I have just finished watching True Detective and I intend to discuss it below in a way that will require I give a spoiler alert right here. There’s been a lot said recently about spoilers after a certain someone at a certain royal wedding met a certain fate and the internet went nuts and those people who didn’t want a 15 year old book spoiled for them were understandably upset. So though I don’t intend to deliberately spoil anyone’s enjoyment of True Detective, I’ll probably say something that might. Fair warning then. Spoilers ahead.
For a long time I have held The Wire to be my favourite TV show of all time, and I think there’s a fair stretch of daylight between The Wire and whatever is second. I thought Dexter was a challenger at around the time of Trinity, but it fell away quickly and it fell hard and by the end I hated that dead-beat, lumberjacking cop-out. Oz would be up there. I never quite caught the Breaking Bad addiction to the same extent as many friends did, but it’s clearly very good. Ditto Sopranos. Ditto Deadwood. Then there’s the next tier down where sits the likes of Lost, Walking Dead, first season of Heroes, etc.
True Detective I think is my new 2nd, and it’s closer to The Wire than any of those others came. It is the most stunningly beautiful cop procedural I have seen. The cinematography, the long-shots, the tracking shots, the aesthetic of landscape and urban decay and the people eking out lives of misery and quiet desperation… magnificent. Both leads are tremendous (and the support cast too, but more on that soon), each shed a weight of their parodied past and shouldered instead the gravitas and depth required in a series that relied a great deal on strong performances from its dual protagonists. They delivered. They delivered in spades. Harrelson is great, brooding, childish, petulant, aggressive, assured, fragile, by turns. He inhabits all of these contradictions and owns the physical changes Marty undergoes across the span of 15 years. McConaughey is astounding, and in his ’95 iteration particularly he is nearly unrecognisable but for his voice. I kept having to remind myself who I was watching, and he kept dragging me away from that guy and immersing me in the character.
But what I feel truly set the series apart from other odd-couple, buddy cop, bromance, procedurals was the philosophical positions expounded by these characters. In his nihilism, his philosophical pessimism, his unflinching honesty-to-self, Rust Cohle brought some interesting ideas to the small screen. The most quoted – most quotable – of these has inspired Tumblrs and Sub-Reddits and all manner of internet discussion, dissection and debate. “Time is a flat circle” explores Nietzsche’s theory of infinite recursion – the thought that most terrified him, among all of the terrifying thoughts he offered. References to “The Yellow King” and “Carcosa” made an 1895 collection of short stories an Amazon best-seller.
Those whom I have read dissatisfied or critical of the series complain that after introducing this apparent profundity, this depth of philosophy and thought, this supernatural sense of myth… the finale is unconcerned with addressing those loose ends. I personally don’t think that was a problem. If this is to be understood as a story about Rust and Marty, then their story is told, and wrapped-up, in the finale. It is in some ways a surprising ending, perhaps in that it is so adherent to the buddy-cop formula, perhaps in that it draws a positive conclusion from a previously pessimist world-view, perhaps because it is so deliberately unconcerned with all those things that had the internet speculating, but it is a completion of the narrative.
Questions do abound though:
Who was the King in Yellow? Why was everyone so afraid? Why is the corpse of Errol’s father left just staked out like that? How did the murders go so long unrecognised? What was the role of the Tuttle family? What consequences await the governor? Why was this done in the first place? What religious or spiritual significance was attached to it? The spiral? The ability of DeWall to see Rust’s soul? What is the ‘mask’ Rust wears?
There’s been several articles and posts about the conclusion. I can see why some feel the need for a more encompassing resolution to these questions, but I think that misunderstands the main theme of the show . This series was not entitled, “The Yellow King”. This was “True Detective”. Rust and Marty are our focus. It is their tale, and with the denouement in the hospital it is completed (although Lauren Davis’ examination of the conclusion as a supernatural victory for the Yellow King was most interesting).
The more complex criticism, and I suspect the more valid, is in the way True Detective treats women.
Kameron Hurley summarised the concerns as I understand them on her website, and her writing forced me to go back to the series and examine just how much I had read it through the lens of straight, white, cisgendered, male; examine just how different it might look through a different lens.
There were several occasions where the series explicitly explored the nature of masculinity. When, having seen only the first two episodes, I was asked by a friend what the series was about, “masculine roles” was my answer. In ep 2
Marty talks about how he differs from his father, how he faces his burdens – is expected to face is burdens – differently. He reveals himself as a man struggling to adapt to a world of shaken patriarchy. His concept of what it means to be a father, a husband, are shown to be hopelessly out-dated. Indeed he uses these concepts to rationalise the most egregious behaviour. His infidelities, he claims, are essential for him to maintain a healthy marriage. As the series progresses he loses control of himself, his family, his wife. The women in his life were all possessions, which he guarded jealously. His wife. His daughters. His mistress(es). He – as he tells Rust – likes to mow his own lawn. When these things are threatened he responds with violence, often shown to be an impotent violence that he knows he cannot realise, at least against those that matter. Against Maggie and Rust he backs down, or in the one fight scene with Rust he knows he cannot win – later accusing Rust of arrogance for holding back. Against ‘lesser’ men (and against boys) he gives his violence fearsome rein. Against women too, slapping his daughter, choke-hold on his wife, he is as much an aggressor as a protector. His insults against women who he feels have wronged him are all sexual. His daughter a ‘slut’, his unfaithful wife a ‘whore’, his mistress a ‘bitch’ whom he will ‘skullfuck’. Marty is a simple man, and undeniably a misogynist.
Rust is different, and less simple, but still has a deeply flawed view of women. Rust is motivated by a woman in the fridge, in this case his daughter. Subsequently he disassociates from women. He is reluctant to engage at all with Marty’s family, and surprised to find it less terrible than he’d feared. He accuses Maggie ‘what have you done’ immediately after their infidelity. He encourages a woman suffering Munchausen’s-by-proxy to suicide. He shows little compassion for the women and girls at the trailer-park ‘bunny ranch’, and what compassion Marty shows he mocks. ‘Is that a down payment?’ (That he later turns out to be correct only serves to endorse the view. Marty’s desire to protect an innocent falls away when he has a chance to be ‘despoiler’. Women, even ‘saved’ women, remain whores, to be bought). Rust is a misogynist also, even if not as overt. He knows this. He knows that he is not a good man, but believes he is necessary to keep the other bad men from the doors of innocents (women and children – whom no one else seems to miss). He knows he is a dangerous man. He sets himself up as a protector of women and children, though he cannot have either in his own life.
Whether this means that the series itself is misogynist, I’m less certain. I can see the argument, though I’m not entirely convinced. True Detective fails the bechdel test . Maggie is given a role in the narrative (as interviewee) only after they can no longer interview the men, and then she’s only interviewed about the relationship of the men to each other (and what her role in its fracture might have been). Her own arc has some moments of strength and independence, but these are undermined by that final scene of her, with obedient daughters, showing up to offer Marty redemption. That it is too late for that, that he is not redeemed by his delayed heroism, is his tragedy, not hers. The one moment in which Maggie does seize some agency is in her decision to have sex with Rust. Even this, a brief glimpse of her as a decision-maker, as an agent, is in service to the show exploring the relationship between the men.
And yet perhaps that’s the point. Willa Paskin, at Slate, accepts that “mistresses, prostitutes, corpses, or some combination thereof…” and yet argues that this is deliberately so, that this ignorance of women is a thematic decision. If it is then it’s an important theme perhaps too subtly played out. True Detective shows the monstrous acts of men: abduction, rape, pedophilia, dismemberment/corpse display… It gives us at the end the catharsis of our (flawed) heroes pass through the labyrinth and defeat the monster at its centre. Errol is clearly a monster. His monstrosity is foreshadowed clearly by Rust in his interview.
And yet what True Detective then ignores is all of the other men in that video, all the others who allowed this to happen, the society that meant women and children could go missing unnoticed, that police would not even search for a child if the orders came from above that they shouldn’t.
It’s this monstrosity, the monstrosity of the normal male, the quotidian masculine assumptions of power and privilege, that are the truly terrifying, and I wonder if by giving us an obvious monster to kill True Detective didn’t distract us from the horror of all those ‘normal’ men who participated and facilitated. It’s something Rust is himself concerned by, expressing his regret on his hospital bed. marty though is satisfied. ‘We got ours,’ he says, and for him that’s enough.
Near where I live a woman was walking home – a short walk, and familiar, along a well-lit and heavily trafficked street – when she was taken by a man, raped, murdered, hastily buried. The man was caught and convicted, sentenced, is imprisoned for his crime. He had a history of sexual violence and that he was free to commit this rape and murder on an innocent woman sent shock and outrage through the community.
As I was drafting this post I became aware of something which the husband of that murdered woman wrote. Despite what he had suffered, despite the genuinely nightmarish monstrosity of the rapist who took his wife from him, this man still has the courage and perception to see how dangerous the myth of the monster is.
Some violence against women is perpetrated by monsters, by Childress and his ilk, but much of it – the overwhelming majority of it – is perpetrated by men like Marty, and perhaps like Rust. Manly men, who struggle to find their place in the world and struggle to understand how to relate to women, or how to cope in the absence of women, or how to curb their desires. Men with double-standards and short fuses and a view of women as possessions or playthings. These men are the real dangers.
And so the one ardent criticism I have to level at one of the best television series I’ve ever seen, is that we too easily identify with, accept, and forgive, the monstrous behaviour of bad, dangerous men.