True Detective isn’t always reliable. True Detective Season 1 was great, True Detective Season 2 was not. The wait between seasons 1 and 2 was a little over a year while the wait between season 2 and 3 was three years. Hey…wait a minute…maybe those two facts have something to do with each other!
But regardless of HBO’s anthology true crime series’ other imperfections, there is always something consistently great about each season: the opening credits. As designed by Patrick Clair and his Antibody production studio, the True Detective opening credits have always perfectly established the Southern (and one time Southern California) Gothic tone of the show.
True Detective Season 3’s almost exactly 90-second long opening credits are no different as it turns out. The credits feature an ominous and haunted-sounding folk song as we are entreated to overlapping, ghostly images of our characters and the Ozark territory they are exploring. Like the previous two True Detective opening credits, it’s unlikely that these contain any massive clues. Still, let’s examine them as though they might or at the very least appreciate their artistry.
First, the song. Legendary music producer T Bone Burnett serves as the music director for True Detective Season 3.
“You know, as soon as, the first time I started reading Nic’s stuff, the tone was absolutely clear to me. And so, it’s been the easiest job I’ve ever had in a lot of ways,” Burnett told Den of Geek.
For the season’s opening theme, he has dug way, way deep into Delta blues history for an appropriate jingle. The song playing over the ethereal picture is a cover of “Death Letter” by early 20th century Mississippi blues musician Son House. This version is a 1995 recording from Mississippi jazz musician Cassandra Wilson. The iteration is so haunting and so perfectly True Detective that I originally believed it to be commissioned by Burnett for the sole purpose of the show. The slightly altered lyrics that the opening credits version use are:
I got a letter this morning, honey
What do you reckon it read?
It said hurry, hurry the man you love is dead
I got a letter this morning
How do you reckon it read
It was saying hurry, hurry the man you love is dead.
I grabbed my suitcase took off down the road
When I got there was laying on the cooling board
Packed up my suitcase and took off down the road
When I got there there he was laying down on the cooling board
“Death Letter” (sometimes called “Death Letter Blues”) features a speaker mourning the death of a woman he loves that he learns about via letter. The song is one of the most covered folk songs ever. Modern listeners may be most familiar with The White Stripes’ rendition.
Fittingly, the credits open on a shot of an open field in the Ozarks. Creator Nic Pizzolatto previously lived in the Ozarks for four years and has said that the natural rugged beauty of the area was a big inspiration for season 3.
“I always found it very evocative and very mysterious in very tangible ways,” Pizzolatto told us. “It was one of those places that I thought was beautiful and I knew, but I didn’t think very many people knew about it. When I started thinking about Wayne and the case, it just sort of felt like, ‘Boy, it would be great to set this in northwest Arkansas.’”
The credits take that northwest Arkansas scenery and then does the old True Detective trick of superimposing the cast’s orb-like heads over it. Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) is overlaid on the woods, befitting his tracking skills. Amelia (Carmen Ejogo) is shown with an eagle or a hawk, possibly signifying her free spirit. We see Roland West (Stephen Dorff) alongside some kids playing around a car. Roland has the look of an All-American detective and it’s fitting that he should be introduced with some of the symbols of Americana – happy family, comfy car. Tom (Scoot McNairy) is introduced with what appears to be claw marks tearing down his face, as he is surely devastated by what’s to come for him and his family in the story.
As the credits play on, they revel much more in the Ozarks scenery. There is beautiful rushing white-capped water, some cracked, craggy mountains, and of course the bright red setting sun that leads into the season’s main title card. The credits also don’t shy away from some of the occasionally ugly man-made portions of the region. We see an empty VFW hall, an empty Main Street, and in one brilliantly poetic instance, a tattered billboard transposed over a faceless detective’s heart. If that’s not True Detective in a sentence, I don’t know what is: tattered billboard over a faceless detective’s heart.
In terms of symbolism and how it applies to certain characters, there may be some more clues to uncover. At one point Wayne is presented with the bright red setting sun by his head. Later on we see Amelia juxtaposed with the moon. Those title cards feature a moon rising and a sun setting. Perhaps that suggests a rough ending for Wayne and Amelia’s relationship.
The credits also feature two different artful depictions of an X-ray of a human head. The first one has clouds where a brain should be and the second one has a spark like a firework or firecracker would. Could this possibly mean an element of illusion in True Detective Season 3? Quite possibly! Recall that a big aspect of this season is Wayne Hays’ deteriorating memory as an old man.
Pizzolatto doesn’t view Hays as an unreliable narrator necessarily.
“I do think he’s a reliable narrator, and I think we can trust what we’re seeing because, I think when hard reality breaks, you know it, you know?” Pizzolatto said. “It’s clear in the series, and when he’s in an episode, I feel like that’s clear. Generally, a rule I try to stick to is, ‘if you’re seeing it, it happened.’ I’m not gonna play a game with you where I show you something and then I say, ‘That didn’t really happen.'”
While that may be the case, the images in the opening credits are a clever visual indication of a “foggy” memory.
Really, that’s what these credits have always been all about and that remains the case here. Watch the minute and a half art piece once again, not to derive the real “meaning” behind the mystery of True Detective Season 3 but to further appreciate the tone the show is going for. Nothing will get you in the True Detective mood quicker than True Detective‘s opening credits.