Season 3 | Episode 5 | ‘If You Have Ghosts’ | Aired January 31, 2019 

The third season of True Detective is officially in its second half now. The finish line is vaguely within sight, and we’re just three episodes away. Wow, this season has been pretty damn phenomenal. It’s easy to say that that might only be because Season 2 was so weak — an assessment I disagree with because it wasn’t perfect but it wasn’t as bad as its reputation.

But since Season 3 has already approached the lofty heights of True Detective‘s inaugural run, I’m inclined to think its quality is genuine. And Episode 5, “If You Have Ghosts,” might be the best episode so far this season.

PLOT RECAP

When we last left Dets. Hays and West, they were pulling up at the house of Woodard as locals were ambushing him. They’d warned Woodard about coming close to their kids. His home is booby-trapped with a mortar that detonates, followed by a shootout that’s not entirely on the same level as that of Season 2’s, but still pretty damn good.

Roland gets shot by friendly fire from another cop, while Hays confronts Woodard and is forced to kill the man. This appears to be the resolution of the 1980 case basically; police find evidence at Woodard’s house, and he’s posthumously found guilty of Will Purcell’s murder and Julie Purcell’s disappearance. After going to the hospital with Roland, Hays, and Amelia consummate their relationship.

In the 1990s, on the other hand, their relationship is still strained, and a friendly couples dinner at West’s house doesn’t go well. Hays and Amelia continue their fight at home, with Hays accusing Amelia of using people for personal gain (her book/writing career) and Amelia telling Hays to understand how full of crap he is about himself.

Meanwhile, Tom Purcell finds out that the detectives know Julie is alive and gives a press conference to find her, befuddling the case to some extent. A hotline is set up for tips, leading to the episode’s most significant moment: a woman who may be Julie calls the hotline, pleading that “the man on TV” stop harassing her and trying to find her and making vague references to Tom either not being her father or not being as on-the-level as he initially appeared to be. Tom is mystified; the detectives are silent.

In modern day, Elisa and Hays continue their on-camera interview, in which Elisa asks Hays if he knows that one of the detectives who canvassed the Woodard scene in 1980 had disappeared; Hays says he doesn’t know about the man or his disappearance. Hays meets with West, who lives a lonely life with several dogs and makes references to something Hays should apologize to him for. Hays doesn’t remember. The two former partners catch up after 24 years incommunicado, with the episode ending on Hays convincing West to join back up with him and finally put this case behind them.

ANALYSIS

Roland West has lived a life. He had a beautiful girlfriend in 1990 but lost her along the way, and that combined with whatever Wayne Hays did to him (directly or indirectly, we don’t know) has eaten away at him. This may sound cliche, and a lot of what True Detective traffics in really is cliche, but Dorff sells it and then some. The final scene of this episode should lock up Emmys for both of this season’s leading men, but I’ll be furious if Dorff doesn’t take home some sort of trophy for his work here. This is career-revitalizing stuff.

Ditto for Carmen Ejogo, whose Amelia mixes both siren and femme fatale in such a way that I doubt anyone has her figured out. Is she the killer? Was she involved in some way? Is her morbid fascination with true-crime simply Pizzolatto’s commentary on modern audiences, is it a traditional red herring, or is Amelia far darker than any of us have realized?

And there’s the Becca storyline, which doesn’t get much traction in Episode 5 save for a brief appearance of her as a young child doing her best to ease tensions between Mom and Dad. I suspect there’s nothing sordid about Becca leaving home and Hays not remembering; she tired of being around constant familial strife, and who could blame her?

The potential revelation about Tom is the most significant WTF moment in the episode. For one, “Julie” insists that Tom is NOT her father, which plays into earlier suspicions that Lucy Purcell was philandering to such an extent that Julie wasn’t Tom’s kid. Was Lucy trying to get the kids away from Tom, perhaps to Julie’s actual father? Or was there something more sinister happening here, and maybe Cousin Dan’s peephole was a way to capture evidence of that?

CONCLUSION

Race continues to play a part in this season, even if its usage is somewhat clunky. But Pizzolatto has more than redeemed himself overall as a writer and has proven adept as a director, too. Editing is tight throughout, with even the seemingly perfunctory scenes carrying sufficient dramatic tension. The time for mysteries to start clarifying has come, and while there are still plenty of questions left to answer, we are at least starting to get some answers. As long as this season doesn’t trip on its way to the finish line, it looks like True Detective is back in form.

Deepak is a Los Angeles-based cinephile, senior film critic at Nerd it Here First, and co-host of The Watchmen and Nerd it Here Weekly podcasts. In addition to movies, Deepak loves talking home video tech, politics, and sports.