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.


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.


Date unknown: Isabel Hoyt gets into a car accident that kills her husband and little girl. She is then watched over by a man with one eye known as Mr. June. It is later determined that Officer Harris James would have worked the area of the accident at the time. At some point between this accident and 1980, Isabel Hoyt spots the Purcell family at a company event, becoming obsessed with the children.


October 31: After befriending the Purcell children, Isabel Hoyt and Junius Watts follow them on Halloween, giving them the dolls that would later be found at the crime scene.

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. Their father Tom tells them to be home by 5:30 p.m. Minutes later, the kids are seen riding their bikes past Freddy Burns and a couple of his friends, who are on their way to a nearby tower where local kids hang out.

Isabel Hoyt and Junius Watts meet with the Purcell children to play hide-and-seek at Devil’s Den. Isabel has “other plans,” according to Junius, a struggle ensues, and Will dies when he hits his head on a rock. Junius places his body in the cave while Isabel runs off with Julie.

• 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 on the road.

• 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 Hays and West 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.

• 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 his 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. During the funeral reception at the Purcell home, Will’s grandmother suggests that Julie isn’t Tom’s child.

• After a town meeting with the state attorney general, Hays shows a photo of the doll to Amelia Reardon. She shows the doll photo to kids on the playground, and a boy named Mike reveals that Julie had a doll like it on Halloween. 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: 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.

• 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. While West shows pictures of those toys to the Purcells, Hays stumbles across a family photo of Will, during his first Communion, posing the same position in which he was found dead.

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

• At St. Michael’s Church of the Ozarks, the parish priest who gave Will his first Communion tells Hays and West 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 black man with a dead eye. After speaking to the owner of By-Pass Liquors, the detectives track down the alleged 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 a 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 — both planted at the scene by Officer Harris James, who is working for the Hoyts to cover up Isabel’s role in the case. Hays is cleared in the shooting, and Woodard is posthumously convicted.

• Amelia Reardon writes a newspaper article that clearly contains some leaked information from Hays. The department wants Hays to refute the story and he refuses, leading him to be reassigned to desk duty. Later, Hays tries to break up with Amelia over this drama, but she won’t let him.

Wayne convinces Amelia to write a book about the case, suggesting that the public version of events isn’t true.


May, date unknown: Harris James takes a job as chief security officer for Hoyt Foods.


August 12: Lucy Purcell dies in Paradise, Nevada, just outside of Las Vegas. Prior to her death, at some point after her daughter’s disappearance, she was paid off by the Hoyt family to remain quiet about what really happened.


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, 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.

• 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 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.

• 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 actually his sister. When Tom is released from custody, 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.

Tom Purcell is killed and left near the same location where his son’s body was found, with a typed note that reads: “I’m sorry. Please forgive me. I’m going to see my wife & son.” Despite this deeply suspicious scene, the Purcell investigation is closed and Woodard’s conviction is overturned.

• Hays gets the phone records from Lucy Purcell’s hotel room in Nevada, finding calls she made to a Hoyt residence. He also discovers that Harris James flew to see Lucy the day before she died.

Hays and West kidnap James and brutally beat him during an off-record “interrogation,” but a scuffle ensues when Hays takes off his cuffs. West shoots James, and the two officers bury his body.

• The next morning, Ed Hoyt tells Hays that he knows about what happened to James, and encourages him to drop the case or else.


December 10: After living and working at a convent for years, “Mary July” allegedly dies of HIV. In fact, she is Julie Purcell: After escaping the Hoyt compound with the help of Junius Watts sometime before 1990, she arrived at the convent and put back together the pieces of her life. But did she really die? Or was it a ruse concocted by the nuns to help Julie finally escape her past for good?


Summer, date unknown: Detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart bust up a pedophile ring in Louisiana, suggesting at the close of the investigation that the crime reaches deeper and implicates many more people. (Three years later, Elisa Montgomery will suggest that this ring is also involved in the disappearance of Julie Purcell and the death of Will Purcell.)


May 20: Hays is interviewed by Elisa Montgomery, 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. 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.

• 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.

• Elisa suggests to Wayne that Tom Purcell was clearly murdered, and that it was a “cover-up.” Elisa also suggests that the Purcells were involved in the same pedophile ring investigated by Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, hoping that Wayne can fill in the missing pieces. He cannot. She does seem to know the name of the one-eyed man, though: Watts.

• Hays and West go to speak to the Hoyt’s former caretaker about Watts, and she tells them the story of Isabel Hoyt’s accident and her involvement with a one-eyed man they knew as Mr. June.

• Hays confronts a suspicious car he believes has been surveilling him and West gets the license-plate number: T14 4TF.

• Hays and West break into the Hoyt estate and find the pink room in which Julie was held prisoner.

Junius Watts reveals the truth to Hays and West: how Will died; how Isabel kidnapped Julie, holding her captive in the Pink Room for years and drugging her with lithium; how he, Ed Hoyt, and Harris James conspired to cover it all up; how he helped Julie escape sometime prior to 1990; and how he ultimately learned about the death of “Mary July” at the convent in 1995.

Driven by the ghost of his late wife, Hays concludes that Julie Purcell faked her death in 1995, and is now living a happy life with a daughter of her own. But when he finally tracks down the woman he believes to be Julie, his memory betrays him and he loses track of why he’s there. Confused, Hays tells her about his condition and asks where he is, never realizing that he’s possibly standing next to the missing girl he’s searched for most of his life.

A Very Simple Guide to True Detective’s Multiple Timelines