In his interviews with True Criminal producer Elisa Montgomery in this week’s episode, Wayne makes two statements, only one of which can be true. Pressed by Elisa on whether he was troubled by the possibility of “forced conclusions” and other suggestions that there might be more to the Purcell case, he says, “You just do your best and learn to live with ambiguity.” Carefully phrased and hesitantly delivered, it’s among the least convincing statements Wayne’s made over the course of his sessions with Elisa, even in the moments when he’s obviously troubled by lapses in his memory. It’s an earlier line, one he seems to have said without having to think about it much at all, that cuts closer to the truth. After she shows him footage of AG Kindt’s 1990 press conference pinning the blame on Tom and overturning Woodard’s conviction, Elisa asks if he was satisfied with that conclusion. “No,” he replies. “But then I’ve never been satisfied with any part of the case.”
The words capture the heart of Wayne’s character. He’s a man who, at least in the time we’ve spent with him, is never satisfied — with the Purcell case but also with his marriage, his career, and his life in general. Whether it’s the Purcell case that’s made him this way or if that inability predates it remains an open, and probably unanswerable, question. For the Wayne we know, they’re all tangled up together.
And so are the past and the present. When the mid-season languors hit around episode four, little about True Detective seemed to be working anymore. Both the mystery and the personal drama felt like they were running in place and the device of telling the story across three timelines started to feel arbitrary. But with last week’s and, especially, this week’s episodes, that structure has started to feel essential again. Wayne’s dementia has left him feeling unstuck in time, but that dislocation has led to some of the season’s most lyrical moments, whether it’s the way a simple shift of the rearview mirror takes him back to the observation tower where Tom’s body was found, or the remarkable late-episode scene in which, after investigating the car that’s been lingering outside his house with some help from Roland, the present seems to fade away as he follows a flame back to the moment in 1990 when he burned his clothes after the murder of cop turned Hoyt-security-specialist Harris James. As you get older, it starts to feel like the past is both inaccessible and remarkably close at hand. Wayne’s condition makes that feeling seem even more pronounced and, in these recent episodes at least, that sense of floating between the then and the now has been one of the show’s most remarkable features.
The other: the way the storytelling has kicked into gear as, at various points in time, Wayne, Roland, and Amelia inch toward the truth of the Purcell case. In a case of history repeating itself a decade later, the 1990 timeline finds Tom’s apparent suicide leading the authorities to close the book on the case. Never mind that Tom left behind only an ambiguously worded typewritten note that could have been created by anyone and that evidence against him looks far from persuasive. And never mind that Amelia’s investigation keep finding new evidence that doesn’t fit that theory of the case. Attorney General Kindt is ready to move on, and so they move on. (Whether or not he has is own reasons to move on remains yet another open question.)
Specifically, Amelia decided to talk to Lucy’s friend — if we’ve learned her name I missed it — after being rattled by the appearance of a one-eyed black man matching the description of a person of interest never tracked down during the course of the original 1980 investigation. She learns nothing directly. Lucy’s friend never knew her to go with — telling pause — black men. But she does produce a Halloween picture of the Purcell kids that features two figures dressed as ghosts in the background. And, though their faces remain invisible, their hands reveal one of them to be black and the other white. Could this be the black man/white woman couple some spotted around town prior to the crime? Could Lucy be the white woman? And, if so, who is the black man?
Fast forward to 2015 and we maybe get some answers. Elisa references a man named “Watts” asking questions about Julie who matches the description of the mysterious one-eyed man. So, too, does “Mr. June,” whom Wayne and Roland learn about in 2015 after questioning a housekeeper for the Hoyts. She remembers him as a less-than-sociable resident of the main house, and the only person who has access to that house’s lower levels, presumably the same level we glimpsed after Tom’s break-in during the preceding episode, the ill-fated journey that took him to the Pink Room.
She also introduces a flood of other information about “Miss Isabel,” a reclusive Hoyt daughter who lost her husband and daughter in a “bad wreck” in 1977. This apparently left her housebound apart from an ill-fated venture in which she crashed a car. “That family had no luck. ‘Cept in business,” the housekeeper concludes. It’s hard not to agree, even if it’s just as hard not to suspect much of the bad luck was of its own making.
Is the late-season introduction of all this new information fair? Maybe not, but it works anyway, as does the final scene in which 1990 Wayne gets a threatening phone call from Mr. Hoyt himself, leaving his family behind for a meeting with the previously unseen meat-industry magnate, telling Amelia it’s “one last time” and that she has to trust him. That we know it’s not the last time, or at least not the end of the Purcell mystery, gives the moment an extra charge. We know Wayne makes it. He’s alive, if not well, in 2015 after all. But whatever happens over the course of the meeting solves nothing, leading only to another decade and a half of unanswered questions and an unshakable feeling of never being satisfied.
Intriguing Leads and Red Herrings
• There’s a lot to unpack with this episode. One notable development: The introduction of a fourth timeline. The episode opens with Wayne dropping his daughter Rebecca off for college. That would have to be some time around the late ’90s/early ’00s. We’ve heard Rebecca referenced and seen her as a girl in the 1990 timeline, but this is the first time we’ve seen her as a grown-up. (Or grown-ish, anyway.) She and Wayne seem to have a loving relationship here, though we know there’s a falling out in their future. What caused it? And where is she now? That’s one of many questions left for the season finale to answer.
• R.I.P. Harrison James, who doesn’t survive his visit to the interrogation barn seen earlier in the season. His death at the hands of Wayne and Roland — Roland pulls the trigger but Wayne shares the blame — is more or less what we might have guessed it was going to be given that we knew our detective protagonists were involved somehow. Harrison comes this close to revealing what he knows, then it all goes sideways, as if he’d rather risk death than spill his guts. Hope he enjoyed those hemorrhoid-free years drawing a decent salary for doing God knows what. (Well, probably killing Tom, at the very least.)
• Whither Cousin Dan? Did Tom kill him? Did Harrison get to him before taking that unfortunate ride with Wayne and Roland? Did he manage to beat it?
• Has Elisa cracked the case? She suggests the Purcell kids were sold into sex slavery by one or both of their parents (if true, it’s not hard to figure out which one) possibly with the help of Cousin Dan. And, hey, there’s even a similar case she can point to down in Louisiana for a recent example, one solved by a pair of detectives with an uncanny resemblance to Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. So, is she right? Did Lucy and Dan conspire with the Hoyts and Mr. June / Watts to sell Julie into slavery? Maybe. But would the series really drop the solution in its penultimate episode? And would it hand it over to that character?
• Elisa also references the “Nebraska case” alluded to before. (We’ve referenced it too.) Specifically, that’s a reference to the accusations of a child-prostitution ring being run by the Omaha-based Franklin Community Federal Credit Union, a hoax from the late ’80s with elements of satanism, cannibalism, and other lurid elements. It was found to be false, although members of the credit union were guilty of embezzlement. Treating it as real is, at best, in questionable taste, but it also points to one of the major inspirations for this season (even if Elisa turns out to be all wrong).
• “Mr. June.” “Mary July.” Is there something there?
• This whole “reclusive, tragic heiress” element suggests this season might take a hard turn toward the Southern Gothic in the home stretch.
• Nice to see this season rebounding in a big way with an episode that perfectly balanced the mystery with the character work. If it sticks the landing, this could be an even better season than True Detective’s first.