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6 episodes in, True Detective digs into story but squanders opportunities

Carmen Ejogo
Photo: Warrick Page/HBO
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“It’s terrible what this work makes you ponder, isn’t it?”

At a 1990 reading from Life And Death And The Harvest Moon, Amelia Hays concludes, “A lost child is a story that’s never allowed to end,” and her rapt audience nods along. New evidence (and fresh publicity) in the Purcell case means renewed interest in her debut book and the possibility of a sequel. The story has changed, and change means opportunity.

The story has changed. The facts haven’t. They’re just coming to light.

For all its doling out of details, daring viewers to put together pieces, True Detective is more interested in the abstract idea of a story than in any character or plot or mere fact. “Hunters In The Dark” demonstrates that clearly, and I don’t mean that as a compliment.


“Hunters In The Dark” manages to work well as a story, better than any episode since the two-part premiere, and to demonstrate the emptiness of a narrative that’s more interested in abstractions than in its characters. Writers Graham Gordy and Nic Pizzolatto keep the tension up, moving the story ahead (and, as decade-jumping stories demand, back) at a good clip. But even here, where the pace works well, the pitfalls of previous episodes recur.

Wayne Hays folding a piece of paper and slipping it into the Purcell house’s “peephole” is presented as a big mystery solved, a possible violation resolving into a loving gesture. But attentive viewers will have seen the notes, seen the peephole, seen Henry and Becca Hays protecting each other as Will and Julie Purcell might have, and put those pieces together.

While some plot points get dragged out, others are introduced and burned off in a single episode, destroying the delicious speculation that fuels both slow-burn mysteries and highly stylized prestige dramas. In “Hunters In The Dark,” former cop and current Hoyt Foods chief security officer Harris James (Scott Shepherd) makes his first appearance, as does his rigidly respectable, oddly predatory office. By episode’s end, he’s a sinister figure indeed, creeping up on Tom Purcell in the pink rooms under the Hoyt mansion.

That mansion, with its forbidding gates, could have cast its sinister pall over both the town and the story in earlier episodes. Even the writers of Scooby Doo know that if you’re going to creep around a daunting estate later, you should show it early and often. (We can call this guideline Chekhov’s castle.) Instead, in a tautly effective scene set up with startling sloppiness, it’s trotted out just in time for Tom Purcell’s drunken break-in.


Other elements and clues are interjected with clumsy brazenness, like the amateurishly blatant cut from Amelia’s runaway interview subject to the landscaper outside her window. (Ardoin Landscaping, the door of the truck reads, and if this is the same Mike Ardoin Julie and Will said they were visiting the day they disappeared, there has to be a more graceful way to reintroduce the character.)

Scoot McNairy
Screenshot: True Detective/HBO

These missteps can be forgiven in exchange for the reveal of the subterranean “pink rooms” under the millionaire’s mansion, and the terrible road that leads Tom Purcell there. Unlike the empty violence of previous episodes, the beating Tom delivers to his late wife’s cousin and former lover is excruciating to watch. As loathsome as he is, Dan O’Brien (Michael Graziadei) is fleshed out in a way Hays and West’s early suspect never was, nor the unnamed mob and unnamed cops who got blown away at “the Woodard altercation.” And we know too much about Tom Purcell—about his grief, his recovery, his striving for peace—to take his sudden swerve into brutality lightly.

When Amelia describes the revival of the case (and therefore the Purcell’s continuing grief) as “an opportunity,” Wayne Hays bridles, but it is exactly that—for both of them. New evidence and new interest means new investigations, both official and informal, because the story—the narrative—of what happened to Julie Purcell has changed.

“It’s all about the kids!” O’Brien (who by 1990 looks like Paul Rudd gamely trying to play Charles Manson) yells at Hays and West, dumbstruck that they haven’t figured that out. That only makes it worse that these children have been lazily written. What happened to Julie, before and after her disappearance, is the key to the season’s mystery. But no one in this show, either character or writer, seems to care who she is, only where and why.


Julie Purcell, the lost child Amelia wrote about, isn’t a story. She’s a person. But in the world of True Detective, she’s a placeholder, a person lost before the audience got to know her, a MacGuffin to be chased through the decades.

Or, as the season’s pervasive images of the hunt suggest, the children are nothing more than prey. Looking at Harris James’ office, adorned with weapons and souvenirs from his hunts, it’s easy to believe Will and Julie mean no more to him, and to the people who pay him so handsomely, than a brace of birds butchered on the factory’s chicken line.

Stephen Dorff, Scott Shepherd, Mahershala Ali
Screenshot: True Detective/HBO

This season keeps demonstrating a failure to distinguish between people, an eagerness to lump folks in together. After storming out of a press conference, Lucy Purcell turns on both the reporter hounding her and Amelia Hays, who’s trying to curb the harassment.“You two bitches!” she screeches, “you talk to each other, make up a story on your own!” It would be easy to judge Lucy for screaming at the woman trying to protect her from the hungry press, but Amelia made her name off Lucy’s misery. Amelia is the hungry press; she just plays the long game.


Chief Warren (Gareth Williams), who shares his name with the author of Tell Me A Story, isn’t worried about facts. He’s worried about the story being told about local law enforcement. “Press is making the county a Hee Haw sideshow!” he reminds Det. Hays, trying to justify hanging the Purcell kids on the late Brett Woodard. “He killed ten people! You were there!”

Twelve people,” Hays corrects him on his way out the door. “Get your stories straight.”

Mahershala Ali, Brett Cullen, Jon Tenney, Gareth Williams
Screenshot: True Detective/HBO

Early on, True Detective’s third season seemed to be exploring subtle racial dynamics, especially in the way it shows black characters talking around the racism they both experience every day without having to specify what “it” is. As the season goes on, the show keeps invoking racial tension—West and Hays’ confrontation of the crowd in Davis Junction, the attacks on Brett Woodard, and his explosive response, Tom Purcell’s immediately recanted slur (and Lucy’s unrepented, unforgiven slurs), Patty Faber’s perplexity at being asked to describe a black man—=without excavating any larger meaning from it.

Wayne Hays knows his partner’s word carries more weight with their superiors because of his skin color—“they ain’t my tribe, man”—and he knows Roland’s company legitimizes his own presence for some of their community. Roland West knows Hays believes it, even if Roland doesn’t. So when Wayne Hays leaves his partner behind, striding down the road (evoking memories of Julie and Will “pedaling into the sun”) and West yells after him, “People see your black ass skulking around, you’re gonna get yourself shot!,” it’s not just a grim joke or a crude warning. And it’s not a show making a statement about racism so pervasive that even with a suit (real necktie and all), a badge, and a gun, a black man alone is a man in danger. It’s a white man using his partner’s real and reasonable fear—physical and professional—as a cudgel, to hurt him.


These ongoing mentions of race are more than many shows bother with, and there’s value in a drama acknowledging real racism. But merely presenting the reality of racism isn’t commentary.


And in this case, it’s a shocking waste. “Hunters In The Dark” heightens both the compelling mystery and the eerie aesthetic of season three. But a show that follows an enigmatic, charismatic black lead (and even more charismatic actor) from 1980 to 2015 is packed with opportunities to explore the racial dynamics of its times, and to see how they’ve shifted over time—or, tellingly, not shifted. Six episodes into an eight-episode season, this is just one more opportunity True Detective has squandered.

Stray observations

  • Season one Easter egg!
  • “I’ve been looking at myself a lot,” Wayne Hays tells his son, which is the understatement of the season. This show is haunted by mirrors and reflections, some of them affording glimpses of other times.
  • Like Lucy, Wayne accuses Amelia of “telling yourself stories about me, my motives,” adding pointedly, “I could tell stories.”
  • “Did I teach you to withhold?
  • “Missing my old clip-ons.” “You’re not in elementary school anymore.” If this season ends without explaining Wayne Hays’ “preoccupation” with being strangled by his own necktie, I will burn this whole place down, right to the pink rooms.
  • A girl who knew Mary Julie lists her names for Amelia, including Mary July, “like summertime, she said.” SUMMER is one of the names painted on the walls of the derelict house on Shoepick Lane, in large, carefully legible letters.

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About the author

Emily L. Stephens

Contributor, The A.V. Club. Emily L. Stephens writes about film, television, entertaining, gender, and cake. A lot about cake, really.