‘True Detective’ episode 5 finally decides on conclusive clues amid seemingly endless leads

Man and woman sit next to each other at table and have dinner. Man looks across table and speaks at an unpictured subject as the woman looks at him and smiles.
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The following contains spoilers about season 3 of “True Detective”

Episode 5 of “True Detective” season 3, “If You Have Ghosts,” has finally started to settle on which of the many leads are going to stick, with some of the clues from episodes past finally coming back around to semiconclusive ends. Now entering the back half of the season, however, it’s still slow going, and this episode has only been the slightest of pick-me-ups in what has been an increasingly mellowed-out season.

The episode begins in the middle timeline, as the detectives are in the midst of their latest breakthrough — that Julie Purcell is still alive, and now, they have footage of her. This comes as a shock to the Purcells’ father, Tom (Scoot McNairy), whose whole world is again upturned by these new revelations. But after a press conference begging Julie to reveal herself and come home, both Tom and the detectives are met with a shocking response. In a hotline call, Julie herself (apparently) leaves a message begging “the man on the television,” ostensibly Tom, to stop looking for her and to leave her alone. She also asks what happened to her brother, casting confusion into both what exactly Julie knows and what people have been telling her. Another fragment of this mystery is revealed by a witness who allegedly knew Julie from a group of runaways and pegs her as a bit of an odd person who was searching for something.

The previous episode ended with a bang, literally — having been chased by a vigilante group convinced of his culpability, Brett Woodard (Michael Greyeyes) rigged his house with a grenade and armed himself with a rifle, killing many of the men who had previously beat him and were trying to kill him. In what becomes a standoff, Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) ultimately shoots and kills Woodard. Later, it is revealed that Woodard is a sort of missing link in the case, in that he was posthumously and unjustly declared guilty of the Purcell disappearance and murder. Woodard’s children are also looking to clear his name, adding more details into the mix.

Other leads are brought up in this episode, but, true to form, they go cold. Hays and Roland West (Stephen Dorff) visit Freddy Burns (Rhys Wakefield), one of the teens they suspected of having some connection with the Purcells during the initial case. Hays basically shook down Burns during questioning, and years later, Burns still holds a grudge, resulting in a tense scene between the two men in which Burns tries to provoke Hays by using racist rhetoric. Hays also suggests that the magazine-clipping note left at the Purcells’ home may have been written by Lucy Purcell (Mamie Gummer) herself, in an attempt to help Tom move on. Lucy, who is revealed to have died of an overdose, may prove to be a key piece in determining the culprit.

The throughline of Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) and Hays’ relationship is again at the forefront of this episode, capturing time spanning from their initial days together to when cracks start to form in their marriage. Amelia’s book recounting the Purcell case comes up again as a sore spot, with Hays even revealing in his old age that he may never have read it. This tension, however, isn’t given much room and ends up just being more nagging between Hays and Amelia, without any real development in why they’re so mad at each other.

One part of the episode that both succeeded and faltered was the introduction of West, fully outfitted in aging prosthetics, to the elderly Hays’ timeline. While Mahershala Ali pulls off the combo of intense makeup and an “older” demeanor to communicate the elderly Hays, Dorff’s portrayal has slightly less gravitas and comes off a little comedic. The two men have a tender moment, however, coming head to head, as Hays tries to remember the past while West tries to forget it.

The main takeaway from this episode, however, comes not in the form of a clue, but rather in the absence of one. In the middle timeline, Hays tries to re-examine some of the prints that went unmatched in the initial investigation, only to find that the prints have since gone missing. This suggests that there may have been internal issues or that someone from the inside was involved.

This season of the show has been sedately paced all the way through, but with only three episodes left, it’s still to be seen whether this season will ultimately be a satisfying slow burn or just a withering, dying flame.

Camryn Bell covers film and television. Contact her at [email protected].