The Lunar Calendar Is Key to 'True Detective' Season 3's Mystery

We’re only two episodes into the third season of True Detective, but so far two things are already clear:

  1. This season is much better than season two. I didn’t hate it as much as other people—I thought it was fine—but Mahershala Ali’s detective Wayne Hays and his obsession with the kidnapping of Will and Julie Purcell, a young boy and girl, in 1980 Kentucky is already a much more interesting mystery.
  2. The Moon plays an interesting role in this mystery, and has already provided keen viewers with a critical clue about the show.

They show’s interesting structure jumps between three different time periods: the time of the kidnapping in 1980, a major development in that case in the 90s, and present day, when Hays is an old man who apparently suffers from some form of dementia, looking back at his past and the case that haunts him. He knows that he caught the case on November 7, 1980, which is easy to remember since it was the same day the famous actor Steve McQueen died.

In the present day, when Hays first sits down to talk to a documentary crew about the case, he tells them there was a “big full Moon that night. I remember the Moon. Steve McQueen had died.” It cuts back to his memory of the night, opening on a shot of the full Moon that then pans down the Hays and his partner talking to the missing children’s father, Tom Purcell.

Halfway through the first episode, as Hays is telling a documentary crew about the case, he explains that he tried to find the kids the first night they went missing. “Everybody went home to wait for daylight, but I didn’t go to sleep that first night,” Hays tells the camera crew. “I stayed out trying to find a trail.” Hays wanders the neighborhood and there’s a huge shot of a bright full Moon. Later, Hays leans over a puddle and sees the reflection of the Moon. Suddenly, the moon in the puddle disappears, and Hays is drawn back from his memories to the present day, where a Moon-like light has gone out and shrouded his interview in darkness.

We know for a fact that Hays’ memory of events is at least partially wrong because there was literally no visible Moon in the sky the night Steve McQueen died. You can check NASA’s lunar calendar to see that November 7, 1980 was a New Moon, meaning it wasn’t visible.

The Moon is an important motif in the third season of True Detective. Other than the first big tell that Hays’ memory is shoddy, there’s also the title of his wife’s book about the case: Life and Death and the Harvest Moon: Murder, a Child Abduction, and the Community It Destroyed (the “harvest moon” is the full moon nearest to the autumnal equinox). The moon is also a theme in the poem his wife reads to her classroom when Hays first meets her. “I could not see them, there being no moon/ And the stars sparse. I heard them,” the poem reads. “Tell me a story. / In this century, and moment, of mania,/ Tell me a story./ Make it a story of great distances, and starlight. The name of the story will be Time.”

Based on these first two episodes, it seems to me that True Detective’s newest mystery isn’t about what happened to the Purcell kids so much as it is about what happened to Hays.

“I was wondering if it would be possible to tell a man’s life story in the form of a detective story,” True Detective writer Nic Pizzolatto told Entertainment Weekly. “What if the detective’s ultimate mystery is: ‘Who am I?’ And: “‘What did my life mean?’”

Clearly, something about Hays’ memory of events isn’t quite right, but Pizzolatto promised fans ahead of the season premiere that Hays wouldn’t be an unreliable narrator. “If you’re seeing it, it’s reliable,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “I’m not playing those sorts of games with the audience, where you find out what you saw didn’t really happen, or it was a dream within a dream or something.”

So either Pizzolatto is playing with the audience or no one at HBO thought to check the lunar calendar.