Burning Questions We Have Before the 'True Detective' Season 3 Finale

true detective

This story contains spoilers for the first seven episodes of True Detective Season 3. 

It's now been five long years since True Detective first premiered, enthralling viewers with beer can men, Yellow King theories, and Matthew McConaughey's mystical monologues. Now, one divisive second-season later, the series is back with a whole new set of characters, but a mystery that feels elemental. Time is a flat circle, after all.

The third season of Nic Pizzolatto's ballyhooed series gets rid of all that talk of Vinci infrastructure and brings us a fairly simple plot, intricately told: Two children disappear in Arkansas in 1980 and Detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) deals with the repercussions of that case for decades. There are three timelines. There's 1980, of course, when Hays and his partner, Roland West (Stephen Dorff), investigate the missing Purcell siblings; then 1990, when Wayne is brought into a fresh investigation as new information emerges in the case; finally, we cut to 2015, when a true-crime documentarian (Sarah Gadon) interviews Wayne, now an old man struggling with memory loss. Through all these years, we see the development of Wayne's relationship with his eventual wife Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), a schoolteacher who ultimately ends up writing a book about the Purcells.

Now that we're approaching the finale -- airing this Sunday -- we've updated our list of theories and questions. Join us as we speculate.

Which Wayne should we trust? Who is telling this story?

One of the preeminent puzzles of the series is what version of the events of 1980 are we seeing: Is this what Wayne is telling his superiors in 1990? Or what he's telling Gadon's Elisa in 2015? And what are the holes in his story? We know from the beginning that his memory is failing, which suggests we're not getting the full picture; however, Pizzolatto told Entertainment Weekly that "If you’re seeing it, it’s reliable." 


Where is Julie Purcell? And is she really still alive?

The biggest revelation at the end of the first episode is that Julie Purcell, the little girl presumed murdered, is still alive in 1990. Or at least her fingerprints have been recovered at the scene of a a robbery. It's unclear whether she was a participant in the crime or simply at the location where it took place, but it throws a wrench into the story we think we are watching. It's no longer just a search for a murderer -- it's also a hunt for the truth about what became of Julie. Late in episode two, Elisa mentions "after the events of 1990 and what happened with Julie and her father." Now that we're nearing the end of the mystery we know what that means.

During the 1990 investigation, Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy) appears on TV to plead for his daughter's safe return. That results in someone who sure sounds like Julie reaching out, but she's not seeking to connect with her dad. Instead, she wants the man on TV to "leave [her] alone," and claims they left Will "resting." Naturally, Tom becomes a suspect, but he maintains his innocence, going on an investigative hunt himself. This leads him to the Hoyt family mansion, where he encounters a pink room. His last word is "Julie" before the Hoyts' suspicious security officer, Harris James -- formerly a member of the force who processed the Woodard scene in 1980 -- appears. The next thing we know, Tom is dead next to a typed suicide note, but it seems pretty evident that Harris killed him.

Unfortunately, there are still lingering questions. Did Tom or any other member of the extended Purcell family have any relation to Hoyt? Did one of her parents "sell [her and Will] off," as Elisa suggests? And what about those questions of Julie's parentage that her grandmother raises? And what of the detail that Tom was likely gay? Could he have been blackmailed? 

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What happened to Wayne's daughter?

Another person largely absent from the narrative so far is Wayne's daughter Rebecca. Seen briefly as a little girl in 1990, she has vanished from his life in 2015 -- and he can't quite remember why. He doesn't know the last time he has seen her, and fails to recall that she's moved out to Los Angeles to play music. When Wayne asks to see her in the middle of a dinner, his son grows frustrated. Later in the narrative we see Wayne taking her to college -- a rare flashback that's not in 1990 or 1980. What fractured his and Rebecca's relationship to cause such consternation? Does it have to do with the Purcells? And does it have to do with Wayne's relationship with her mother, Amelia? As the years progress we see her relationship with Wayne begin to crack. In 1990, he's perturbed by her continual research into the Purcell case, especially as she begins to work on a follow-up to her book. She's frustrated by his distance and curtailing of her career. I guess that's what happens when you meet and bond over a gruesome crime.

What's up with the dolls?

This one's pretty straightforward: We still don't know what the dolls left near Will Purcell's body signify. Even in 2015 it doesn't seem like Wayne has a handle on this. Elisa explains that Internet theorizers have connected them to "pedophile groups," but Wayne dismisses that, saying, "I don't think that's right." In the penultimate episode, however, she lends more credence to that theory, connecting it to the 2012 case that we know to be the plot of True Detective season 1. Elisa posits that Watts -- the one-eyed man -- gave Julie the doll and in order to procure children for one of these groups. Still, we don't know the origin of the creepy toy. We just know that Julie received it on Halloween when she was trick-or-treating.


Who is a red herring and who isn't?

This question has become both clearer and more complicated as the season draws to a close. At this point we know that Woodard, the Vietnam vet who was a pariah in the community, is not the Purcell murderer. The harassment he endured did, however, lead him to launch an attack, killing multiple people and wounding Roland. It's during this massacre that Wayne shoots him in the head, putting an end to the spree and basically to the first investigation. Woodard's death offers a convenient solution to the Purcell case, especially when Will's backpack and Julie's sweater are found on his property. But, in 1990, Wayne deduces those items were planted.

Similarly, it feels like the Black Sabbath-loving teens were another distraction. They were framed as nefarious from the first moments of the series, when we see them staring menacingly from their not-very-menacing purple VW beetle as Julie and Will ride their bikes to what we presume is their doom. Still, they've been mostly isolated from the mystery as time has passed.

Julie's mother's cousin, Dan O'Brien, has remained a person of interest. But at this point he seems only tangentially related to the death and disappearance if related at all. He knows something -- which is perhaps why he vanished right after Tom's death and his body was later found in a quarry -- but is likely not the main perpetrator.

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What's up with that ransom note?

Presumably that ransom note discovered by the Purcells at the end of the second hour is a major clue. It insists that Julie is safe, but adds: "The children should laugh. Do not look let go."

How involved is the Hoyt family?

One assumes, at this point, a lot. The Hoyts -- who run a food plant in town -- don't become relevant until a couple of episodes in, but as we near the finale, they're pretty much the one missing piece. They live in a gated mansion, teeming with security cameras. The fact that Lucy Purcell worked at their company raises eyebrows, as does the revelation that they hired one-time law enforcement officer Harris James, who likely planted evidence at the Woodard scene. That their property features a pink room like the one Julie mentioned to the girl Amelia interviews is downright upsetting. The Hoyts also employed Watts, whom they call Mr. June. But the real kicker is that patriarch Edward Hoyt lingers outside of Wayne's house, bidding him into his car in 1990, seemingly aware of Harris James' death. Presumably the introduction of Edward in the last episode -- played by Guardians of the Galaxy's Michael Rooker -- will answer a lot of questions.


Is this at all connected to the case in season 1?

Elisa, the documentarian, seems to think it is, flashing a newspaper headline about that case (featuring photos of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) to prove her point about networks of abuse. Curiously, creator Nic Pizzolatto seemed to lend credence to the idea that Elisa is a stand in for the True Detective fanbase, trying to hunt for clues in every spot. (He did this by liking an Instagram post.) Maybe that means she's as off base as the rest of us. 

How does race play into all of this?

Wayne is a black man in a small, mostly white Arkansas town, and slowly the show seems to be teasing out how prejudice might have impacted his role in the department and in turn his investigation. Elisa asks whether he thinks his theories or leads might have been "discounted" because of his race, noting that he left the force. He brushes her supposition aside, but it gets credence later on. After learning that Julie received a doll on Halloween, he has a plan to interrogate the houses on her trick or treating route. Despite his desire to complete this in quiet, the department blows up his spot by announcing it in a press conference. He chides Roland for not supporting him. "They ain't my tribe, man," he says. Roland balks at this assumption. Race continues to play an uneasy role in Wayne and Roland's partnership. After they kill Harris -- Roland shoots him to save Wayne -- Roland blames Wayne for getting them in this situation, almost uttering the n-word.

Who is following Wayne in 2015?

Wayne's not just paranoid. Someone has been watching him from a car parked outside of his home. It drives away, but Roland gets the license plate number. It feels like a direct parallel to Hoyt appearing outside in 1990. Is it another member of that family?

What happened to Amelia?

Before Wayne gets into Hoyt's car the last words he shares with Amelia are promises that they'll talk -- really -- when he gets back. Their entire 1990 storyline has been framed by an inability to communicate. But going into the finale we still don't know how their story ends.

What caused the rift between Wayne and Roland?

The death of Harris James is clearly a turning point. In 2015, when they are back on the case, Wayne apologizes to Roland coaxing him into that situation. "I didn't realize how different we were," he says. Roland replies, "We're past it bro." Is that the end of it? Is there more that caused them to remain isolated from one another for years? The n-word hangs over their interaction in 1990, but Roland also tells Wayne that Wayne never apologized. For what? And what caused Wayne to leave the force? 

All these questions and more should have answers by late Sunday night. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.