himself. Conclusion: Knowledge of incident, but didn’t do it.

The Brown Sedan Drivers

It’s discussed that there was a fancy brown sedan spotted near the woods and around town when the kids went missing. A local farmer says he saw a white woman and a black man with a scar on his face driving it. Fast forward to the 2015 story line and documentary maker Elisa Montgomery (Sarah Gadon) says these details were overlooked by investigators during the ’80s investigation. After the penultimate episode, it’s obvious they’re involved and very likely were in the woods. We know they are Hoyt Foods’ CEO’s daughter, Isabel, and her caretaker Mr. June. Conclusion = Involved.

Hoyt Foods Employee

Hoyt Foods is introduced in Episode 3. It’s a fake company that makes frozen food and Lucy used to work there. In the Purcell home, Hays finds a bag with the Hoyt logo on it and it’s filled with handwritten notes and cut up dolls… weird. Hays and West visit the company’s headquarters after they offer a cash reward for any new information about the murder/kidnapping. Could there be some kind of company conspiracy going on? In Episode 5, a Hoyt employee visited Hays after the “Dan incident” which seemed like a peculiar piece of information. With the discovery of the pink room in the basement, the company’s involvement is high likely. Conclusion = Involved.

Member of the Church

Hays and West visit the local church where Will received communion and ask about the eyes closed/hands in prayer photo. They talk to the priest who says he took the photo and Will “must have blinked” which is why his eyes are closed. Churches and little boys notoriously don’t have the best history. This scenario is reminiscent of Season 1… could the church the the Hoyts be connected? Conclusion = Not involved.

Sam Whitehead

In Episode 4 we’re introduced to Sam (John Earl Jelks), an older black man living a poor area of town who has a “dead eye.” He’s linked to the straw dolls. Hays and West discover that they were made by Patty Faber, a racist old lady in the neighborhood who was selling them at the fair at the local church. She tells the detectives that a black man with a “dead eye” bought 10 of them. Also, is Sam the man who was driving around in the brown sedan? Unlikely, since that person was reportedly well dressed but it got us thinking. In the penultimate episode, it was revealed Whitehead worked at the Hoyt estate. Conclusion = Involved.

Yet to Be Introduced

Could have been someone “passing through” or a neighbor or townsperson we haven’t met yet, as Julie received the same doll while trick-or-treating on Halloween. Did Sam give it to her? He’s trailer isn’t anywhere near her neighborhood. After finding the communion picture, Hays is leaning towards the fact it was someone who Will might have known/has a connection to the community. Now, we’re leaning towards the fact Will’s death and Julie’s disappearance is linked to the Hoyt food company and the family. Conclusion = Involved and it’s Edward Hoyt and his daughter, Isabel.

True Detective, Sundays, 9/8c, HBO