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A Very Simple Guide to True Detective’s Multiple Timelines

Mahershala Ali times three.
Mahershala Ali times three. Photo: Warrick Page/Courtesy of HBO

True Detective’s third season is a story of obsession: Arkansas detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) spends decades investigating the crime that changed his life — the murder of a young boy and the disappearance of the boy’s sister — as the HBO drama slips between three separate time periods in 1980, 1990, and 2015. The time jumps can make True Detective difficult to follow, so we’re here to break it all out chronologically after each episode, presenting the key events of the Purcell case in the actual order they happened — so you can make sense of the narrative, and maybe even sniff out the killer’s identity alongside Hays.

1967

Date unknown: Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy) meets Lucy (Mamie Gummer). Four months after they start dating, Lucy gets pregnant with their son, Will, and the couple quickly marries.

1980

May, date unknown: Dan O’Brien, the uncle of the Purcell children, spends some time sleeping in Will’s room — where he leaves some dirty magazines under the mattress — and Will sleeps on the couch.

October 31: While trick-or-treating on Halloween, Julie Purcell gets a straw doll from … someone. But who?

November 7: The day Steve McQueen died, Will and Julie Purcell leave their home around 4 p.m. to ride their bikes to the playground. Tom tells them to be home by 5:30 p.m. Minutes later, the kids are seen riding their bikes past Freddy Burns (Rhys Wakefield) and a couple of his friends, who are on their way to a nearby tower where local kids hang out.

• After sunset that same day, with the children not yet home, Tom Purcell drives around the small town of West Finger to look for them. This initial search occurs before 9 p.m., if later testimony about the teens at the tower is to be believed, as Tom sees them and also spots Brett Woodard, a.k.a. the Trashman, on the road.

• Meanwhile that evening, Detectives Wayne Hays and Roland West are shooting rats in an empty lot and driving around when they get a call for a missing persons case on Shoepick Lane.

• Within hours, the investigation officially begins at the Purcell home, and Lucy comes home from the bar to find out that her children are missing. Detectives Hays and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) speak to the neighbors.

November 8: After the case hits the news and the search for the Purcells intensifies, Hays and West go to West Finger Public Schools, where they speak to Will’s teacher, Amelia Reardon (Carmen Ejogo).

• Hays then questions Freddy Burns, who confirms he saw the Purcells riding their bikes at 4:15 p.m.

• Hays and Purcell attempt to question Brett Woodard, but he is not at home. They investigate the trash-strewn residence.

• As the search party begins to wrap up for the evening, Hays heads off on his own, finding corn-husk dolls that lead him to the body of Will Purcell.

November 9 to 13: At Will’s funeral, Hays and West interview Dan O’Brien about his relationship with his nephew. Then, during the funeral reception at the Purcell home, Will’s grandmother suggests that Julie may not be Tom’s child.

• After a town meeting with the state attorney general, Hays shows a photo of the doll to Amelia Reardon. Amelia shows the doll photo to kids on the playground, noticing Freddy Burns and his buddies acting strange. Then a boy named Mike reveals that Julie had a doll like it on Halloween, a week before she disappeared. Detectives Hays and West question Mike about the doll, piecing together the path the kids followed on Halloween.

• West gets a report from the vice squad about Theodore LaGrange, a sex offender who has been acting suspicious and recently relocated not far from West Finger. Hays and West pick up LaGrange, beating him during an illegal interrogation, before learning that he has an alibi.

• The Purcell family gets a letter about Julie: “Do not worry. Julie is in a good place and safe the children shud laugh do not look let go.”

After November 13, date unknown: Hays and West speak to a local kid named Johnny Boyle, who claims he had no plans with the Purcells the day they disappeared. Back at the Purcell house, a search of Will and Julie’s rooms turns up a hand-drawn map, and torn-up notes with the phrases, “It’s Alright” and “Don’t Listen,” stored in a bag from Hoyt Foods, where Lucy worked about a year ago. (Later, the detectives go to the Ozark Children’s Outreach Center, run by Hoyt Foods, to ask about Lucy’s former co-workers and reward money offered by the company.)

• During the search for Julie in the park, Hays finds a bag with children’s toys and something that looks like blood on a rock. When West shows pictures of the toys to the Purcells, Hays stumbles across a family photo of Will, during his first Communion, in the same position in which he was found dead.

• The detectives also speak with the owner of a nearby home, who says he saw a couple driving around the area in a sedan, and later has his property searched.

• The Trashman is beaten and threatened by locals, then rushes home to pull something wrapped in a blanket from a storage area.

• Hays and West go to St. Michael’s Church of the Ozarks to speak to the parish priest who gave Will his first Communion. The priest says that Julie spoke of spending time with an aunt, but she has no aunts. The detectives also learn that someone named Patty Faber made the dolls. When they go to speak to Faber, she says that she sold 10 of the dolls at a fair in October to a Negro man with a dead eye. After speaking to the owner of By-Pass Liquors, the detectives track down the buyer of the dolls, a man named Sam Whitehead, who lives in a trailer park off Central Ave. A riot nearly breaks out as they interrogate him.

• The fingerprints finally come back on Will’s bicycle and they match Freddy Burns, whom the detectives bring in for questioning. He cops to stealing the bike, but not killing Will.

• Woodard is spied talking to some local kids and the town mob goes after him again, chasing him back to his house, where he’s ready with a mortar aimed at the front door and trip wires planted on the property. The explosion sparks an gunfight that would later be known as the “Woodard Altercation” — ten people die, West is shot in the leg, and Hays shoots an armed Woodard to death.

• In the aftermath of the Woodard Altercation, the detectives find Will’s backpack and a piece of clothing that reportedly belonged to Julie. Hays is cleared in the shooting, and Woodard is posthumously convicted.

1981

May, date unknown: Officer Harris James, who identified the Purcell children’s belongings at the Woodard scene, takes a job as chief security officer for Hoyt Foods.

1988

August 12: Lucy Purcell dies in Paradise, Nevada, just outside of Las Vegas.

1990

March, date unknown: After a break-in at a Walgreens pharmacy, fingerprints from the scene are traced back to Julie Purcell.

May 12: Hays is deposed in an Arkansas State Police station, and he learns the Purcell case is officially reopened and the original conviction overturned.

May 17: West is deposed by the Arkansas State Police.

After May 17, date unknown: Amelia goes to the Sallisaw Police Station to see what they know about the Walgreen’s break-in, getting a drink with one of the officers and learning that Julie’s prints were found in the cosmetics aisle.

• West goes to speak with Tom, who’s now sober and religious, and Tom reveals he already knows about the discovery of Julie’s prints.

• West asks Hays to join his newly formed task force to investigate the now-reopened case of Julie’s disappearance.

• Hays scans all of the Walgreen’s footage, finally finding a shot of Julie, looking directly at the camera.

• Uncle Dan goes missing. (It’s unclear if he disappeared before or after the case was reopened, but the implication is that it happened afterward.)

• After Tom begs Julie to “come home” during a televised press conference, a woman calling from a truck-stop payphone claims to be Julie. She wants Tom to stop looking for her, saying mysterious things like, “I know what he did,” and, “He took me and I’m never coming back.” With this new insight, Tom is interrogated again and held in custody while his home is searched and his colleagues are questioned.

• Hays and West interview someone claiming to have run with the adult Julie, who now supposedly calls herself “Mary July.” West is skeptical, but Hays is convinced that this is the missing Purcell girl.

• The detectives also speak to Officer Harris James, who processed the Woodard Altercation scene back in 1980. He goes missing shortly thereafter. West then discovers that unknown prints on the children’s toys have gone missing from the evidence locker — and when he looks at the backpack found at the Woodard scene, he realizes that it was way too pristine to have been hidden in a crawl space under a mortar explosion. But who planted it?

• Uncle Dan reaches out to the detectives, meeting with them at a Waffle Hut, where he promises crucial information in exchange for $7,000. He asserts that Lucy Purcell did not just OD and reveals that Lucy wasn’t his sister, but someone who came to live with them. When Tom is released from custody and learns that Dan talked to the cops, he beats Dan and holds a gun to his head to find out what he knows. Dan suggests that Lucy had been getting paid since Julie’s disappearance.

• Tom breaks into the Hoyt estate as someone watches on closed-circuit television. He finds his way to the basement, where there’s a massive open door and a long hallway, which leads to a pink room. As Tom looks off camera, his eyes well and he says “Julie,” only for Harris James to approach behind him.

• Hays revisits the now-dilapidated Purcell home and realizes that what he once thought was a peephole was actually just a way to pass the little notes they found years earlier.

• Amelia’s book about the Purcell case, Life and Death and the Harvest Moon, is released. At a book reading, she’s confronted by an angry man with one milky eye — but it’s not the same man that Hays and West interrogated in 1980. Amelia also gets a contract for a sequel, leading her to dig into the investigation again. She speaks to a friend of Mary/Julie’s about the life on the fringe of society that the girl has been living.

2015

May 20: Hays is interviewed by Elisa Montgomery (Sarah Gadon), an investigative filmmaker who is making a true-crime series about the Purcell case. During their interview, Elisa raises questions about Julie’s relationship with Tom circa 1990. Wayne also reveals that Amelia died “a few years back.”

• After the interview, Wayne goes back to West Finger with his son, Henry (Ray Fisher), invoking more memories of the investigation that still haunts him. Later that night, without any memory of how he got there, Henry visits the site of the Purcell home, which burned down at some prior date.

After May 20, date unknown: The next time Wayne meets with Elisa, she tells him about the national interest in the Purcell case, including websites and fan theories devoted to Will’s murder and Julie’s disappearance.

• Hays goes to the doctor with his son for a CT scan, after the incident in which he awoke on Shoepick Lane. During his next interview with Elisa, she claims that several West Finger residents say they were never interviewed, or leads they gave to police were never investigated.

• While reading Life and Death and the Harvest Moon, Hays leaps to the conclusion that Lucy sent the “children shud laugh” letter to the Purcells herself back in November 1980.

• Hays visits West, who now lives alone in the woods with a bunch of dogs. They speak vaguely about “what we done,” which seems to have traumatized West, but Hays doesn’t quite remember. During a later conversation with West, Hays has a major episode: He’s unsure why West is in his home, and he asks if there’s a dark sedan outside. (There is not.)

A Very Simple Guide to True Detective’s Multiple Timelines