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What secrets lie in the opening credits of ‘True Detective’?
A shot-by-shot analysis.
BY JESS ZIMMERMAN AND BRENDAN O’CONNOR
Did you know? HBO’s True Detective, an Internet favorite, has its season finale this Sunday at 9. To honor its passing, Jess Zimmerman and Brendan O’Connor spent way too much time close-reading the opening credits and chatting about them.
Here’s what they found.
Brendan: That’s Woody in the overlay, right?
Jess: I think it’s Rust.
Brendan: CONFLICT. AMBIGUITY.
Jess: I honestly can’t tell which one of them it is! I’ll trust you that it’s Marty, but what we’ve learned is that people shouldn’t be giant ghosts in the sky if they want me to recognize them.
Brendan: I mean, it is deliberately ambiguous. As is life. So right from the jump we get:
2) fossil fuels
Jess: Giant Ghost WoodConaughey represents ambiguity and masculinity, and the fossil fuels represent death.
Brendan: Also we have this guy, whoever it is, gazing over the landscape.
Jess Zimmerman: Right, he’s gazing at the landscape and looking concerned! As though he is DETECTING something. TRULY DETECTING. I note also that there is an antenna in his nose.
Brendan: Do you think it’s a drippy booger?
Jess: I think it may REPRESENT drippy boogers, but also it may represent his nose for TRUTH.
Brendan: Michelle Monaghan is hot and also refined, and here she is at a refinery. No, that’s not a refinery. That seems more farm-y.
Jess Zimmerman: Yeah, those could be… silos?
Brendan: Whatever they are, they are towering structures looming over a low structure.
Jess: The low structure is a house, so, like, domesticity overshadowed by vast machinery.
Brendan: The patriarchal machinery of post-industrial capitalism. It’s even rusting.
Jess: Right! And also the subtle machinery of wealth and influence and conspiracies.
Brendan: Also it’s a big phallus punching through her skull.
Jess: Also that.
Brendan: This shot, for me, is evocative of the film taken from targeting cameras in jets and helicopters. This could be Baghdad.
Jess: Yes! Totally. It looks at first glance like the inside of a computer, so you have the idea of machinery again, but also surveillance. A panopticon.
Brendan: This is the perspective of the ghostly man from the first shot. It could also be New Jersey.
Jess: Could be a computer, could be New Jersey.
Brendan: Could be Baghdad. There’s literally no way for us to know.
Jess: And then this panopticon-machine Jersey-Baghdad image is circumscribed by a woman’s anonymized face and shoulders. So here’s this anonymous woman sort of setting the boundaries in which the surveillance machine operates. Perhaps an indication that the Yellow King is a Yellow Queen?
(But probably not.)
Brendan: I wonder if she is more representative of the anonymized women of the show. Woman’s body as land—regulated, colonized, surveilled space.
Jess: Right, she’s not acting as a boundary for the machine so much as a background. This is the territory on which we operate.
Brendan: She is the ground upon which all of this horrible machinery is built. She carries its weight.
Brendan: So here we have Rust being literally torn in half. A man bifurcated or disappearing, fading away into the landscape.
Jess: He’s like the memory of a man and the memory is fading. It takes you a minute to even realize that it’s another refinery because the horizon is rotated 90 degrees. But like, isn’t that part of Rust’s genius, and also his madness? He can alter his perspective. Marty is straightforward; Rust is able to come at things from a different angle.
Brendan: Interestingly, in this shot he also serves as the ground upon which the machinery operates. Like if you rotated it 90 degrees to the left, he is the landscape. He’s buried…
Jess: …In contrast to the god’s-eye view from the earlier shot. Or Floating Ghost Head Marty! Which puts him in contrast to the surveillance panopticon too. He’s not above, he’s below.
Brendan: That line, “Everything grows at wrong angles here”—it’s like he’s decomposing and becoming part of the landscape, which is… strange, given his disdain for the area.
Jess: BTW, I just want to go on record saying it doesn’t look like Rust. It looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger, but I recognize he is not in this show
Brendan: What if the Kindergarten Cop is the True Detective?
Jess: Maybe the Yellow King is a tumor.
Brendan: I think this just drives home the idea established by the previous shot.
Jess: Right, the main difference here is a train.
Brendan: Yeah: Routine, structure, regularity. RULES.
Jess: Movement, transit. LINEARITY. Also, note that there’s a cross over his right eye—like, just exactly where his eye would be.
Brendan: What this shot does is move what was an external experience inward.
Jess: That’s right! This is taking place entirely within Rust’s silhouette. And so, by symbolic interpretation, within him, whereas before it was spilling out and tearing him apart.
Brendan: The use of the train is really interesting. Trains don’t really come up in the show. But trains are powerful symbols of industrialism, of time, of routine.
Jess: Its meaning has to be purely symbolic since it’s not significant in the show. Routine, but also connection! Trains move things from one place to another.
Brendan: And the regularity of trains and their connection to time is hugely satisfying to people with obsessive/compulsive tendencies, as Rust clearly has.
Jess: I think there’s maybe also a nod to the fact that Rust is liable to go, well, off the rails.
Brendan: Visual puns!
Jess: Also he is highly trained.
Brendan: OK, next.
Brendan: The next one is PHENOM. It’s a freaking crown.
Jess: This is Marty, right? Counting on you to tell white men apart for me.
Brendan: Yeah, I think so.
Jess: Ao the fact that he is literally crowned here lends some credence to the people who think Marty is the killer, even though those people are wrong and do not deserve credence.
Brendan: Yeah. I don’t think Marty is literally the killer.
Jess: The crown structure destroys his head.
Brendan: It’s eating away at him. Or is it growing out of him?
Jess: He’s essentially being transformed into this crown structure. It’s also related to the machine imagery we saw earlier.
Brendan: Right, but! Unlike Rust, the perspectives are aligned, which reinforces the idea that even if Marty isn’t literally the Yellow King, he is, shall we say, his liege lord, a member of the Yellow King’s realm.
Jess: He’s aligned with the Yellow King in the sense of being a reasonably wealthy white man who can afford to ignore or hurt women and children. Not to get all feminist up in here, but yes to exactly that.
Jess: This one is roughly what we said before about Rust and trains, except with the addition of dark clouds in his head, which is so obvious as to barely require close reading. I like that this is the first one in which I can definitively identify Rust, because those cheekbones will not be denied.
Brendan: Is this the first one with no people?
Jess: Yeah I think so! What is this wheel? This is from another show. This is the donkey wheel from Lost.
I think there’s a clear indication that the machine and religion are closely intertwined (as though we doubted it). Like, here’s a mechanical component that is A) overlaid on a church, and B) incorporates a cross in its basic design.
Brendan: But the wheel isn’t really a wheel, it’s part of a pipe. Like a release valve or something. Religion as a release valve for REALITY.
Jess: It’s a wheel, but not one that you use to steer. You can’t control direction with it. It only controls intensity.
Jess: Is this an observatory?
Brendan: I thought the same thing, but no. It’s oil storage, spherical, something that looks like a circle from one perspective but isn’t.
Jess: We have no way to tell whether this is Rust or Marty, so it must be about them generally. I was thinking observatory = detective, but that would be TOO EASY.
Brendan: Here’s an interesting thing: In none of the overlaid landscape shots have there been any OTHER people. This is a world deserted but for these particular individuals. Just structures, crumbling.
Jess: Well, it’s an interior world! At least in shots like this. But it is still significant that neither of these guys has other people in his interior world.
Jess: Ah, the one with Bert.
Brendan: Poor Bert.
Jess: This is the first time that we see a scene that is straight out of the show.
Brendan: Okay, cross of light plunging into his stomach.
Jess: Cross of light plunging into his NETHER REGIONS.
Brendan: Or erupting from them?
Jess: Right! Maybe Bert isn’t as above suspicion as we thought. I mean, he’s significant enough to appear in the credits, surrounded by dark clouds, with a neon cross dick. Just saying don’t rule Bert out.
Brendan: Don’t sleep on Bert.
Jess: Really, really do not sleep on Bert.
Brendan: Wait, but also, wasn’t he castrated? Literally? In prison?
Brendan: Oof, okay, so you have this big bloody dick, and this storm swirling around him, and he is prostrate… well, not exactly, because he’s standing, but physically vulnerable.
Jess: He’s having some kind of ecstatic fit. I mean, this is him in a moment of religious ecstasy in which his penis is symbolically restored to him. Or, well, we don’t get the details of what “castration” entails in this case, but you know.
Brendan: OK, but hear me out.
What if it’s not a fit of ecstasy, but pain. Bert is as much a victim of Toxic Masculinity as any of the women. Because he is not as highly functioning as other men, and as such gets “culled from the herd,” so to speak. And the big red cross/penis/sword is impaling itself upon him. And by cross/penis/sword, I mean, of course, patriarchy.
Jess: WHY ARE THERE JELLYFISH?
Brendan: I hate jellyfish.
Jess: I feel fine about jellyfish but these particular ones are NOT ADEQUATELY EXPLAINED. I mean, I feel like i can interpret the idea of a head full of jellyfish, but the jellyfish imagery is totally out of place in this show specifically.
Brendan: They are clearly gendered feminine, overlaid against Maggie. They float along, borne by the currents of the sea, appear pretty and harmless, and then, bam, they kill you.
Jess: I mean, we do see that Maggie grew up near a body of water, or anyway her parents live near one. So maybe this is significant for people who think Maggie’s dad is the Big Bad.
Brendan: I mean, I think jellyfish are so compelling symbolically because they are so purely organic.
Jess: Ooh yes, first scene with no machinery at all. Which seems to absolve Maggie.
Brendan: Like, they are just lumps of nerves and pain-inducing things. They are the antithesis of the mechanical. (Which is why the fact that they are taking over the oceans as a result of climate change is so freaky.)
Jess: You know what they do sometimes?
They SHUT DOWN POWER PLANTS
Brendan: OH GOD THEY DO
Brendan: Jellies are the True Detective.
Jess: So, this naked torso. Is this Dora Lange?
Brendan: Is it? I can’t tell.
Jess: I feel like it’s the same body structure.
Brendan: Yes, similar for sure. Headless, almost totally naked.
Jess: Headless and armless!
Brendan: What’s going on with her hips/waist? Are those tattoos? They look like starfish.
I really don’t know what to make of this shot.
Jess: OK, so this is an actual location in the show.
Brendan: Is it?
Jess: Rust goes to a truck stop to interview girls about Dora.
And that truck stop is inside a lady’s eyeball.
Brendan: So this is the first allusion to the importance of sex work in this show/this region.
Jess: Right, yes! And actually kicks off a series of related images.
I mean, we just had a naked torso but it was ambiguous. But the truck stop is unambiguously connected to sex work by the plot.
Brendan: We pass through this eyeball into the truck stop.
Jess: Which sort of puts the truck stop inside this anonymous woman’s mind.
Or maybe just reflected in her eye, I guess.
Brendan: I think the latter. She is an observer.
Jess: Right, passive but also looking directly at something that will show itself to be significant. Which goes along with the idea that if the men could pay more attention to the women they encounter, if they could follow the women’s gaze, they’d learn something.
Brendan: Mmmmmmmmmm, yes.
Jess: Giant lady eyeball is the True Detective.
Jess: This is such a specific image, but as far as we know doesn’t appear in the show at all. Unlike the other very specific images—Bert, and the woman in the American flag swimsuit.
Brendan: Right. HOWEVER, the overlay of the landscape is the same as the first shot.
Jess: Oh, you’re right! OK, so the landscape that was once watched over by a godlike figure is now… inside a butt.
Brendan: We should all be so lucky.
Jess: This is… almost certainly Dora Lange? But she almost looks charred.
Brendan: A weird thing: The antler crown is not directly visible? But! The branches above her look like the antler crown, but an even bigger/heavier one.
Jess: Well, they hark back to the antler crown, and also to the stick structures and the wreath.
What is this that’s overlaid on her? It has numbers: 75, 76.
Brendan: Oh, it’s upside down.
Jess: IT’S PARKING SPACES
And then the lines are those tall lights.
Jess: No, the lines are lines. They’re markings on the ground in a parking lot.
Brendan: No, they are rising up in the air.
Jess: That’s also why she’s sort of asphalt-black.
Oh, hmm, I turned my laptop over and I can sort of see both. Maybe I’m wrong about it being parking spaces, but I swear it is.
Brendan: I think you are correct.
Jess: Why would she be overlaid with a parking lot? Oh, that’s where the fight takes place!
Brendan: The truck stop?
Jess: The truck stop, but also Rust and Marty’s fight! The proving ground for their masculinity, fighting over a woman.
Brendan: And also, re: the truck stop, the space in which women are commodified.
Jess: Which sort of raises the question of how much of that fight was about Maggie, and how much was about Dora. Or if not Dora, then what she represents.
Brendan: OK, this is great because it’s another visual pun. Women are always in the back of Marty’s mind.
Jess: This is specifically a woman they interview at one point. I believe, though I’m not sure, that she points them to the bunny farm.
Brendan: Yes, I think that’s right. This and the next shot definitely have to be taken together.
Brendan: One is Marty and the other is Rust. Their obsessions, preoccupations.
Marty’s mind is a mess, full of women and the machinery of modernity.
Rust’s is bare but for the murderer, because he is obsessive.
Of course, if you wanted to, you could also read this to imply that Rust IS the murderer, since this shadowy figure is contained within him.
Brendan: Yes, you could, But I do not think that you should. Is Marty a scantily clad woman?
Brendan: Also, this pair of shots is inverted with the next pair.
Rust consumed in flames, contemplating the moment in the garden of self-sacrifice.
Marty weirdly rendered as this kind of Old Man Highway, overlapping and knotted constructions.
Jess: The highway shot is amazing. It looks like the musculature of his face is made up of highways. If Rust is a train and Marty is highways, that says a lot about how they get from one place to another in their lives.
Brendan: Also! Marty always drives when they are together.
Jess: Oh that’s true! Actually there’s a lot to be said about vehicles in True Detective. That shot from the perspective of Rust’s broken taillight! But we can’t cover all that here.
This shot of Rust in the flames is weird because it’s SO religious.
Brendan: I know, I love it! And Marty is so modern. He looks like brutalist architecture.
Jess: Yes! Which is really an inversion of the way they present themselves. Marty the traditionalist, Rust the nihilist.
Brendan: But Marty’s traditionalism is… the… y’know…
Jess: True Detective?
Brendan: Hypocrisy of liberal democracy/modernism.
Jess: Or that.
Brendan: The horror that is the inevitable end of humanism. Whereas Rust’s barren nihilism is almost monastic.
Jess: This one is beneath us. Anonymous man containing corpse with crown antlers snore.
Brendan: OMG like we get it. We are all the murderer.
Jess: Next we get another butt. And on this butt, a playground. Is this playground a location in the show at all? Or is it just sort of hand-waving at lost innocence and dead kids? It could in theory be a playground at one of the defunct schools but I don’t think it’s one we actually see.
Brendan: In a way, all butts are playgrounds. You know? Butts are fun, so are slides, you slide down a slide on your butt.
Jess: I’m not sure your heart is in this anymore.
Brendan: SERIOUS ANALYSIS
Jess: In seriousness though, this shot does feel like a phone-in. Like, oh, a lady’s butt, and WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN? THEY ARE MURDERED.
Brendan: A phone-in. Yes. Which is why there is a phone in the next shot.
Jess: I think this shot is just locating the series in time the way all the refineries locate it in space. Like, oh, we’re looking at something that happens in the rotary phone era.
Brendan: Did people really use rotary phones in the ’90s?
Jess: Not really, I guess. I had a rotary phone in the ’90s, though.
Jess: Oh, because my parents never get rid of appliances that still work. They also had a TV where the knob fell off and you had to turn it on using tweezers.
Brendan: This phone has a face in it. A lady’s face.
Jess: Is it supposed to be Marie Fontenot? It looks like a child to me.
Brendan: It is a young face.
Jess: Could be one of Marty’s kids.
This whole shot is weird. It’s the first time we’ve seen anything that could even plausibly be used for communication between people.
Brendan: And then the next shot is of Rust being interrogated (i.e. in a state of communication).
Jess: So maybe the phone just stands for communication, introducing the idea of interactions between people. Because then later there’s a shot with MORE THAN ONE PERSON in it! Like, more than one person occupying the same physical space. We have people alone, then people with other people in their heads, then people in a position to talk to other people, then people able to stand together. I may be reaching more than usual here. Probably they just had leftover stock images of a phone.
Brendan: I mean, I don’t think anything’s accidental in this show, but I have no idea what to make of this.
Jess: Not in the show, but maybe in the credits. But we must push on as though there are no accidents.
I bet we’re missing something. I bet someone uses a rotary phone.
Brendan: “Does someone use a rotary phone? Tell us in the comments!”
Brendan: Rust, again torn into two: this time by flame—flame that renders half of his face yellow.
Jess: So yeah, the last time Rust was bisected, it was on a light background. Now it’s oppressively dark. In fact the only light is the light that’s splitting his face.
Brendan: Fire, from a refinery. It’s spewing out exhaust. Also it makes him look yellow.
Jess: AND LIKE A KING. (But not like a king.)
Brendan: Like a scepter. It also makes him look older, I think?
Jess: Older, almost diseased.
Brendan: Similar to the shot of Marty with the roads in his face.
Jess: These are the things that age them.
Jess: There’s something really stark about this image, like it could be a Terry Richardson photo.
Brendan: This is the cover of the next issue of Vice.
Jess: Or, you know, a ’70s-era amateur porno snapshot, which is what Terry Richardson stuff evokes.
Brendan: Heh. Gross.
Jess: That neon cross is the same one from Tuttle’s office.
Brendan: It is! It looks like a huge earring.
Jess: Yeah, when it showed up in the show, I was like, WHOA.
As far as I know, this is the only woman in the credits who has a face but who isn’t someone we hear from in the show. Is that right? That we haven’t seen her? So that’s interesting.
Brendan: Maybe she is the True Detective.
Jess: I mean, she’s standing in for women/sex work/etc., but she’s not doing it anonymously. She has a face. And a giant neon cross earring.
Update: This, via @jlkoepke:
Brendan: So the next image, you have this upside-down spherical storage tank containing these church-y people, and then in the image after that you have these female bodies all tangled up together.
Brendan: I think there is something very birth-y about it all.
Jess: Like the storage tank is a womb, or what?
Brendan: Like, you have this woman in sexual ecstasy (maybe?), and then a womb, and then bodies in the womb.
Jess: The upside-downness harkens back to what we said about Rust’s ability to see things from different perspectives. And then the one with the pile of women seems to have highway interchanges again?
Jess: So we may have another Rust-Marty pairing. The inverted infrastructure indicates Rust, and is associated with religion. The highways indicate Marty, and are associated with sex.
Brendan: I do think there is something like… female fertility running through it all.
Jess: Although I can’t totally tell whether both these unclad bodies are women! But yeah, in general there’s a lot of female nudity and it’s not all disempowered, or not necessarily.
Brendan: Yeah the leg on top might be a dude leg. That’s a pretty big quad. But so smooth!
Jess: It also sorta looks like a dude hand.
Brendan: That butt’s definitely a lady butt though.
Jess: It’s hard to see leg hair against a background of highways.
Brendan: I’ve always said that. Also, what is this cross thing?
Jess: I think it’s a rifle sight.
Brendan: If you have sex, someone will shoot you.
Jess: I mean, it’s not a very sex-positive show. Although this may be largely because nobody is having very positive sex.
Brendan: “Hi Marty! What do you think about domesticity?” “It scares me, Brendan. It scares me real bad.”
Jess: That about sums it up.
Jess: Here is a dude we don’t know standing inside a dude we don’t know.
Brendan: Oh, it’s the killer/fire/anonymous viewer who observes all and most ponder the mystery.
Jess: Water is there, and clouds and fire.
Brendan: In this shot, Rust is the devil. Sorry Rust!
Jess: In this shot Rust has ceased to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger and begun looking like Bill Nye the Science Guy. If Bill Nye the Science Guy were also the devil.
Brendan: Bill Nye the Science Devil.
Jess: These credits get lazy towards the end! Because this shot is lazy, and the next shot is THE LAST SHOT.
Brendan: Wait, but on the flames bit. In the previous Rust/flames shot, he was penitent, prayerful. In this, he really is demonic.
Jess: I mean, I read it more as tortured, but he literally has horns of flame at the beginning. He is crowned with flame.
His face looks tortured, but there’s a lot of peripheral symbolism that is demonic, as if there’s more evil in him than he can cope with.
Brendan: And the black eyes/white skin looks like a skull.
Jess: Yeah, especially on him because he’s gaunt.
Jess: OK, I take it back, it’s not lazy.
Brendan: OK, now it’s the name of the show.
Jess: Yeah, it’s the name of the show. But also landscape, and al fire, and also rifle sight, and also cross. It’s a little ungapatchka to be perfectly honest.
Dial it back, True Detective. Dial it back with that rotary phone you had.
Brendan: Hello operator? Yes, this is the True Detective. Patch me through to the Yellow King.
Jess: Rust has a giant erection.
Brendan: HE TOTALLY DOES.
Jess: Can’t unsee that, can ya?
Brendan: Is this the first time we see them together? With the car, iconic, on opposite sides.
Jess: Yeah, there’s another shot of them from closer up first, and then this static shot. First they’re getting out of the car, and then they’re standing apart but in the same shot.
This is only the second vehicle we’ve seen: lots of roads, only this car.
Brendan: The space for silent reflection.
The space for giant erection.
Jess: I like how easily they could blend into the refinery skyline behind them with just a little shift in contrast. They’re the same size as the buildings, at these relative distances.
Brendan: Yeah the foreground/background thing going on here is really cool. Is the mist receding or is it encroaching? Will things become more or less clear?
This shot is also very Walking Dead.
Jess: Walking giant erection.
Brendan: OK, well. The end.