True Detective season 3 takes place in three different timelines - 1980, 1990, and 2015 - with the overarching story being told simultaneously across all three time periods. This is not unlike True Detective season 1, which was also split across multiple timelines. Seeing as the show's first season was an astounding success, it's no surprise that series creator Nic Pizzolatto is repeating what made True Detective work in the first place.
True Detective season 3 examines the murder of a boy named Will Purcell and the disappearance of his sister, Julie Purcell. Detectives Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) investigate the case in 1980 Arkansas. Meanwhile, separate timelines in 1990 and 2015 not only reveal the complex nature of the characters' perspectives, but also the political and racial aspects that come along with the investigation.
Considering the complexity of the investigation into the Purcell children, and that the case unfolds in three separate timelines, it's understandable if a bit of information gets lost in the shuffle and transitions. So, we've gathered up True Detective season 3's confounding story so far and presented it into a straightforward, chronological explanation.
- This Page: What Happens In 1980
- Next Page: What Happens In 1990 & 2015
WHAT HAPPENS IN 1980
On November 7, 1980, Will and Julie Purcell disappear near Fayetteville, Arkansas, and detectives Wayne Hays and Roland West are assigned to the case. Upon reaching the Purcell home, they question the victims' parents, Tom and Lucy Purcell, as well as search the home. In Will's room, Wayne discovers a book called "The Forests of Leng," along with a peephole in the closet. He then learns that Lucy's cousin, Dan O'Brien, had stayed with the family months earlier - in Will's room. Shortly thereafter, Wayne and Roland meet and question the children's English teacher, Amelia Reardon. After that, Wayne follows up on a tip by investigating a wooded area. He discovers a trail of cornhusk dolls, which ultimately leads him to a cave, where he discovers Will Purcell's dead body. The corpse appears to be staged, as if the boy had been praying.
At Will's funeral, Wayne and Roland question Lucy's cousin, Dan, as well as Tom's parents. That's when the detectives learn that Will may not even be Tom's son, because Lucy has a reputation for cheating on her husband. Hoping to take his mind off his son's death and daughter's disappearance, Tom returns to work, where he's confronted for returning too early. Tom then quits and makes a scene on the way out. Meanwhile, Wayne and Roland follow up about a convicted sex offender named Ted LeGrange, who now goes by the name Robert. Later, Wayne meets up with Amelia, who reflects upon her difficult past in San Francisco during the Black Panther movement. Soon thereafter, Wayne and Roland locate LeGrange and proceed to physically attack him during their interrogation. The detectives then receive a serial killer-like note that reads,"Do not worry. Julie is in a good place and safe the children shud [sic] laugh do not look let go."
When Wayne and Roland speak with Will and Julie's classmate, Ronnie Boyle, they learn that the Purcell kids had lied about going to their friend's home on the day of their disappearance. Wayne then meets with Amelia once again. After, the detectives interview a local who lives near the crime scene, and he reveals that he spotted a suspicious brown car, with a white woman and black man inside. Next, a local Vietnam veteran named Brett Woodard, aka "the trash man," is beaten by white locals for hanging around their kids. He's one of the last people to see the Purcell children alive, so he becomes a suspect. Wayne and Roland then meet with the Purcells and inform them about an identified set of prints on Will's bicycle in the forest. In the Purcell home, Wayne discovers Will's first communion picture, which eerily mirrors the staging of his corpse.
To follow up on the religious angle, Wayne and Roland meet with the local priest, who admits that he took the picture of Will but doesn't know why the boy's eyes were closed. The detectives learn that Julie was excited to see an unidentified "aunt," and Wayne suggests the case is "all about the girl." Soon after, they interview an elderly woman named Patty Faber, who made the cornhusks dolls that were found near the crime scene. She offers up a clue about a mysterious "dead eye" black man, who is later revealed to be Sam Whitehead. The detectives visit his trailer park and receive a hostile reaction from both Sam and his neighbors. After Sam points the detective towards Hoyt Foods, a chicken factory that could help them with a "black man with a scar" tip, they return to the priest and learn that his congregation consists mostly of white people. With the racial element seemingly out of play, the detectives refocus.
During a first date between Wayne and Amelia, the teacher presses the detective about the Purcell case, suggesting that Will's death might've been accidental, and that there's "element of affection" in the way he was staged. Meanwhile, the prints of teenager Freddy Burns are officially connected to Will's bicycle, and Amelia decides to visit Lucy at her home. She brings a box of school items that belonged to Will and Julie. During the conversation, Lucy states that she, herself, has "the soul of a horror" and also begs God for forgiveness. She also says that "children should laugh," which was also mentioned in the mysterious note. Amelia seems to recognize the reveal, and she's swiftly escorted from the house as Lucy becomes more agitated. At the police station, Wayne and Roland come to the realization that Freddy probably isn't a viable suspect, based on his mental breakdown. Elsewhere in the community, Brett Woodard is once again speaking with children, and he's subsequently chased to his home by the same people that beat him previously. Brett assembles a variety of guns, along with a tripwire near the front door (as he had planned). When the locals open the door, there's a big explosion, just as Wayne, Roland, and several other police officers arrive on the scene.