‘True Detective’ Case Files: A New Case Begins With Creepy Dolls And Missing Kids


The third season of HBO’s True Detective opened with a two-part premiere that stretched across three timelines spanning 35 years. There were missing kids and creepy dolls and plenty of overhead shots of this season’s Ozark-region landscape. There were bicycles and potentially evil teens and red herrings that resulted in suspects getting tuned up pretty good. There were slimy but ambitious district attorneys and (possibly) slimy but ambitious news types. There was a lot, really, stretched over the first two hours, a good chunk of it as familiar to us — the overhead shots and the creepy doll and the “the cops yapping about life as they drive around” are all very much Season One things —as it was to the lead detective, Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali), whose memory problems are already a running theme in the investigation.

But let’s back up and all get on the same page: In 1980, on the day Steve McQueen died (as we are reminded more than once), two children, Matthew and Julie Purcell, head out on their bikes and never return. Their parents (Scoot McNairy, all broken-up and sad; Mamie Gummer, all drunk and mad and repeatedly defending the former by shouting “I’m entitled to a life!”) fall apart and our two detectives (Ali’s Hays and Stephen Dorff as Roland West) take a break from drinking High Life and firing off their guns to investigate.

What we learn in short order is that the boy, Matthew, is already gone, found by Hays — an expert tracker of sorts from his time in Vietnam — in a cave with his hands in a praying position and his location tipped off by a few creepy straw dolls. What we learn later, both in the episode and in the show’s own chronology, is that Julie Purcell is still alive, if her prints at the scene of an Oklahoma Walgreens robbery are any indication. (One imagines they are, unless, like, a pre-teen Julie rode her bike from Arkansas to Oklahoma and slapped her prints all over a pharmacy in such a way that they’re still there 10 years later. It will be a little hilarious — bad, but hilarious — if this happens.)

We also met our cast of characters — from a trash-collecting veteran with a go-kart to Wayne’s protective but apparently bitter son to Amelia (Carmen Ejogo), a schoolteacher in the town who will eventually become Wayne’s wife and the author of a famous non-fiction book about the case. So far the show is mostly just disseminating information, dropping clues and background information to (hopefully) build from later. All we really know so far is:

  • Will’s dead, Julie is alive
  • Whatever the result of the original investigation, it was reopened and overturned in 1990
  • Wayne left the force sometime, for some reason, after that happened
  • Mahershala Ali rules

This last part cannot be overstated. Stephen Dorff is doing great work so far, too, and at some point we’ll really need to discuss his 1980 hair, but this is Ali’s show. His presence and intensity carry the first two hours, to the point that even his repeated utterances of “I don’t know” feel authoritative. If I ever get murdered (god forbid, obviously), please ask him to handle the investigation. Not this character. Him. Mahershala Ali. I think he will do a good job.

And now, let’s look at where things stand.

The Timelines


1980 — This is where we spent most of the first two episodes, with the focus on the initial investigation. Wayne is a few years back from Vietman. One thinks we’ll be spending more time here as the initial investigation unfolds.

1990 – Wayne Hays has a new haircut and is sitting for a deposition to go over the original case. If “a hard-drinking cop who investigated a creepy murder involving dolls is brought back in to explain it to investigators in another timeline who have new information and potentially new suspects” is giving you Time Is A Flat Circle vibes, then no, you are not alone. I’m willing to let a pretty fair chunk of season one re-hashing slide here but if Wayne cracks open a Lone Star tallboy, that might be a bit much.

We also get a look at the Hays home, Wayne fried and not handling the new information well, Amelia just about set to publish her book on the case (titled Life and Death in the Harvest Moon), and actually handling the news about Julie pretty well even though it could result in massive rewrites and trashing the mountain of galleys strewn about the office. Things with the kids seem… tense, probably the result of a father who has spent a decade obsessing over the disappearance/murder of children who were about their age when things went sideways. So far, 1990 is the timeline we know least about and therefore the most interesting.

2015 — Some sort of true crime show/movie — titled True Criminal, because jokes — is looking back at the case, like your assorted Jinxes and Making a Murderers. A blond lady in sneakers appears to be in charge and so far what we know about her is:

  • She loves conspiracies
  • She wants Wayne to think she is very woke
  • We don’t trust her

Maybe that last one is just me. Me and Wayne. We’re onto you, lady.

The Evidence


So far, the main pieces of evidence we’ve seen — in 1980, at least — are the aforementioned creepy straw dolls (which may or may not have been distributed on Halloween, and please do note that if anyone tries to give you a creepy straw doll on Halloween or any other day, you should flee as fast as your feet can pedal) and a note about Julie that was made with cut-up letters from magazines and newspapers. I don’t yet know what to make of either but I do know that the eventual death of print will wreak havoc on the ransom note business.

The Suspects


Potentially evil Volkswagen teens — Our ringleader here appears to be Freddy Burns, pictured above looking kind of like if Tim Riggins was way into cross-country instead of football. There’s also his Black Sabbath buddy. What we know about them so far: They like to stare at people from inside a purple bug and then go to Devil’s Den to slug beer and pop off fireworks and they may or may not have been screwing around with a bike that looked a lot like Will’s bike. Worth keeping an eye on.

Cousin Dan — Cousin Dan seems evasive, like a guy with secrets. Is that secret “I drilled a hole in my nephew’s closet to spy on my niece and then abducted them both and killed the boy”? Seems like a leap, maybe. At least the last part. Hole in the wall got there somehow.

Bret “Trashman” Woodard — Trashman ain’t doing himself no favors, man, cruising around on a go-kart with garbage clanging behind him, storing it all in a lot that looks a lot like a place you’d find a body or at least a clue about where a body is. I don’t know, though. Seemed like a solid but sad dude in his interview. I’d be a terrible cop.

“Well, he seemed nice. I vote we cross him off the list.”

“But Brian, he confessed.”

“Ehhh, he’s okay.”

Various Purcells — We keep an eye on the family because you should always do that. Are… are we willing to jump to “Julie killed her brother and ran off” yet? That’s disturbing. It feels too soon for that. Too many other possibilities. Let’s push it way, way back for now.

A damn Demogorgon — I mean, listen, am I saying a monster from a parallel dimension snatched the kids and killed Will and dragged his sister to a fictional hellscape depicted in the popular Netflix show Stranger Things? No. No, I am not saying that. That would be crazy. Let’s just pencil it in, though. For now. Just until we find out more. Don’t want to look silly later, you know?

Loose ends


— Nothing good happens when you see a shot of children riding bikes in slow motion. Or using almost any form of transportation in slow motion. Remember the roller skating kids from Sharp Objects? Yeah. Stuff is more ominous than organ music in an empty castle.

— Scoot McNairy’s mustache is extremely on-point and someone needs to acknowledge that, so this is me doing it, here, in public. Really just excellent work on it. Congrats, Scoot.