I started to say True Detective (HBO original series) is gold ore and then to pursue a metaphor of finding something of value in an impure original form.
But one of the two main characters is named Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) so I will say instead, True Detective is iron ore and we can find something of value—something tarnished, yes—in an impure original form.
I want to start with the tarnished, the rust, that few people have confronted.
Emily Nussbaum sees True Detective through the lens of all that it fails to achieve:
Like many critics, I was initially charmed by the show’s anthology structure (eight episodes and out; next season a fresh story) and its witty chronology, which chops and dices a serial-killer investigation, using two time lines…
On the other hand, you might take a close look at the show’s opening credits, which suggest a simpler tale: one about heroic male outlines and closeups of female asses. The more episodes that go by, the more I’m starting to suspect that those asses tell the real story.
The women in the episodes, Nussbaum explains, are “paper-thin”; they serve as women often do in art made by men—as props, as symbols, as embodiments rendered meaningful only in the context of the men who gain most of the attention when the camera isn’t focused on the bared curves of women titillating and pleasing those men (and the audience, mostly men, we may assume). “Wives and sluts and daughters—none with any interior life,” she recognizes.
I think Nussbaum’s explication is important, not to set True Detective aside, but to mine that rust from the ore. I think there is much here of value—even conceding the entrenched failures of men making art as if women truly and inevitably are “paper-thin,” “a simple prop to occupy [their] time.”
Many people have noted that about 5% of pop culture is brilliant and the remaining 95% is trash. From production value to acting, True Detective aspires to that 5%, and I think it is often successful.
Even (maybe especially) with the mind disengaged in rational ways, each episode is mesmerizing for the senses.
But if we approach the series as a work of collaborative art (director, write, actors) that necessarily involves the viewer as yet another collaborator, we may find that True Detective is a tale possibly subtitled “It’s Still a Man’s (Hostile) World.”
Yes, women are cheated in (and cheated on) this narrative from HBO, but women are cheated in (and cheated on) the real world also. Children too are central in the series, often as the victims they are in real life also.
And if we are to decide whether to applaud True Detective for its often soaring craft or to denounce the series for its cliched and tone deaf paternalism, misogyny, and chauvinism, I think we must also start with genre—not just what the series is about but what form this series is taking to shape that tale.
Taken for its commitment to form, True Detective is noir fiction, a genre itself both illuminating the sexism of the human condition and flawed because of the sexism of the human condition entrenched in the genre.
“Noir fiction has attracted some of the best writers in the United States (mostly) and many of its aficionados are among the most sophisticated readers in the crime genre,” explains Otto Penzler. “Having said that, I am constantly baffled by the fact that a huge number of those readers don’t seem to know what noir fiction is,” adding:
Look, noir is about losers. The characters in these existential, nihilistic tales are doomed. They may not die, but they probably should, as the life that awaits them is certain to be so ugly, so lost and lonely, that they’d be better off just curling up and getting it over with. And, let’s face it, they deserve it.
Pretty much everyone in a noir story (or film) is driven by greed, lust, jealousy or alienation, a path that inevitably sucks them into a downward spiral from which they cannot escape. They couldn’t find the exit from their personal highway to hell if flashing neon lights pointed to a town named Hope. It is their own lack of morality that blindly drives them to ruin.
And there is Rust Cohle and his partner Marty Hart—deeply flawed men blinded by their lusts and trapped between justice and injustice.
Are there better ways to do that story? There was Andy Sipowicz in NYPD Blue, and Bruce Wayne/Batman endures—both of which are examinations of that exact dynamic of justice/injustice and flawed men.
Either these are archetypal characters and narratives or evidence that the paternalism of film and literature have imposed these characters and narratives onto the world by sheer force.
But as I watch the series (as of this writing, the sixth episode), I have been reminded of John Gardner’s The Sunlight Dialogues, a literary and complex novel that searches the human soul as well as the landscape of justice and injustice, as this excerpt shows:
His watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark.
In late August, 1966, the city jail in Batavia, New York, held four regular prisoners, that is, four prisoners who were being kept on something more than an overnight basis. Three had been bound over for trial; the fourth was being held, by order of the court, until the County could administer a psychiatric examination. The identity of this fourth prisoner was not yet known. He seemed to be about forty. He’d been arrested on August 23rd for painting the word love in large, white, official-looking letters across two lanes of Oak Street, just short of the New York State Thruway. As the police were in the act of arresting him he had managed to burn all the papers in his billfold (dancing up and down, shaking like a leaf), and he refused to say now a halfway sensible word about himself, except that he was “an anarchist, a student.” His face was slightly disfigured by what looked like a phosphor burn — the kind men get in wars. Whether he was actually a student (he was an anarchist, all right) there was no way of telling. He seemed too old for that, and there was no college in Batavia; but the town was not large and they knew he was not from there.
The Sunlight Dialogues is hard; it demands a great deal of the reader in terms of time as well as concentration.
I think the same of True Detective in the sense that we must not take the work on face value only, we must not allow ourselves to be mesmerized, and we must not see the “paper-thin” women as endorsements, but mirrors of the very real ways life remains a man’s (hostile) world.
And I remain committed to mining the rust from the ore in this show because we remain faced with much the same in the real world we fail to excavate and then re-imagine each day.
True Detective is flawed as is the human condition. We can do better in both, but not by giving in to the nihilism of the noir that is both creation and mirror.
It’s still a man’s (hostile) world, but it doesn’t have to be.