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Use of Symbolic Imagery in HBO's True Detective - Color, the Wasteland, The King in Yellow

Updated on February 27, 2014
Len Cannon profile image

Len is a writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York and has had a fascination with games and media that has lasted a lifetime.

HBO's True Detective has found itself in an interesting position. An Oscar-caliber collaboration between writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga, True Detective has maintained an art-house level of craft while attaining the popular appeal of a much broader television show. Fans of more conventionally appealing shows like Game of Thrones or True Blood might be thrown off a bit by the visual language of True Detective.

Read on to find out more about the symbolism, color pallets, and hidden imagery prevalent in this hit drama.

All images in this article come directly from HBO's True Detective and are used according to the standard Fair Use Policy

The Wastelands of Civilization

One of the prevailing visual themes in True Detective are modern wastelands. Dilapidated buildings, open spaces ringed by desolate, smoking oil refineries just on the horizon. Empty towns, lonely homes and apartments, dying strip malls are just about the only thing we encounter. The one or two times the show features a scene in a healthy, bustling area are so few and far between it comes as a major visual shock.

Set in Louisiana, True Detective has a lot of barren land and poor rural areas to explore. The coast of LA, far from New Orleans, is ringed by oil refineries and chemical plants. Poverty reigns in these areas and no one seems particularly surprised when a young girls involved in rough trade disappear.

One of the foremost symbols of this desolation, the oil refineries, seems to encroach on almost every major shot. They can't be avoided. Bayous, crime scenes, empty fields are all shadowed by the constant presence of the only industry in the state for hundreds of miles. The most striking use of this was in episode 6 where even a supposed area controlled by law, the local jail, is not just ringed by the refineries, but so close that they loom higher than the entire background.

Typically, in True Detective, oil refineries represent the frontier. Lawlessness and chaos prevail in areas where the refineries are visible. The only instance of a civilized area featuring the refineries (the jail) becomes a scene of pointless brutality and petty lawlessness when Harrelson's Marty Hart savagely beat a pair of teenagers who had consensual sex with his daughter.

Yellow (the king and otherwise)

One of the easiest recurring images to pick up on in True Detective is the repeated use of the color yellow. Early on we discover that the primary victim had written about "The King in Yellow" and as the series has progressed it has appeared that there is a significant cult who are equally enamored with a figure known as The Yellow King.

Quickly the show has instilled a sense of menace around the color yellow. Moments of danger, of immoral dealings, and men of power and questionable ethics are all bathed in yellow. The almost always antagonistic scenes between Cohle and Hart with their supervisor in the Homicide Division are bathed in the mundane yellow of his office, the golden-brown wood turned a sickly shade of yellow by the government-issued fluorescent lighting.

Hart in the yellow prison before committing a huge lapse in ethics
Hart in the yellow prison before committing a huge lapse in ethics

It should come as no surprise that much of the antagonism from their supervisor comes from another man who became shrouded in yellow. The Reverend Tuttle is a Jerry Falwell-type figure who runs a large conservative Christian ministry, has ties to the government and influences public policy. Early on he engages a moral panic regarding anti-Christian cult activity. Over time, Detective Cohle begins to suspect he has something to do with disappearance of local children. As suspicion on Tuttle grows, his ties go from red to yellow.

A keen eye will know when a situation presents some type of danger on True Detective. The golden color of the mysterious cult leader will be integrated into the scene in some way

The Black Stars of Carcosa

Related to the Yellow King are the black stars of Carcosa. Throughout the series, the black stars will appear over and over again. Oftentimes they will be tattoos, but other times they will be painted or exist on clothing. Above, you can see the mechanic who was good friends with murder victim Dora Lange with a prominent neck tattoo featuring black stars (as well as yellow stars on her shirt).

Later, a stripper will have prominent black stars tattooed on her torso while several evil men will have a black star tattoo on his chest and shoulders. Supposed cult members will repeatedly mention that the "black stars are rising." In the ruins of a Tuttle-run school filled with occult imagery the outside window is painted with a small black star.

Much like Cohle himself, the audience has trouble distinguishing significance from trivial details. When is a black star a sign of criminal conspiracy and when is it simply a trendy tattoo? While it is certainly a symbol of the cult, the ubiquitous nature of stars as a popular tattoo lends a sense of paranoia for both the characters and the viewer when they make an appearance.

Has True Detective driven you a little bit crazy?

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True Detective Theme Song

Truth, Insanity, and the King in Yellow

The aforementioned King in Yellow is not an invention of the show. It is, in fact, a literary reference. Created by author Robert W Chambers at the end of the 19th century, The King in Yellow has been a popular supernatural figure and has been repeatedly referenced by horror masters like H.P. Lovecraft and even Stephen King.

The King in Yellow is both a person and the title of a mysterious play. The play is said to bring insanity and violence to anyone who reads the text or views a performance. A key feature is that the innocuous first act is designed to hold a viewer's attention while the maddening second and third acts are what will ultimately destroy a man's sanity.

Characters in True Detective have a poor grasp on sanity that becomes clearer as time passes. Cohle, already established as odd and unstable, has fallen into alcoholism and magic thinking. His drug-addicted past has led him to still hallucinate. Hart seems stable, but his entitled attitude and destructive violent streak remind viewers more of a criminal than a dedicated cop.

Much like Cohle, viewers grow increasingly invested in the religious cult theory behind the murders. Who is a part of it? How deep does the conspiracy go? If Cohle is to be believed, every death and disappearance along the southern coast of Louisiana is the result of Tuttle and a ring of mysterious death cults and child prostitution rings.

Audience members (like myself and you the reader) are desperate to find clues. Is the answer in colors? In tattoos? In mysterious lines or hidden yearbook photos? Much like the King in Yellow, watching True Detective has loosened our minds from their shores and set them adrift into a world of conspiracy and paranoia.

Maybe, just maybe, the show itself was The King in Yellow all along.


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    • jamesjohnbell profile image

      James John Bell 

      4 years ago from Union, Washington

      Len, that's interesting if you're saying True Detective is a 'fallen' world then The King in Yellow could reference the fallen ages from theosophy. Steiner called the sun's aspect that is the opposite of the solar messiah the "sun-demon". If that's the case the 'king in yellow' could be a fictional technique like the McGuffin, an example of other King in Yellow's would be the "Emperor in the Death Star" from Star Wars (i.e. Death Star referencing this dark aspect of the Sun). A recent movie with a "king in yellow" type villain is Bounty Killer where the bounty is collected by cutting off the CEO's yellow tie. You also mention the "black star" symbol being connected, so possible star/sun reference and being black or negative.. Or maybe the King in Yellow is the solar messiah aspect and the Black Star the other opposite aspect..? Here's some of Steiner's quotes on Sorath the sun-demon:

    • Len Cannon profile imageAUTHOR

      Len Cannon 

      4 years ago from Brooklyn, NY

      Some have speculated that the world of True Detective is a "fallen" or unredeemed world in a Christian religious sense, but I think the final scene of the last episode gives a more accurate reading on where the creative team's head was at.

    • Will Apse profile image

      Will Apse 

      4 years ago

      Lol. I was toying with a page punitively titled 'Why do Antlers Make Me Laugh?"

      Actually, I am enjoying True Detective and for what it is worth, I think despair is the overwhelming issue.

      Optimism certainly seems to be a thing of the past in the US.

      Maybe the country is heading into the 'crisis of faith' that consumed the UK in the nineteenth century.

      Who knows?

      The anti-christian mumbo-jumbo, soon to be kicked into an adjacent galaxy, might be the whole point.

      God is good. God is Great. God is an AmERican!

      That Cole guy is soooo wrong!!

      Whatever happens, may the writers make money.


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