The third season of HBO’s True Detective seemingly hinged on the answer to one gigantic question: What happened to Will and Julie Purcell? In 1980, the two kids went off to ride their bikes in their small Arkansas town and disappeared. Will’s body was discovered the next night in a nearby cave, but who killed him? And who kidnapped his sister Julie?
The Purcell case would haunt Detectives Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) for decades, and Sunday’s season finale offered answers to big questions, even if it’s not totally clear which of those answers are the full truth of the matter.
As Hays and West learned 35 years after they began investigating the Purcell case, everything hinged on the obsession of a mentally ill woman from a powerful local family. After losing her husband and daughter in a car accident, Isabel Hoyt spotted the Purcell children at a company picnic, brought there by Hoyt Foods employee Lucy Purcell (Mamie Gummer). Working with her caretaker, Junius Watts, Isabel befriended the Purcell kids, and began meeting them in the woods to play games like hide and seek. But that fateful evening at Devil’s Den, Watts ultimately revealed to Hays and West after they confronted him in 2015, “Isabel had other plans.”
That day in 1980, Isabel attempted to bring Julie home with her and Will fought back to protect his sister. A scuffle ensued and Will fell backward, dying after he smashed the back of his head against a rock. Junius lied to the young Purcell girl, saying that her brother would be okay, and put Will’s body in the cave where it would be found by Detective Hays. Isabel then absconded with Julie, keeping her in the “pink room” deep in the Hoyt estate and drugging her for years with lithium. Julie’s mother Lucy knew about all of this — prior to the accident, Isabel had been hoping to adopt the girl, and she paid off Lucy to keep quiet — and Officer Harris James helped cover it all up, framing Brett Woodard in 1980 and then Tom Purcell in 1990.
That leaves one big mystery: How did Julie get away from the Hoyts? As Junius reveals to Hays and West, he helped Julie escape after she began asking questions about memories of her brother and the outside world, which led to her being discovered and the case being reopened in 1990. After that, Julie found her way to a convent, where she reportedly died of HIV in 1995, although Hays later surmises that her death was possibly just a cover orchestrated by the convent’s nuns, in order to help Julie live a life apart from her tragic history. Motivated by the memory of his late wife, Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), Hays concludes that Julie actually got together with her former schoolmate and had a daughter, then tracks them down to another Arkansas town called Greenland.
But when Hays pulls up to the house where he suspects Julie now lives, his memory slips his grasp once more, and he forgets who this woman might be or why he’s even there. In the end, he doesn’t close the case that’s frustrated him his whole life, though it’s still a happy ending because he reconnects with both West and his own children. The season closes on Hays recalling a pivotal moment when he first proposed to Amelia, followed by a short vignette of the soldier he once was, disappearing into the Vietnam jungle.
Ultimately, Detective Hays was standing right next to the missing girl he’d obsessively tracked for decades and he didn’t even know it. But we know the truth. Or do we?