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‘True Detective’: 7 Theories on Season 3 — That Don’t Really Have to Do With the Case

Episode 5 dropped a lot of clues for at-home detectives, but let's also look at the long-term impact Season 3 will have on the franchise — and TV overall.

True Detective Season 3 Episode 5 Mahershala Ali Carmen Ejogo

Mahershala Ali and Carmen Ejogo in “True Detective”

Warrick Page / HBO

[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “True Detective” Season 3, Episode 5, “If You Have Ghosts.”]

Let’s get one thing straight right off the bat: “If You Have Ghosts” is a great episode of “True Detective.” Rich with information, filled with stunning (and surprising) performances, and paced well between revealing personal confrontations and critical developments in the case, Episode 5 delivers everything viewers could want from the series. Sure, the opening shoot-out isn’t as memorable as the Season 2 brouhaha, and it hurts to see Wayne (Mahershala Ali) be so dismissive of his wife during a communal partners’ dinner, but both served the story first, and that’s what matters.

During the discussion below, we’ll get into some of the finer details that made Episode 5 so solid — yes, including Stephen Dorff’s gangbuster, “Hey, there’s someone acting here other than Mahershala” turn — but with more than half the long-awaited third season in our rearview, it’s time to look at where this car has taken us. It’s clear, at least to this critic, that “True Detective” has delivered on its potential, so what do we want from it in these final episodes? How can it close out strong? Who do we want rewarded for their efforts (during Hollywood’s ongoing onslaught of awards)? What still needs to be readdressed in future seasons, and what might those future seasons look like? And yes, who’s the elusive killer from Season 3?

So without further ado, here are seven theories about “True Detective” that don’t really have anything to do with the case (save one).

Conspiracy clues are fantastic red herrings.

Who the heck is Harris James? Per IMDB, Scott Shepherd’s character has only appeared in one episode this season — this one, via a photograph handed to Wayne by the “True Criminal” reporter. You see, ol’ Harris James disappeared in 1990 during the second investigation, and he was part of the team that processed the original crime scene. So his mysterious absence seems like a bit of a coincidence given everything else going on, doesn’t it?

Actually, it seems exactly like a coincidence. Sure, Harris’ unexplained departure seems a little extra hinky combined with Will’s bookbag oh-so-obviously being placed under Brett Woodard’s porch (aka the Trash Man), but all these conspiracy angles aren’t going to give us the killer. They might expose Arkansas Attorney General Gerald Kindt as a corrupt elected official who bucked procedure to close a case and get elected, but that’s not the crime Wayne cares about.

Still, all these conspiracy theories are fun. They pop up randomly and set people on edge. Who’s that outside Old Wayne’s window? Probably someone who’s protecting a powerful person, but probably not the actual killer. It’s just another red herring — hopefully one that will tie into the larger story (and not get too complicated, a la Season 2), but it’s just a means to distract the audience from what’s really going on. That is, unless it’s Bill Clinton’s fault.

True Detective Season 3 Episode 5 Mahershala Ali Stephen Dorff

Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff in “True Detective”

Warrick Page / HBO

The most important questions aren’t who did what, but why the detectives did what we know they did.

In Episode 5, audiences found out the original conviction for Will Purcell’s murder was dealt to Brett Woodard. That doesn’t sit right. Given the reinvestigations and general sense of Mr. Woodward, it’s pretty clear he’s a patsy. But what’s even more interesting than who he’s taking the fall for is why Wayne and Roland (Dorff) let such a blatantly false conviction go through. Wayne didn’t notice the bookbag’s suspicious cleanliness until well after the original verdict came down, but he did know Woodard well enough to argue he’s the wrong guy for this.

So were they railroaded into agreeing with the findings by an ambitious Gerald Kindt? Were they complicit in the cover-up? These telling decisions could sway our interpretation of the men, as well as the case, but it’s the men who matter here.

More to that point — and more confusing — is how Episode 5 strongly implies Wayne and Roland killed Tom Purcell (Scoot McNairy). After hearing the recording from “Mary July,” the woman suspected to be a grown-up Julie Purcell, the detectives appear to turn on Roland’s ol’ buddy. That phone call sure sounds bad for Tom, but it’s also been very clear how tortured, angry, and uncontrollably depressed he’s been since his children disappeared — to assume he killed his son and got rid of his daughter based on a phone call from a girl they’re not supposed to “fixate” on, well, that sure seems like an extreme reaction for Wayne and Roland to have under the circumstances.

How Nic Pizzolatto explains their fateful choice will determine how affecting and successful the season is overall. Roland won’t even say Tom’s name in the present day, repressing the guilt for what they’ve done, and the two detectives weren’t willing to go to those extremes with a pedophile, let alone a guy they’ve all but cleared up until that phone call. This can’t be a cheap way to torture the two older detectives; if they killed Tom, the audience needs to believe they had all the reasons they needed to go through with it, and so far, we don’t.

The series should really be called “True Detectives.”

Yeah, yeah — this has been argued before, dating all the way back to when Season 1 was just as much about Marty Hart’s redemption as Rust Cohle’s. Pizzolatto’s series is about great partners, first and foremost, and Season 3 is no different. We don’t have to choose which is the true detective. After that mano y mano, “yes… no… yesno…”, both these cops are focused, driven, and consumed by their detective identities. So let’s not shortchange one for the other.

True Detective Season 3 Episode 5 Carmen Ejogo Mahershala Ali

Carmen Ejogo and Mahershala Ali in “True Detective”

Warrick Page / HBO

Nic Pizzolatto is using Season 3 not to rebut criticisms of past seasons, but to grow from them.

One of the most obvious interpretations of Season 3 is as a response to criticisms leveled against past years; namely, it’s trying to do better by its women and take responsibility for being a very dark drama. Albeit largely unsuccessful, Pizzolatto is clearly trying to write a well-rounded female character in Amelia (Carmen Ejogo). She’s a teacher, an award-winning writer, and then she’s a wife to Wayne and mother to their kids. That’s a good start, and in Episode 5, she actively calls out her husband for expecting her to “keep a house for [Wayne] to brood in.”

That’s not who she is, Amelia claims, and while that may be true, so much of her arc still revolves around Wayne, Wayne’s case, and Wayne’s issues. It often feels like she’s there to call him out for mistakes, whether that’s bad dinner party manners or posthumously shaming him for not reading her book sooner. It’s like Pizzolatto is using Amelia to accept criticism. (Wayne is clearly in the wrong during every argument with his wife.) But that doesn’t make her as fully formed as her male counterparts, who act on their own, laugh on their own, and refuse to be tied to anyone or anything but the case.

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