Season 3, Episode 5: ‘If You Have Ghosts’
After last week’s booze-soaked wallow in the creator Nic Pizzolatto’s worst instincts, it felt great to see “True Detective” move forward on the case again, even with the occasional hitch in its step. There are important revelations about what ended the investigation in 1980, new wrinkles to its reopening a decade later and a gathering of elderly forces to revisit it again 25 years after that. For the first episode since the opening two, the show gathered power from a meaningful convergence of timelines and the dysfunction of a community more interested in closure than in getting the facts right.
The melee in from 1990 that ended last week’s episode, gently labeled “the Woodard Altercation,” turned out to be the breakthrough that put a neat little bow on the original investigation. Brett Woodard was already under suspicion from the police, but his neighbors had gone a step or two further in linking him to the crimes because of his eccentric behavior and his overly friendly way with children. His ambush by a cadre of redneck vigilantes was so inevitable that he had already prepared like Jamie Lee Curtis in the new “Halloween,” hunkering down on a property equipped with trip wires, land mines and assault weapons.
Survival doesn’t appear to be an expectation for Woodard — he just wants to take out as many hostile forces as he can before he goes. Life was too much for him to bear even before the Purcell kids went missing.
For Hays, a fellow veteran, shooting Woodard is another burden he is forced to carry, which would be a more compelling idea if it weren’t explicitly vocalized or if Hays’s psychic rucksack weren’t already bursting at the seams.
But making Woodard the fall guy for Will’s murder and Julie’s disappearance does bring “True Detective” back to the Arkansas of the West Memphis Three, where the desire to find justice quickly prevents a more thorough and credible investigation — especially when the person or persons involved are societal outcasts. In fact, there hadn’t been much follow-through from Hays and West since the early hours of the investigation, at least from what we’re privy to seeing on the show. As Freddie confirms in the 1990 timeline in this week’ episode, Woodard was puttering along in the opposite direction from where the children were headed.
At the time, the one damning piece of evidence connecting Woodard to the crime was the discovery of Will’s backpack in his crawl space, but in 1990, with Julie still alive, Hays notes that the bag was left conspicuously undamaged by the explosion.
This indicates that someone planted it during the few days in which police were combing through the scene. “Nobody was compelled to look too hard,” recalls Hays of the original finding, but the politics of exonerating Woodard 10 years later are equally undesirable. The desire for justice isn’t always the same as the desire for truth: Careers made by a high-profile conviction can be upended by its unraveling. There’s a reason it took over 18 years for the West Memphis Three to be released from prison — and under a peculiar plea deal, too. Unsettling a settled case has consequences.
Those consequences are particularly substantial for Tom Purcell, who spent 10 years grappling with the uncertainty of his daughter’s whereabouts before she suddenly resurfaced.
The best scenes in this week’s episode zero in on Tom’s anguish, which the superb Scoot McNairy plays as three parts authentic to one part performative, an emotionally devastated father who may still be hiding something. His estranged wife Lucy died of an overdose outside Las Vegas two years earlier, and Dan O’Brien, the cousin who briefly lived with the Purcells (and perhaps carved a peephole into Julie’s room), passed some bad checks and spent time around Vegas, too. Tom is alone in pleading publicly for tips on his daughter’s whereabouts, and he is alone, too, when confronted with a hotline message from a young woman claiming to be Julie, who wants “the man on TV, acting like my father” to leave her alone.
That hotline call and the news that Lucy and Dan spent time in Las Vegas isn’t incriminating, exactly, but it does strongly suggest that one of Will and Julie’s parents had a role in what happened to them. Add to that the ransom note, which echoes Lucy’s thoughts about how “children shud laugh,” and there’s plenty of cause for speculation, all the way up the most recent timeline, when Hays finally gets around to reading his wife’s book.
In the decade between the first and second timelines, however, there’s a bond between Tom and West that the show has introduced without yet defining how it developed. At a minimum, West seems persuaded by Tom’s grief and more willing than his partner to protect him from additional stress. It’s possible to read West’s sad state at the end of the episode — a potbellied recluse with stray dogs and a drinking problem — as indicative of regrettable choices, although it’s also possible that Tom had nothing to do with it.
The bounty of clues and disclosures this week do much to counteract the continued friction between Hays and Amelia, which repeats itself from last week. The signs of Hays’s hostility and emotional remoteness are present in 1980, when he refuses to accept Amelia’s comforting gestures while West is recuperating from gunshot wound. In 1990, with Amelia’s book on the verge of publication, he lashes out again at a suburban dinner party with West and his girlfriend, which becomes yet another prelude to makeup sex.
Hays’s denial of her insight and agency is a fault the show acknowledges — he wouldn’t have missed the ransom note clue if he’d bothered to read her book — but their scrapes have the effect of marginalizing her in the story, too. Like Woodard, she is reduced to another burden for him to carry.
• “There surely exists a mutable area of soul where grief is indistinguishable from madness.” In fairness to Hays, I would not have made it far into Amelia’s book, either.
• Pro tip: When going over sensitive evidence of a recently reopened murder/kidnapping case, keep the door closed.
• Hays isn’t a welcoming ear to the hardships of others, especially a guy like Freddie, who accuses him and West of ruining his life by browbeating him in the interrogation room. (“Please explain to me the trials and tribulations of being a white man in this country.”) Pizzolatto heroes are turned off by the weaknesses of others, even as they drown their own sorrows in whiskey.
• “We do not say ‘good night’ without ‘I love you” is a genuinely lovely sentiment, patching together the holes that keep opening up in the Hays household. It’s more touching still with the knowledge that the bond between father and daughter will not hold.