True Detective’s women

My consumption of the consumption of the latest True Detective episode began like it usually does, with a read of Alan Sepinwall’s review in Hitfix, but then quickly veered into the first broad-view discussion that has gained traction with Nic Pizzolatto’s crime series.

The discussion coming out of the series’ sixth episode, “Haunted Houses,” drifted away from direct plot-related questions and took up an examination of True Detective’s treatment and usage of women.

It’s not a coincidence that a few prominent reviewers of this show latched onto the same theme after episode six, and I suspect it’s because ‘Houses’ is the first episode where a woman – and not the two male stars, Rust Cohle and Marty Hart – is handed the keys to the story.

In this case, Hart’s wife (and/or ex-wife, depending on the time period), Maggie, is brought forth with the development in her role as a narrator and as the linchpin of numerous relationships – hers and Marty’s, Marty’s and Rust’s, perhaps the police’s relationship with their currently unsolved case. Let’s run through the different perspectives quickly, as they’re all thoughtful and unique.

Emily Nussbaum has a strong criticism in The New Yorker of the shows total mishandling of female characters, writing that there isn’t one complex female character but rather only shallow, soulless caricatures who are merely props for the game the men are playing.

I appreciated Emily’s subtle sense of humor in warning that if you’re enjoying True Detective, which most people seem to be, then you won’t like her subsequent analysis, before proceeding to obliterate the story’s purpose and objective.

True Detective’s resistance for developing a female role beyond a vengeful wife or a hooker (at least up until now) clearly has taken away from Emily’s enjoyment of the show, and she compares it to “The Fall,” a crime series on BBC that she argues empowers female characters and broaches this discussion with much more tact than Pizzolatto’s vicious slog through desolate Louisiana lands.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the show and also thoroughly enjoyed Emily’s take – it’s certainly fair and reasonable.

In something of a rebuttal to Emily, Tom Hawking wrote a terrific piece for Flavor Wire, beginning with a sensible foundation: That while, no, the women don’t come off well, we should remember that nobody comes off well in True Detective. Hart and Cohle are a pile of soulless thoughts and reprehensible deeds unto their own (which, of course, doesn’t in itself refute Emily’s premise).

The larger point Tom delicately made is summed up nicely by this line: “Above all, the thing to remember is that it’s a mistake to conflate what a show depicts with what it endorses.”

The reason we may be seeing the female characters in the way we are is because that’s specifically how the twisted, egotistical Hart and Cohle see them. That doesn’t mean the show in its entirety is about the degradation and mistreatment of women.

Willa Paskin in Slate, however, writes that’s the whole point of True Detective, this sickly display of female roles and the wasteland that’s left behind the detectives and the case they’re pursuing. (Willa had a particularly good analysis of the “female hierarchy” Marty is continually oblivious to.)

I also liked Molly Lambert’s piece in Grantland, as she went in a different direction than Emily and wrote about the complexity of Maggie.

I would lean with Molly on this one – Maggie, to me, is fascinating. If we’re ranking characters based on personal investment of how this all ends for them, Rust would be far and away my No. 1, but Maggie would be second ahead of her cheating husband, Hart.

The possibility of her holding the code to seemingly every meaningful plot line in this show – certainly the relationships regarding both Rust and Marty, and who the hell knows what she knows about the case or the Yellow King or anything else – is tantalizing in the way that there’s still time for a female character to flip most everything that’s been established. I’m ready for anything with Maggie and am all in her continued development.

One more thoughtful piece worth reading on this subject: Alyssa Rosenberg’s take in Think Progress on why what’s good for women can also be good for men in this show.

How come it took us six episodes to make the women of True Detective the centerpiece of a nuanced discussion?

I don’t know for sure, but two thoughts:

One note Sepinwall makes in his review is that every character besides Hart and Cohle have been two-dimensional and therefore little more than roadside cones passing by in a blur as we remain fixated on the two rugged and thoroughly screwed up detectives.

This show is so heavily driven by their viciousness and failures that even in the scenes that draw more attention to women (such as Maggie having revenge sex with Rust, thus driving a dagger into her relationship with Hart and Hart’s relationship with his soon-to-be ex partner), we’re left wondering what it says about the male character, Hart or Cohle or a killer.

The second thought: “Haunted Houses,” an episode that stepped back from tension-filled scenes and applied glue to the broader puzzle, is the first time we’ve been able to breathe and contemplate anything (at least for me, anyway).

Hell, the fact we’re still talking about the six-minute single shot at the end of the previous episode is one clue as to why we haven’t yet delved into something deeper:

Until now, True Detective hasn’t been a delicate crime show for the thinker as much as its been a five-episode blast furnace on our sensibilities. The fight against visual paralysis has left little time for the fight against misogyny or gender classification of any kind.

In this way, it feels like Emily – and the others who chimed in today – pushed ahead of the game and brought us to the second tier of True Detective discussion.

I’m admittedly slow to analyze anything – choosing first to let the show, movie, book, whatever, wash over my senses – so maybe I feel more behind than others and the role of women and every other twisted moral line has been gnawing at most prior to episode six.

Try as I might, the only question I’ve been able to muster after each episode this season is, “Wait, WHAT!?!?!” (Alas, this is probably why the pros write about this stuff for a living and I just enjoy it with the rest of you).

But finally, with two episodes to go, we’ve reached a place beyond grisly killings and Cohle’s endless supply of cigarettes. As Emily and Tom and everyone else has noted, it’s not fair to nail the final judgment down before the series is over. So we can wait a couple more weeks for that.

By then, maybe Maggie has changed the female tune.

Twitter: @TMitrosilis Email:

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2 Responses to True Detective’s women

  1. Sylvia says:

    Maggie hasn’t changed the female tune as of yet and I’m certainly not holding out hope that she or any of the females in the show will. Just because Maggie has sex – that doesn’t give her the characterization she deserves. A female who is not defined by her sex, but by her heart and mind, however flattering or unflattering, would more effectively shine a light of perspective to balance the rest of the indulgent and highly stereotyped images that decorate the walls of frat houses and the setting of True Detective.

    • tmitrosilis says:

      Well said, Sylvia. Thanks for reading and the thoughtful comment. Pizzolatto is currently developing the show’s second season for HBO and, given the groundswell of comments and his own leanings, I’d be surprised if Season 2 doesn’t address the point you make. Whether that’s making one of the leading detectives a female or building another prominent female role into the narrative, we’ll have to see. Can’t wait.

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