‘True Detective’ Episode 5 Finally Starts Answering Some Questions (RECAP)
It might have taken five episodes but this season of True Detective is finally pulling back the curtain on some of its lingering mysteries. While the character-focused storytelling has carried the first half of the season, there has been a growing sense of restlessness among some viewers over how the show has played coy with the Purcell investigation. The non-linear narrative told across multiple time periods has been truly effective in displaying Wayne Hays’s (Mahershali Ali) crumbling memory, but it’s also allowed the show to duck and dodge questions that probably should have been answered by now.
“If You Have Ghosts” answers those questions and confirms a number of long-held theories about the Purcell case, much of them revolving around Brett Woodard (Michael Greyeyes), who we last saw in the 1980 timeline, luring a mob of vigilantes toward his booby-trapped house. “The Woodward Altercation,” as it later became known, is a bloody and violent shootout which results in several fatalities, including a federal officer, and ultimately, the Trash Man himself. This is also where Roland West (Stephen Dorff) got shot in the leg, causing his limp in the future timelines.
The standoff between Wayne and Woodward is a short but suspenseful scene. Wayne doesn’t want to kill a fellow Vietnam vet and desperately tries to control the situation, but Woodward gives him no choice. Only one of them is making it out of that house alive, and in those short few seconds, the two come to a mutual understanding. Purple Hays puts a bullet in the back of Woodard’s head; I don’t think it’s lost on Wayne that he could have easily been in Woodard’s shoes had he not joined the police force – the non-white loner plagued by horrific memories of war turned into a media scapegoat.
Woodard may be dead and gone, at least in his mortal form, but his name continues to be dragged through the mud. He’s posthumously convicted of the murder of William and Julie Purcell when some of their belongings are ‘found’ on his property after the shootout. It’s seemed likely for a while now that Woodard would be the one to go down for the crime, but it’s nice to have direct confirmation in the episode itself finally.
The conviction of Trash Man smells like a set up from the get-go, yet Wayne is never able to prove it at the time. But with new evidence coming to light in 1990, and Woodard’s estranged children fighting hard to have the conviction overturned, there is a real chance for Wayne to put things right, especially after he lands on an important overlooked detail. The backpack ‘found’ under Woodard’s porch was in pristine condition, something which would have been near impossible given the porch was blown to smithereens. Wayne believes the evidence was planted.
There are other details that point to someone else being responsible for what happened. In 2015, Wayne reads a passage from Amelia’s (Carmen Ejogo) book which recounts her conversation with Lucy Purcell (Mamie Gummer). “Maybe I should have read this a long time ago,” says Wayne after he notices that Lucy’s quote about how ‘children should laugh’ matches what was written on the kidnapper’s note in 1980. Wayne suggests Lucy wrote the note to make her husband Tom (Scoot McNairy) feel better, though I’m starting to wonder if she was involved in the crime herself.
Also, in 2015, documentary filmmaker Elisa Montgomery (Sarah Gadon) questions Wayne about a man named Harris James, one of the officers who processed the Woodard Altercation crime scene. James disappeared in 1990 and hasn’t been seen since. This could point to more police tampering, especially with Wayne realizing that fingerprints are missing from the case files. But Wayne claims to have no idea who he is, even though a field statement says the two of them talked in 1990. Is Wayne’s memory failing him or is he hiding something? It’s always hard to tell.
The biggest sign of Woodard’s innocence is that Julie is still alive in 1990. When Tom learns about this, after haphazardly staggering into the evidence room, he goes on TV to make an impassioned plea for his daughter to come forward. This is when things get weird. Julie calls the help hotline and repeatedly tells the police to “make him leave me alone,” the “him” being Tom. “I know what he did, the man on TV acting like my father,” she says, before asking “Where is Will?” It’s a haunting call and one that throws up a bunch of new questions.
Did Tom have something to do with the crime? Or is Julie confused? If we’re to believe the runaway who Wayne and Roland question, Julie is suffering from some sort of delusion and perhaps even her own memory problems, most likely brought on by the trauma she’s faced. She goes by the name Mary July and believes she is a “princess from the pink room” who is trying to find her brother. It’s certainly possible that Julie has been brainwashed by her kidnapper(s), but there also might be some truth within the madness.
Remember back in the second episode when the Purcell grandparents implied that Tom might not be Julie’s biological father? And Lucy herself made it perfectly clear last week that she slept around on Tom all the time. Could it be that Julie’s biological father was the one who kidnapped her and perhaps Lucy was involved somehow? It could add up with Lucy’s note, the revelation that William and Julie were separated before the kidnapping, and the belief that the perpetrator only wanted the girl.
What we do know is that the mystery is still unsolved and pivotal pieces are missing from the story. A big missing piece is whatever happened between Wayne and Roland, who meet back up for a ‘sad, senile’ get-together in 2015. While Wayne has been hurtling towards his problems trying to fix them, his former partner ran away to avoid them. Roland, now balding and pot-bellied, lives alone in the woods with nothing but stray dogs for company. He never married or had kids, instead, he became an expert in ways to kill time, drinking away his remaining years.
There is no hiding that some serious s**t went down between Wayne and Roland. Whatever it was ended up tearing them apart for 24 years and is not something they want seeing the light of day. There are hints it might have something to do with the deceased Dan O’Brien (Michael Graziadei). Wayne seems to have no memory of what happened and finds it hard to understand why his old buddy is so angry when he tries dragging him back into the insanity of the Purcell case.
Ali and Dorff are both excellent in this scene, totally embodying their 70-year-old selves and effortlessly flittering between heartfelt emotion and dark humor. After all this time, there is still an affection between the world-hardened ex-cops. Wayne eventually provides Roland with a tearful apology for whatever happened and convinces him to come on board for one last hoorah, if not for personal satisfaction, then at least for the hilarity of watching a “70-year-old black man running around with a badge and a gun.”
There was a sense of momentum to this episode that was perhaps lacking in the first half of the season. There were much-needed answers, even if each answer was met with a hundred more questions. With Wayne and Roland now on the case in all three timelines, it should hopefully mean we are in for an exciting and illuminating final three episodes.
Extra Case Notes
-More tension between Wayne and Amelia: the awkward dinner scene with Roland and Laurie (the woman from the church) and then the blow-up back at home. Wayne calls Amelia a “voyeur” using other people’s bad luck to lift herself up and tell stories. Amelia accuses Wayne of using the case to avoid home and being upset that he can’t control her. “I have bigger dreams than making a home for you to brood in,” she says (a killer line!). Even though the acting is superb as ever, the material here is repetitive, except far more on the nose than similar scenes earlier in the season which contained nuance and subtext.
-The specter of season one hovers ominously over this series but none more so than this episode which directly references the ghost of True Detective past, though you might have missed it. There is an image of a newspaper article on a laptop screen next to Elisa that reads: “Former State Police Officers Stop Alleged Serial Murderer.” Underneath the headline is a black-and-white image of detectives Rust Cohle and Martin Hart! As as I said after the reference to the ‘Crooked Spiral’ in episode two, I don’t think the Purcell investigation is going to tie directly into season one, but these are neat little easter eggs for fans.
-In 1990, Wayne and Roland check in with Freddy Burns (Rhys Wakefield), who isn’t exactly thrilled to see the cops who threatened him with prison rape. Freddy is full of hatred and self-pity and essentially blames Wayne for how his life turned out. “Please explain to me all the hardships and tribulations being a white man in this country,” Wayne comments to Roland after leaving the Burns house. Freddy does drop a small nugget of info when he reveals that William said his sister was with other people before she disappeared.
-It’s confirmed that Lucy’s drug overdose was a suicide, at least as far as the police are concerned. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a cover-up.
-During their old-man meet-up, Wayne mentions to Roland that he received a visit from Hoyt – presumably the owner of Hoyt Foods where Lucy used to work – the day after the Dan incident happened. Roland says that Wayne never told him this before. Could this Hoyt character be Julie’s biological father? Also, did Wayne and Roland kill Dan? Only three episodes left to find out!
True Detective, Sundays, 9/8c, HBO