The Limits of Detection

This blog entry is partly a reply to Emily Nussbaum’s article Cool Story, Bro. The Shallow Deep Talk on True Detective, which appeared in the New Yorker on March 3, 2014. That artice can be found here: http://nyr.kr/1eosEyD

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I would really, really like to see a series that takes stuff from the film noir genre – the lies, the sex, the crimes, the shadows – and then casts two female detectives in the lead roles. It could be written and directed by women so we are spared the male gaze. That would be a new thing. If it already exists, then I don’t know about it. Maybe the second season of True Detective will bring us something like that. Jessica Chastain’s name is attached to the project, and I personally could see Michelle Forbes as the other lead.

Meanwhile, we have the first season of True Detective to watch. To me, TD is not a police procedural or a whodunit, but a character study of Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) and Rust Cohle (Matthew MacConaughey), two guys who might cross the street or the state line to avoid each other in everyday life. It took me half the series to see that it is not about the Yellow King or Carcosa, but about their relationship. If anyone keeps watching it as a whodunit, prepare for disappointment: the last episode is by far the weakest one. I restarted the series and watched all of it as the study of two very different guys. And while it won’t ever pass the Bechdel test, it worked very well. It’s certainly flawed , but there are only a couple of other series I liked better these last few months.

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I disagree with Nussbaum’s label of the series as macho nonsense. Marty Hart has a strong tendency to rule over his family and often tells women what’s what. While that is certainly macho, he is also a horrible liar and a pathetic adulterer. He is weak, but instead of accepting his weakness, he pleads with his wife for more credibility, and as soon as he has it, he delves into that self-styled schizophrenia that lets him believe that if he lets off steam with some anonymous pussy, he can be much more caring and loving at home. For Marty, sublimation won’t work for much longer. His wife sees through him every time. To be clear: It’s the character that has macho tendencies, not the series.

Rust Cohle, on the other hand, is nowhere near a macho. He uses work as self-harm, and may be very close to do some real harm to himself. There is that nihilistic stuff he mutters forth, and these monologues are actually the highlight of the series for me. Unlike Marty, he does not have any defense mechanism. He knows exactly what is wrong with him, but he cannot climb out of his black hole, and so he blames the whole world. Those monologues are sometimes wafer-thin, but they often need to be. Can there be any grand-standing, any redeeming speech from a guy who could jump from a bridge at any moment? Rust doesn’t have to make sense because he doesn’t have to make sense to himself, either. It is to his credit that sometimes, he really does make sense, which renders his existence that much worse. With that guy, the wiring shows. As with Marty, life does not go on for much longer like this.

Rusty can come across as an arrogant asshole by the time Gilbough and Papania come around asking questions. That could be interpreted as macho, but to me, it is all self-protection. Rust the nihilist is still in there somewhere, preserved in a barrel of cheap beer.

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Yes, the victims in True Detective are all female. But they all die off-screen, and there is very little violence going on in real time. Compare that to The Fall, and then tell me that the latter series does not make you cringe for all the stuff done to women. (I can’t shake the impression that Helen Mirren referred to The Fall when she criticised the fact that most victims in film and TV these days are girls and women.) The Fall shows you women alive and well, then being assaulted, bound, gagged, raped, dying, dead, and disposed of. Repeatedly. And all is made well by that one phone call between that brilliant female police detective and the male killer in the very last minute of the last episode? Does Nussbaum really think that this is any consolation for those people in the audience who cannot take the immediate violence of the episodes before that last scene?

The women of True Detective are not paper-thin. It is true, however, that the most prominent woman, Maggie Hart (Michelle Monaghan) could be much better written, and given more of an active role to play. What I don’t get is that Nussbaum can say that the betrayal of Maggie sleeping with Rust has no weight. Rust is thrown off balance, while Maggie sees it as the mistake it is, but not entirely. There is something new about her afterwards, something empowering. Maybe it is not so much the sex, but the fact that she has slept with him, not him with her.

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The other women are far from thin, too. Marty’s fling Lisa (Alexandra Daddario) could bring down his marriage and his job with just two anonymous phone calls. For a long time, I thought that something like that has happened to Marty in the missing years. Lisa has legal training, so she is one of the best educated characters in the show. And those memorable scenes with Tess Harper? Ann Dowd? Come on. While the men are still trying to figure out stuff, the women already seem to know something.

What I don’t get is that Nussbaum can describe a series initially as stylish and complex and let some sort of reluctant admiration shine through, and then makes a U-turn and uses the rest of the article for telling us how it’s full of macho nonsense and that it’s really the female asses and the nice bouncy racks telling the real story. The whole season contains maybe four or five nude scenes, and brief ones at that. That may not even be average. So what is it going to be – deplorable macho nonsense or likeable lady parts? You can’t have both.

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