TRUE DETECTIVE

by Max Sparber in



Matthew McConaughey gave precisely the sort of Oscar acceptance speech you might have expected. He essentially cried, “I like me! I really like me!” and then ended with the words “Awright awright awright,” and it couldn’t have been more McConaughey had he stripped his clothes off, played bongos, and passed out pot brownies to the audience.

But it’s hard not to wish that he had offered up the sort of acceptance speech that you might have expected from Rust Cohle, his nihilistic police investigator from HBO’s “True Detective.” “Awards are just the external world validating the ego,” he might have said, unconsciously using a buck knife to whittle his Oscar statuette into an occult figurine. “I think, by celebrating me, you’re celebrating yourself, and this whole fetid industry, when we’d all be better off putting a pistol in our mouths and leaving it all behind.”

Cue a reaction shot of Woody Harrelson looking disgusted.

“True Detective” is probably the unlikeliest hit since David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” to which it is often compared and bears more than a passing similarity. Both feature an oddball detective and a stolid partner investigating the death of a young woman in a corrupt and unfamilar backwoods. Both have a patina of perverse occultism. And, in the end, both are about the harm that men do to women.

The show generated frenzied online speculation. Like most mysteries do, “True Detective” had its share of red herrings, but, unlike other mysteries, these were mostly thematic. The actual solution to the mystery was surprisingly quotidian, and had already been puzzled out by alert viewers. But there were so many other rabbit holes showrunner Nic Pizzolatto hid in the text of the show. There were ongoing references to Robert W. Chambers, an obscure Victorian author of the fantastic. There was the morose saga of the troubled family of Marty Hart, the bullying murder investigator played by Woody Harrelson. And there was McConaughey’s endless pontificating, which showed a man with a profoundly cynical and hopeless worldview. What sort of show were we watching?

As it turned out, a police procedural, albeit one in which the red herrings actually conspired to tell a second, very troubling story. Early on, audiences noticed that women seemed to be getting short shrift in the show, tending to be minor characters in what was ostensibly their own story. After all, they were the primary victims, and David Lynch understood this well enough to offer “Fire Walk With Me,” a brilliant but unendurably anguished look at the last days in the life of the victim in Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer.

But viewers also noted that there seemed to be a hidden story, told through glances between women, in the background of scenes, and sometimes in the spaces between scenes. Women in the show weren’t passive creatures who were done unto. The had their own power, although the show barely seemed to notice it.

I am not sure this is the doing of Pizzolatto or show director Cary Joji Fukunaga, who, especially in a justifiably lauded action scene of unedited footage, showed himself to be an astonishly accomplished filmmaker. But whoever is responsible, it gave “True Detective” its real depth. Suddenly, we were complicit with the show’s characters in ignoring the stories of women -- this became most noticeable when eagle-eyed critics pointed out that nearly every female performer appeared in a class photo from an abusive school, and the detectives never figured that out.

Marty Hart’s family could merely have been another red herring. His daughter seems to shows signs of the same sort of occult sexual abuse that he is investigating, while his wife’s family is undeniably connected with the sort of men who caused the abuse. It all seems to be leading to a revelation that Hart’s family is part of the solution to the mystery, but then they aren’t.

And this is important because the show has caused us to view his family story through the eyes of a detective, scouring his wife and children for hints of deceit and abuse. But it isn’t there; at least, not in how we expect it to be.

There is deceit and abuse, but it all comes from Marty Hart. Woody Harrelson’s character is a serial philanderer, an abuser of women, and he sees his daughter’s youthful sexual experiments with distaste and suspicion, and responds with violence.

As it turns out, the case that Kohle and Hart are investigating is one of men in power using their status to sexually control women and children, and relying on their privilege to cover for their crimes. And, throughout the course of the show, to one extent or another, Kohle and Hart do the same. They are smaller versions of the big evil they are investigating, and, one expects, given the sort of power the show’s villains wield, our heroes could be as terrible. They murder and cover up murder; they abuse and ignore women and cover that up; they engage in sexually exploitative behavior and have such little regard for women that they don’t even bother to cover it up.

Even though the show ends on a hopeful note, it is, at its core, as deeply cynical about the story it tells as anything voiced by Rust Kohle -- cynical to the point of making its audience complicit, making them more concerned about occult hints and speculating at villains that to see the everyday evil that the show’s main characters engage in.

It’s a story set in a world where women and children are relentlessly hurt by selfish men, sometimes through active abuse, and sometimes simply through inaction -- ignoring someone in this world can do irreparable harm. It’s a terrible vision of humanity; it also feels horribly true.

Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a historian, playwright, and critic. Follow him on Twitter or email him with your arts events at maxsparber@gmail.com.

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