'True Detective' "Crooked Spiral" Means Seasons 1 and 3 Share a Universe

A big hint that there might be more connections.

One of the biggest surprises to come out of True Detective Season 3 so far has everything to do with someone mentioning something called the “crooked spiral,” a direct callback to Season 1 that pretty much confirms the two stories share a singular universe (Sorry Season 2, you’re not wanted here.)

The scene in question happens about 20 minutes into Season 3, Episode 2: “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye.” In 2015, a retired and elderly Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) submits to an interview with Elisa Montgomery (Sarah Gadon), the director of an unnamed true crime TV series. Outside of their recorded interview, Montgomery shows Hays some true crime blogs on and they chat about “large scale pedophile rings connected to people of influence.”

Meanwhile, back in 1980, Hays investigates the purpose of the straw dolls found near Will Purcell’s body, which we saw at the end of Episode 1. Those same dolls come up in his 2015 conversation with Montgomery.

“It’s been theorized that the straw dolls are a sign of pedophile groups — like the crooked spiral,” Montgomery says.

True Detective Season 3 Straw Doll
One of the straw dolls that Hays finds in 1980.

But the way Montgomery says the term also seems ambiguous. Is she talking about the crooked spiral symbol we saw throughout Season 1? Or a pedophile group called the Crooked Spiral? Or is this confirmation that the very same group is named after the symbol they use to brand their victims?

The crooked spiral appeared throughout True Detective Season 1 as a motif representing the secret pedophile ring at the center of the season-long mystery. Without getting too deep into the conspiracy, a family with ties in the government and local ministry used religious schools as fronts for a pedophilia ring. Serial killer Errol Childress was a follower of the cult who drugged and murdered women and children as part of occult rituals.

The first victim (that we learn about, anyway) was Dora Lange, who was found bound to a tree with her hands in a prayer pose and the crooked spiral tattooed onto her back. The symbol appears in various ways throughout the season — even in Rust Cohle’s hallucinations.

True Detective Season 1
Rust Cohle investigates the first murder in Season 1.

The Devil’s Traps — alternatively called Cajun bird traps — also pop up throughout Season 1 as another symbol the straw dolls evoke in Season 3.

Season 3 unfolds over the course of three separate timelines in Arkansas, each focusing on the abduction of the Purcell children and Will Purcell’s murder. The original crime happens in 1980, the case is reopened in 1990 when new evidence is discovered, and Hays talks about everything in the present-day of 2015.

True Detective Season 1’s narrative begins in 1995 Lousiana, and the case isn’t quite solved until 2012, three short years before the latest events of Season 3 — which is to say that everything we see from Season 1 happens in between the second and third timelines in Season 3. Additionally, even if Rust Cohle and Marty Hart solve the mystery of who the serial killer is, they do very little to compromise the broader pedophilia group.

True Detective Hays 2015
Hays in 2015.

The timeline of where the plot threads of Seasons 1 and 2 end lightly coincides with the surging popularity of true crime in the real-world zeitgeist in the mid-2010s.

So it seems that the same type of people that avidly blog about the unsolved Purcell case would be the type that would study the mysterious crimes committed by the group who uses the crooked spiral as their symbol. It’s possible, even likely, that someone even named the group “the Crooked Spiral” because of the symbol.

Does that mean the crime at the focus of Season 3 has something to do with the same pedophile ring? Probably not. The elderly Hays immediately discounts Montgomery’s theory connecting the straw dolls to the crooked spiral, outright saying, “I don’t think that’s right.”

Is this series creator and showrunner Nic Pizzolatto trying to build a trendy, interconnected universe while also hitting the viewer with some kind of red herring? Does he want us to think this is the work of a pedophile ring when the deeper truth is something totally different?

One thing’s for sure, we’re all glad that True Detective is back in top form.

True Detective Season 3 airs Sundays on HBO at 9 p.m. Eastern.

Media via HBO