Wayne Hays feels out of sorts in Episode 3 of “True Detective,” and he’s not the only one. “I’m a little fuzzy,” Det. Roland West (Stephen Dorff) says in his 1990 deposition. We’re now moving with a bit more confidence around the three time periods: 1980, 1990, 2015. You’ve got to follow the haircuts if you want to follow the plot, a mirror of the increasingly fragile mental state of 70-year-old Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) in 2015. The episode is short on bombshells, but gets deeper into what do we know, and why.

We do know the brother got the worse of the two Purcell kids’ disappearance. While he was found dead with his fingers steepled on his chest, the sister, Julie, is alive and leaving prints on drugstore shelves in ‘90, the tantalizing whisper of a case that we’re only starting to realize unwound Hays’ career, and possibly his marriage. “It was just a case when I caught it. I didn’t know it would be my last,” Hays tells Amelia, as they hunker in a car outside a Walgreens in 1990. He’s trying to put together some fingerprint clues but knows no one’s going to back him up if he gets found out. This is where Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) steps up, as an author and researcher. She sweet-talks the Sallisaw police who have some clues as to the girl’s whereabouts. In 1980, she’s just a teacher, and he’s a detective. By ‘90, he seems like he’s out on his ass and she’s entering the breach: author, researcher, detective. They hit a point of equilibrium that stirs him to frustration and anger. By the time she returns from teasing answers out of the cops in Oklahoma, he’s had something close to a panic attack at Walmart when his daughter wanders away for a minute.

We start to see, for the first time, how thoroughly this case broke Hays down, though we don’t yet know exactly why. And we’re seeing the emergence of Amelia not simply as a romantic partner to Hays, but as a legit investigator in her own right, on her way to publishing her book on the Purcell case. For her to be so captivated with the case that wrecked her husband, though, fosters tension.

But in ‘80, the investigation feels all but stalled. West is getting deposed, catching us up a bit: “Wayne had the idea them kids were telling stories. And he was correct.” The kids were fibbing to their parents, and it’s not clear yet why. The story never checked out that they were going to play with their neighbor, and it’s becoming clear that they weren’t random kidnapping victims.

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West and Hays drop by a huge chicken plant called Hoyt Foods, a Tyson Foods analogue, once they find out the kids’ mom used to work there. The phone’s ringing with calls from people relaying tips from their dreams — “The girl’s being held at a snake farm in Huntsville?” — and they’re still doing these desultory sweep-walks through tall grass, looking for bodies. The most tantalizing material clue might be some specialty Dungeons & Dragons-style dice that Hays finds among the lichen-splotched limestone formations in the woods, near some blood and matted hair.

There’s also a mysterious suspect in the mix: a strange black man seen in the neighborhood before the disappearances, and two mentions of an unusually nice brown sedan making the rounds near the woods and in the kids’ neighborhood. Juxtapose that with the junk collector (Michael Greyeyes) we’ve seen hauling a wagon behind a dune buggy. Some neighborhood dads ambush him, tell him to stay away from the fields where the kids play, and rough him up. Next we see him, he’s back in a shed somewhere moving a canvas sack that looks suspiciously like a child-sized body.

Yet our junk hauler still feels like a red herring target here. A rich someone — maybe even old man Hoyt, who let’s all pray is a rambunctious Don Tyson type — has got to play into it. And speaking of prayer: We find that by ‘90 the kids’ dad (Scoot McNairy) has been sober five years, and has done it with a Bible near at hand. Between 20-sided nerd dice and a big ol’ crucifix hanging on wood-paneled walls, it’s looking more like we’re going to have a showdown between Christianity and … well, if not satanists per se, maybe some long-haired LARPers in the woods.