The sight of two broad-shouldered black Cadillacs in front of Wayne Hays’ house, and of a chicken tycoon phoning him to come outside, is the cliffhanger from the next-to-last episode of “True Detective’s” third season. The show has been feeding us breadcrumbs so long it almost feels as if we’ve made a meal of them; the sight of 1990 Wayne (Mahershala Ali) walking into the unknown while the target of an investigation made veiled threats against his family was as close as we’ve come in these seven episodes to a moment of genuine fear for a character we know survives. But that moment of sharklike menace worked because this episode packed in heaps of slow- and fast-burn suspense to get us there. There’s a ton left for the final episode to unravel — most pressing, it feels, is what happens to Amelia — and momentum to carry us there.
First, a farewell to poor Tom Purcell. Last seen in the closing shot of Episode 6, he’s now been framed for his own suicide, with a typewritten apology note that in 1990 once again lets prosecutors close the case on Tom’s kids’ 1980 disappearance. Roland and Wayne know only that their last contact with him was to interrogate him harshly on thin evidence. They failed him, and now the investigation, like Tom, is no more.
Then, a break. Wayne gets a stack of phone records. Turns out Harris James, the ex-cop now head of security at the Hoyt chicken factory, placed a heap of calls to the kids’ mom, Lucy, just before she was found dead in a Nevada motel room in 1988. Plus Harris flew from Tulsa to Vegas the day before her death and flew back the day after. The burbling theory that old man Hoyt might have somehow paid off Lucy so he could abduct her daughter, Julie, now seems all but confirmed. Wayne lobbies Roland (Stephen Dorff) to go rogue on Harris: “We ask hard, man, like we used to.” Really the lingering questions are only now: Who knew what when? And how high up in Arkansas politics does the conspiracy go?
In 2015, the most explicit crossover from the show’s first season points us in a dark direction, and the word “procurer” is the vocabulary word you can’t bleach out of your brain. The true crime show host (Sarah Gadon) swivels a laptop to Wayne to reveal
The working theory: The Purcells’ parents sold the kids off to perhaps highly connected kid-traffickers, and Wayne’s career was deliberately stalled because he knew too much. She came to Fayetteville, she says, to try to stir Wayne’s memories with new information (e.g., revealing that Dan O’Brien’s remains turned up at the bottom of a Missouri quarry) and somehow shake loose a solution. Wayne replies, “My whole brain’s a bunch of missing pieces.” He calls off the interview and heads straight to Roland to hand off a name she gave him: Watts, the one-eyed man. For the first time in 2015, we see Wayne just lucid enough to be more clever than scared and to actually advance his last-gasp third visit to the Purcell case.
We also see why Wayne and Roland had cause to split up for a quarter-century. They follow Harris James (Scott Shepherd) out on a lonely road after dark, pull him over and drag him out to the barn where they last roughed up a suspect. James turns out a tougher nut to crack. He reveals nothing, feigns injury, attacks Wayne, and catches a bullet from Roland’s revolver. How old man Hoyt knows what he knows is still up for grabs, but it’s clear he, or some consortium, has been moving pieces just beyond Wayne’s reach since, well, the very beginning.
Yet the final shot of the episode, and the last bit of dread