The Art of True Detective’s First Two Seasons


Art direction in television is crucial to aesthetic. It breathes life and personality into sets and locations, transporting us to a decrepit Victorian mansion or the steely command deck of the Starship Enterprise. Art directors work with designers and decorators in an effort to actualize the showrunner’s vision. They are the architects of the story’s visual landscape, the overseers of every frame of production. For the men and women in this profession, no detail is too small.

Yet sometimes, even often, their efforts go unnoticed.

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Interviews with actors and directors abound, but few take the time to sit down with those who build the worlds their characters inhabit. It’s quite simply an under-appreciated aspect of production. While this doesn’t exactly come as a surprise (actors are usually more alluring than those who labor in the shadow of a curtain), it should no less remind us of the extent to which the craft is overlooked.

Art direction is used to marvelous effect in HBO’s True Detective. Whether it’s the rural drab of Louisiana or the urban decadence of Vinci, the worlds in which our heroes toil are skillfully constructed. They are real and grounded, yet heightened and poetic. Even the hollowed ruins of a church are not without a dramatic touch.

The far-reaching hand of the art director is integral to the images that we see on our screens, so let’s take a moment and honor the work that production designer Alex DiGerlando and his talented team of art directors contributed to True Detective.

The Art of Season One

Much of the art in True Detective is designed to elicit a central theme. Take the ‘devil nets’ and spiral symbols in season one, for instance. While beautiful and haunting in their own right, they were not created simply to boost the already dire atmosphere. They’re included to reflect metaphysical themes of captivity and eternal recurrence, two of the season’s driving obsessions.

These ‘devil nets’ in particular were crafted by Joshua Walsh, an artist who settled in New Orleans in 1993. “I knew I wanted to pursue my art full time,” Walsh says on his personal website, “and I knew, from family trips to New Orleans, that I could explore the culture and magic of this city that had resignated [sic] with me since childhood. There is no other place like it in the world, so distinctively unique. New Orleans would become my home, my life, my muse.”

Walsh constructed the wreath of thorns and antlers that crowned Dora Lang. He also painted the cherubim that haunt the walls of ‘Light of the Way,’ and built the throne of the Yellow King with skulls, driftwood and turmeric. “That,” Walsh says, “mixed with oyster shells gave off a spicy death smell I will never forget!”

The twisted labyrinth of Carcosa presented an intriguing challenge for Walsh, requiring over 3,000 pieces of driftwood pulled from the banks of the Mississippi and arranged as a free-standing structure within the confines of Fort Macomb, an abandoned fort perched on the shores of lake Borgne in Los Angeles County. “I did try and make each piece like a shrine,” Walsh says of his work on the show, “incorporating all the elements of nature and spirit.” He went on to say that:

"“I made what I thought was beautiful and simplistic, once it was taken out of my studio and put on location, they took on an entirely different context and feel. My two dimensional work for the show, however, was done in a way to disturb the audience. I needed to show the psychosis of a hideous human being. Primitive and raw, I used charcoal, a nod to the killers attempt at cleansing his conscience.”"

In addition to the wonderful pieces of art contributed by the likes of Walsh, production design shined in more subtle ways throughout the first season’s run. The organizing principle behind ‘place’ in the series holds the outer as a reflection of the inner—the physical environment a manifestation of that which resides within. We see this in the run-down trailer parks occupied by overweight, tattooed day-drinkers, as well as the ramshackle, booby-trapped shelter that DeWall and Ledoux call home.

We see it too in the homes of the detectives. Hart’s ordered and peaceful suburban abode signals his conservative values, while Cohle’s apartment, adorned only with books, indicates his singular mindset. By fully exploiting the space in which Rust and Marty live their lives, True Detective packed volumes of information into every single frame, an economy of storytelling that enabled the show to work right out of the box.

The production design team was directly responsible for achieving this remarkable feat, a magic trick that they endeavored to repeat as the series entered season two. They were also aided by Prompmaster, Lynda Reiss, who opened up about working on True Detective’s props in a fan Q&A session.

The Art of Season Two

Thematically, season two of True Detective shifts toward a more common experience: sex and sexuality, explored through a decidedly masculine lens. From the impotence of Frank Semyon and conflicted sexuality of Paul Woodrugh to the office philandering of Ani Bezzerides and floundering fatherhood of Ray Velcoro, sexuality plays a significant role in the lives of our new detectives. It is fitting that the crime they are tasked to investigate involves such lurid art.

The representation of sex in season two is neither titillating nor glamorous. As Maggie says in season one, “It makes something that should be nice, ugly.” The art displayed in Caspere’s house has a savage quality to it, giving us a glimpse of the perversion and depravity that once held sway in his mind. It tells the detectives about the man that they’re investigating, and presents another instance of ‘without’ reflecting ‘within.’

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Most of the art in Caspere’s house was licensed from artists for use on the show. A number of spectacular pieces can be seen on display throughout the house, including ‘White Water’ (1999) by Peter Sarkisian, ‘Euridice’ & ‘Hera’ (1997) by Melissa Mailer-Yates, ‘Immaculate Reflection’ (2006) by Terry Rodgers, and ‘Under the Moon’ (2014) by Martine Johanna, to name a few. For a more complete list of the art found in season two of True Detective, join our friends in the reddit discussion forums.

“Nic [Pizzolatto] wanted to establish Caspere as a fetishistic character who objectified women and sort of put them on a pedestal of perverted tendencies,” Alex DiGerlando told The Creators Project in an interview back in July. “We poured through [Rodger’s] books and figured out which ones felt most right for Caspere. We decided we were going to go for things that had an ominous and eerie vibe, without going outright disturbing.”

Not all of the pieces on display were pre-existing, however. In episode six, “Church in Ruins,” Athena (Leven Rambin) presents her sister Antigone Bezzerides with a painting, saying, “I was thinking about a woman drowning on dry land.”

This painting was commissioned especially for the show from Brooklyn artist William Logan. In conversation with The Creators Project, Logan said that the piece was “based on a drawing I did in the Met of the Statue of Sappho, by Comte Prosper d’Epinay, an amazing statue that has always gripped me for its subtle descriptions of despair and piercing rendering of passion.” He went on to say that:

"“It does seem like Sappho could be said to be drowning under the weight of her inner emotions in this statue. She was a very sensitive poet from antiquity, and perhaps Athena is implying that by repressing her emotions, Antigone is drowning herself, just like her mother.”"

And of course, it wouldn’t be True Detective without a sense of the occult. “We were looking at the guilded [sic] skeletons of saints from Europe, looking at that sort of high opulence with the Mexican kitsch of Santa Muerte to create our own kind of hybrid,” DiGerlando said of the sculpture, constructed for the show by artist Deb Jones. “At that point in the story it was all about trying to point out the weird off-kilter culture of LA spiritualism. This is True Detective, and this creepy occult stuff always lingers in the background of the show.”

On his personal website, artist Terry Rodgers stated that he attempts to reflect a sense of time and place in his work, that he tries to ensnare the gravitational pulls that make our journeys so interesting. “We live in this swirl of delicate gestures, driving desires, fantasy, economic complexity and interdependence, hierarchical separations, isolation and hope.” If that isn’t good way to sum up the ambition True Detective season two, I don’t know what is.


Well, as Sam Elliot says in The Big Lebowski, “that about does her, wraps her all up.” This is the kind of topic that merits an on-going series of essays, dissecting the many nuances leavened into each and every frame. Unfortunately, it’s time for us to mosey on out and join the tumbling tumbleweeds, “westward the wagons, across the sands of time until—aw, look at me, I’m ramblin’ again.”

We hope that this article deepened your appreciation for the hard work and talent that went into making True Detective. Hopefully it will encourage further discussions of the crucial role of production design, shedding light on the many and varied aspects of a job that is often overlooked. Failing that, at least it gave you a sense of the magic that happens when artists collaborate.

Next: Here are the Five Best True Detective costumes this Halloween.

“Say friend, ya got any more of that good sarsaparilla….”