With its multiple timelines, brooding atmosphere and children-in-peril plot, True Detective Season 3 is thematically, tonally and structurally similar to Season 1, which involved detectives uncovering a cult that ritually murdered women and children. But Episode 2 of Season 3, "Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye," established an unexpectedly direct connection to Season 1 of the previously standalone anthology series. These two stories appear to take place in the same True Detective Expanded Universe and might be more connected than we thought going into Season 3.
In Episode 2, when documentarian Elisa Montgomery (Sarah Gadon) interviewed Det. Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) about the Purcell case in 2015, she showed him some websites from amateur true crime sleuths trying to unravel the mystery, which might be a bigger conspiracy than just convicting the wrong guy. "They go in lots of directions," Montgomery said. "Did you know at various times since, large scale pedophile rings connected to people of influence were uncovered in the surrounding areas? Do you know about the Franklin scandal?"
The Franklin scandal was an alleged pedophile ring in the late '80s connected to a prominent Nebraska banker and political donor. He was said to have trafficked children to Washington D.C. to be abused by powerful people in Satanic rituals. It was debunked by 1990, but Montgomery doesn't seem to accept that story, because part of conspiratorial thinking is not accepting official narratives. And besides, while there may not be a Satanic component, well-connected predators who get away with horrible crimes are very real.
Season 1 had its own Franklin scandal-esque conspiracy. That season's murders were being committed by Errol Childress (Glenn Fleshler), who was related to Rev. Billy Lee Tuttle (Jay O. Sanders), who in turn was the governor's cousin. Tuttle ran religious schools that were basically fronts for a pedophilia ring. The murders on that season were committed as part of occult rituals, and the first victim, Dora Lange, was found in a ritualistic pose similar to Season 3's Will Purcell (Phoenix Elkin). Lange was found bound to a tree with her hands in a prayer pose (like Purcell's were) with weird religious-seeming totems left at the scene (twig lattices at Lange's site, and straw dolls at Purcell's). Lange also had a crown of antlers on her head and a crooked spiral painted on her back. That crooked spiral is what makes things really interesting, because of what Montgomery said right after referencing the Franklin scandal.
"It's been theorized that straw dolls are a sign of pedophile groups like the crooked spiral," she said. But there's something ambiguous about the way she said "crooked spiral." She could be saying that straw dolls and crooked spirals are both symbols used by pedophiles. Or — and this is what her inflection made it sound like — there's a pedophile group called the Crooked Spiral.
The cult from Season 1 wasn't brought to justice, so it might still be out there. There were about a dozen people in the videotape of the torture of Marie Fontenot, none of whom were ever unmasked. Rev. Tuttle was never even conclusively linked to the cult, and he was probably murdered by people even higher up than him to keep it that way. We know that the cult worshipped the Yellow King, but we never learned their name. It's possible that awareness of the Crooked Spiral has spread among conspiracy theorists and online true crime obsessives thanks to cases like the one from Season 1. People know the Crooked Spiral exists but can't prove it. Maybe the the cult is operating in Arkansas, Louisiana and elsewhere and is protected because it includes powerful people in its ranks.
Here's an out-there theory about Season 3: Kent — the 1980 DA who by 1990 had become Arkansas' Attorney General — knew what he was doing when he went on TV and gave the case away. He's part of a conspiracy to cover up who really committed the murder, and part of what got him elevated to Attorney General was his service to the people pulling the strings. We know from Season 1 that the people involved in the cult are well-connected politically. The trash man (Michael Greyeyes) and the West Memphis Three-inspired kids and the suspicious cousin (Michael Graziadei) and the cut-out letter are all red herrings, and the conspiracy will start to come into focus in later episodes. Having the real killer emerge late in the game would connect Season 3 to Season 1 and especially to Season 2, where the real killer was a peripheral character who was only briefly glimpsed. (Season 2 does not really seem to be part of the True Detective Expanded Universe.)
On the other hand, what Hays says in response to Montgomery dumping all this conspiracy stuff on him might be important, too: "I don't think that's right." Maybe there is no cult, the person who killed Will Purcell and abducted his sister Julie acted alone, and the dolls were his own personal symbol, part of what Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) would call a "paraphilic love map." The symbols and circumstances around Will's death and Julie's disappearance are different enough from the murder of Dora Lange that they might be emotionally connected rather than literally. Dora Lange was an adult woman, which doesn't track with someone who kills young boys. Will's body didn't show signs of sexual abuse. The pedophile cult theory might be another red herring. We might want there to be a highly organized and powerful conspiracy, because that's somehow easier to grasp than one sick person acting alone. (If Season 3 is truly echoing Season 1, the murderer will be acting alone for this particular crime but connected to the larger cult, like Errol Childress was.)
There's still a lot of evidence to be uncovered. It'll be awhile before we meet grown-up Julie Purcell, the only person who can tell us what really happened, and even she probably isn't a reliable narrator. No one is. There might not be any Crooked Spiral at all, and it all might be a paranoid myth connected to the "Satanic panic" craze that gripped the country in the '80s and is being alluded to on True Detective. Like Hays, we may not ever know the whole story. Not every question can be answered.
True Detective airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO.