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True Detective: If You Have Ghosts

“There surely exists a mutable area of soul where grief is indistinguishable from madness.”

As Nic Pizzolatto explained, this episode, more than the others, is about confronting the past.

Throughout this season, Wayne Hays has been haunted by his past. Trying to be impartial as he examines it over and over, to separate himself from it even as it continues to consume his life.


Part of Hays’ reluctance to confront his past actions is due to his tendency to ignore or excuse his own sins and place blame on other people.

This is seen clearly in 1990, when he and West question the now adult Freddy Burns. Although it’s clear that casually threatening him with prison rape and lethal injection as a kid stayed with Burns for years, Hays’ reaction is to go on a bitter rant about all the ways in which he had it worse than him.

And it crops up again later when Hays accuses Amelia of being a “tourist” who uses her interest in other people’s tragedies like the Purcell case as a way to entertain herself. Despite the fact that his own relentless obsession with the case is vastly more unhealthy than hers.

It’s easy to see why Old Hays is so full of regret. His younger self’s paranoia, stubbornness and hostility made him incredibly difficult to live with as a husband and father. Not to mention, as a partner in police work. It's clear that he and West are becoming increasingly frustrated with their altered dynamic in '90, but it goes beyond that.

Old Guns

As Hays himself has said, his experiences with the Purcell case(s) were as much of a dividing line between what was and what is than his experiences in war. They put him and his partner Roland West in a number of situations that ended up redefining both their careers as lawmen and their individual characters, and eventually upending them.

The “Woodard Altercation,” for instance, changed their lives in 1980. Being forced to kill Brett Woodard left Hays vulnerable enough to take his relationship with Amelia to the next level, and it seems that contesting Woodard’s involvement in the Purcell abduction led to him being reassigned to desk duty for the next ten years. Meanwhile, getting shot during the incident ended up making West a renowned hero cop and opened the door for him to have the bright future we see him enjoying in 1990.

Of course, how the second Purcell case transpired in 1990 clearly had another dramatic effect on the two men. It seems to have brought about the end of both Hays and West’s careers in law enforcement. And just as Hays ended up becoming a crestfallen old grandfather struggling to reminisce on the past in the throes of dementia, we now discover that West became a lonely, world-weary recluse who outright refuses to face the past as he lounges in his woodland cabin with his dogs. I lovingly refer to this version of West as Old West.

The final scene between Old Hays and Old West might be my favorite scene of the show so far. This was like an even more devastating version of Hart and Cohle’s reunion near the end of season one. You can feel all the mixed emotions between these two men with so much history between them, their lingering resentments and regrets. It nearly had me in tears. As with Mcconaughey and Harrelson before them, this is probably the best acting I’ve seen out of Mahershala Ali or Stephen Dorff.

I’m certainly looking forward to seeing these beaten down old men resume their partnership and take on what looks like the third Purcell in the twilight of their lives.

Open Cases

It seems the closer we get to uncovering the whole truth, the more uncertain and mysterious it becomes.

As Hays discovers in ’90, there was clearly a conspiracy to frame Brett Woodard for the supposed murder of Julie Purcell as well as the actual murder of her brother. And Old West’s comments seem to imply that they killed someone involved in this conspiracy, leading to their falling out.

However, Hays’ suspicions are sidetracked when the State Police hotline receives a cryptic phone call from Julie. It’s a very confusing message she leaves. She claims Tom is not her father, that he did something to her and Will, that she apparently doesn’t know what happened to Will, and she just wants to be left alone. The stony, silent looks that Hays and West direct at Tom as he listens to it seems to suggest that he’s now a suspect.

Personally, I think Tom’s parents were right about Julie not being his daughter. However, the rest makes it seem as if whoever abducted Julie thoroughly brainwashed her.

Hopefully, the next episode provides some much needed clarity. This season is just flying by.

Bits and Pieces:

* I like how the Woodard Altercation defied the grand action scenes of previous season by being very short and frenetic. It all happens so fast. And it’s a testament to this show’s intense and engrossing quality that I was on the edge of my seat when Woodard had West’s head in his crosshairs, even though I obviously knew he would survive.

* We find out in 1990 that Dan O’Brien was last seen in Las Vegas around the time Lucy Purcell died of an overdose there.

* In addition to Dan O’Brien, Officer Harris James, who was involved with framing Brett Woodard, also went missing in 1990. I’m guessing it’s either him or O’Brien who is the man Hays and West killed back then.

* I can’t be the only one who watched the last scene between Old Hays and West and was reminded of The Bucket List. Stephen Dorff especially looks like he’s doing a Jack Nicholson impression; which is funny, since Dorff once played Nicholson’s son in a movie called Blood and Wine. Just another reason why I loved that scene.


Hays (1990): Motherfucker made me carry his water. Like I need more of them memories.

Hays (1990): Things might be what they are … ‘cause you’re the type like bullyin’ somebody weaker than you.
Freddy Burns (1990): Hmm. And you don’t? I was a teenager, me. What’s your excuse?

Hays (1990): Please explain to me all the trials and tribulations of bein’ a white man in this country.

Elisa Montgomery: A lot of people around this thing are dead. A lot of people gone.
Old Hays: People do that, miss. Most people I ever knew are gone.

Amelia (1990): This may shock you, but I have bigger dreams than just making a house for you to brood in.

Old Hays: If I remember what we done, I remember not to say.

Old Hays: Before I’m a droolin’ fuckin’ squash plant, with whatever brains I got left, I’m gonna finish this.
Old West: ...No.
Old Hays: Yes.
Old West: No.
Old Hays: Oh, yes.
Old West: No, man.
Old Hays: Come on. Stir some shit up with me.

Five out of five dog bowls.


  1. I also thought of The Bucket List, as well as the movie Grumpy Old Men. Weirdly, I haven't seen either of those films.

    Old West (love the nickname) made me finally get Roland's character. I agree with you that their scene together was the best of the season.

    The shootout opening scene was a standout, even for this show. My goodness, that was brutal.

    I felt like the phone call from Julie might have had some red herrings. I guess I'll have to keep binging this show while ignoring all my responsibilities to find out.


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