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‘True Detective’ Recap: The Downward Spiral

This season’s big mystery goes back to where the show began — and sets up what promises to be an interesting finale

Mahershala Ali in Season 3, episode 7 of HBO's True Detective

Mahershala Ali in HBO's 'True Detective.'

Warrick Page/HBO

In a True Detective hour where familiar symbols make a big, mind-blowing comeback, there’s a morbid and marvelous shot near the start of this week’s episode — “The Final Country” — that serves as a signifier all its own. It’s 1990, and detective Wayne Hays arrives at an unspecified crime scene, seemingly right near where Will Purcell was killed and his sister Julie potentially kidnapped one decade earlier. With the camera locked on him, the policeman makes his way up the twisting stairs of a tower near the woods, slowing when he sees a puddle of blood on one of the landings. He finally arrives at his destination: the murdered body of Tom Purcell, the kids’ father, staged to look like a suicide — and his weary partner, Roland West, looking on in disbelief.

Written by creator Nic Pizzolatto (who’s toned down his trademark purple dialogue so much this season that he feels like a whole new writer) and directed with eerie elegance by Daniel Sackheim, the episode as a whole is a lot like that shot. It’s a slow, methodical, breathlessly suspenseful journey to a dark destination that raises more questions than it answers.

The bulk of this episode’s action takes place in 1990, where Amelia Hays tells her husband about the one-eyed man who showed up at her book signing. She also tracks down the best friend of the kids’ late mother: A hoarder whose compulsive attachment to the detritus she’s amassed is presented with surprising empathy. The woman provides Mrs. Hays with a photo of the Purcell kids from the Halloween prior to the crime … in which a pair of adults dressed in head-to-toe white-sheet ghost costumes stand around creepily in the background. And she finds out from Mrs. Purcell’s old boss that the one-eyed man used to hang out with her sleazy cousin, Dan O’Brien.

Unfortunately, O’Brien has vanished, presumably to meet the same fate as his cousin-in-law Tom. So Wayne and Roland make their move on the one man they believe responsible: Harris James, a cop turned security guru for the Hoyts. They suspect he planted evidence on poor Brett Woodard’s property and traveled to Nevada to murder Lucy Purcell — then make the homicide look like an OD. Why not throw in her husband and cousin while he’s at it?

But James plays possum in the middle of his “enhanced interrogation,” then goes for Wayne’s gun when the detective tries to help him. This forces Roland to shoot the guy, a crime the partners cover up, but not before unearthing some deep-seated racial animus on West’s part. Looks like we’ve found the source of their falling out.

In 2015, though, the pair have patched things up, and together they track down an old Hoyt housekeeper who recalls a one-eyed man named “Mister June” who had access to an off-limits secret basement level. Meanwhile, Wayne apologizes for exploiting Roland’s close relationship with Tom to continue the investigation back in the day. “I didn’t realize how different we were,” he says. “I hope we can move past it.” “We’re past it, bro,” West replies. There’s a lot left between the lines here, and it shows faith in the audience’s ability to read it. For his part, Roland helps paper over his old partner’s dementia, which causes him to see their witnesses’ granddaughter as his own daughter on her first day of college.

The episode’s scariest moments arrive at the end. When the aged Wayne spots that mysterious car watching his house again, he stages a clever diversion so that Roland can sneak up from behind and get the car’s plates. But then, West suddenly disappears, along with everything else. His Alzheimer’s-ridden partner is alone in the dark. He spots flames in the distance and flashes back to the night of Harris James’ murder, when Amelia found him burning his bloodstained clothes in the backyard.

The next day, a pair of mystery vehicles pulls up to the Hays household, with none other than Edward Hoyt aboard. He calls the house and implicitly threatens the family unless Wayne comes outside to meet with him about James, and presumably a lot else besides. We get one last glimpse of the detective climbing into the care before we cut to black.

But there’s one more revelation to discuss … and it’s a doozy. Elsa Montgomery, the documentarian interviewing Wayne in 2015, directly connects his case to the one pursued by — you guessed it — Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, who we even get to see in a newspaper clipping. Isn’t it possible, she wonders, that both crimes were part of a massive conspiracy between rich and powerful child molesters? One in which key witnesses were repeatedly killed or mysteriously disappeared to keep the cops from getting to the truth?

How much hay should we make of the now 100-percent confirmed links Seasons One and Three? Not much, most likely. Note that Elsa claims the “crooked spiral” iconography associated with the Rust and Marty case served as a calling card for the elite pedophile ring. But that particular symbol was spread by Errol Childress — an impoverished, illegitimate, extremely mentally ill offspring of the powerful Tuttle family that really ran the show. Presenting the fancy true-crime director as well-intentioned but incorrect gets right down to the notion of: Can even the most educated investigators, whether they’re detectives or writers or filmmakers, ever really know what happened?

With only one episode to go, we still have a murder and a kidnapping to solve, an arch-enemy to meet, the mysteries of of Wayne Hays’ family and Roland West’s friendships to unravel, not to mention a pair of old men to either kill or spare. But the real question remaining is whether this season can keep its track record of high quality intact into its final hour. No need for crooked spirals and weird dolls here: All signs point to yes.

Previously: A Room With No View

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