At long last, the highly anticipated third season of True Detective is here. The mystery-drama has a history of tense storytelling and all-star casts, and this year is no exception. The sweltering unease that made the freshman season such a hit success returns as Detective Wayne Hays (Mahershala Ali) begins to investigate the sudden disappearance of two young Arkansas children. And the True Detective Season 3 theme song is the perfect interlude to set the tone.
The tune is called "Death Letter," and according to Esquire magazine, the version heard during True Detective's first few moments was recorded by singer Cassandra Wilson in 1995. T Bone Burnett, who handles the soundtrack and writes the scores for each season of the HBO series, told Esquire in another piece that Wilson "is the greatest living jazz singer, and maybe the greatest singer living right now in the United States."
Dedicated viewers might also recognize her sound from previous episodes. "We used her quite a bit in the first season, and when we started looking for a tune to start the season, that's the one that glued to the images," Burnett continued. "We had the picture first, and then we started trying songs with it, and that one just became part of the intro."
Wilson's haunting version of the song actually isn't the original. It was first written and performed by blues icon Son House during the 1960s, per Screen Rant. Other modern artists and groups, like the White Stripes, have covered the song in the past as well. The lyrics aren't exactly upbeat. The original words — gender-flipped for Wilson's cover — come from the perspective of a man who receives a letter in the mail telling him the women he loves is dead. The song follows him all the way through her funeral, and into the aftermath of life without her.
It's unclear if these kinds of lyrics foreshadow anything coming down the pike this season, especially as the story, at least at first, focuses on the crimes surrounding the children. The series premiere — mild spoiler here — reveals that Wayne's wife is no longer alive in the present-day scenes, but there's not yet any reason to believe her death was anything more sinister than something like sickness or old age.
Burnett said in the Esquire piece linked above that though some musical choices do foreshadow or mirror the characters' experiences, not everything heard should be taken literally. "It's certainly most about feeling, but a big theme of the show is memory," he said. "And you know, a lot of the songs have to do with memory, but I'm not trying to hit things right on the head."
Regardless of how much the song will play into the plot, True Detective fans are already smitten with Wilson's crooning.
The latest episodes of of True Detective has largely been met with rave reviews thus far — a stark contrast from a lackluster sophomore season that HBO President Michael Lombardo ultimately took the blame for, admitting that the network had rushed production, according to CinemaBlend. Wilson's song was the first thing viewers heard when they tuned in for this year's mystery, and it had to be enough to set up a renewed success. So far, it seems, that's exactly what it's done.