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The Trouble With True Detective

True Detective has plenty of issues, but misogyny isn't one of them.

Rachel McAdams in True Detective, currently in its second season.

In 2013, actress Geena Davis wrote an editorial for the Hollywood Reporter exploring how filmmakers might tackle the apparent challenge of adding interesting female characters to their projects. One suggestion: simply go through and give several characters women’s names.

Based on the first three episodes of True Detective’s second season, writer Nic Pizzolatto seems to be a member of the Davis school of gender parity. There is little on the surface that differentiates the character of Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) from the other tormented cops of the HBO drama. She’s got troubled family relationships, challenging sexual proclivities, and the same unsmiling, furrowed-brow demeanor as the men. And that’s great.

Plenty of women brood and smolder; plenty of women respond to the prospect of emotional closeness with overt hostility. (When Bezzerides tells a suitor who isn’t getting the message that if he bothers her again he’ll be left carrying his teeth in a baggie, it’s more menacing than when Vince Vaughn’s gangster, Frank Semyon, uses pliers to actually extract someone’s teeth.)

Bezzerides isn’t a man shoehorned into a woman’s body, though, and what distinguishes her aren’t glimmers of softness buried beneath an abrasive exterior, but rather the other characters’ responses to her. She’s called a cunt for doing her job well, hit on by a suspect who seems to think they’re in a role-playing fantasy together, and asked by a superior to cozy up to a man for information.

True Detective is a show with plenty of issues, but misogyny isn’t one of them: it clearly understands the outrageousness of traditional gender roles, and why a woman like Bezzerides would be compelled to carry more knives than Crocodile Dundee.

Yet this is precisely what caused the backlash against the first season — the show’s alleged “macho nonsense,” as Emily Nussbaum put it in a review for the New Yorker. Nussbaum, perhaps, found Slate’s Willa Paskin too generous when she argued that True Detective’s sexism was “shallow on purpose.” (Paskin herself later backpedaled from this stance, writing post-finale that the show “is an unfettered celebration of two men.”)

What began as a question — “Has True Detective been a turnoff for female viewers?” Abigail Chandler asked in the Guardian — was resolved for many by the end of the first season. Thinkpieces about the show’s “woman problem” and its fetishization of female corpses proliferated, and lots of critics seem primed to view this year’s installments through the same lens.

During last week’s episode, my Twitter feed buzzed with claims that the show’s portrayal of women had become so over-the-top that it was now actively trolling viewers. In the Huffington Post, Matthew Jacobs suggested the characterization of Bezzerides is Pizzolatto simply throwing female fans a half-hearted bone.

And it’s true True Detective is not immediately feminist in the way that Orphan Black or Orange is the New Black are. With their multiple, distinct female characters (and often laughably lame male ones), those shows are Bechdel Test valedictorians.

But while the test is a fantastic metric of how unimaginative many male screenwriters are, it’s reductive to use it as the sole measure of a work’s intelligence about women.

On this season of True Detective, the inter-lady interactions have hinged on Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro, although certainly not because Bezzerides and her superior want to romance or redeem him. Can’t a failure of the test in this case be a commentary on the primacy of men in policing, a realistic look at how a skilled investigator like Bezzerides might be expected to put her own work aside so she can keep an eye on a wayward male?

I tend to agree with Paskin’s initial reaction. Conventional masculinity as a poisonous force is the theme that connects the first season to the admittedly weaker current one. True Detective feels shaky on women because it’s still not sure on a larger scale what sort of show it wants to be. Its sophomore outing reveals a tonal incoherence that while present in the inaugural season, was overshadowed by great performances. Absent the chemistry of McConaughey and Harrelson, True Detective’s ass is showing.

Last year, Pizzolatto wrote on Twitter of “the detriments of only having two POV characters, both men.” If we’re to take him at his word, then the depiction of women in season one — as mostly sex workers, long-suffering romantic partners, or cadavers — is a reflection of Rust Cohle’s and Marty Hart’s macho, and seriously anemic, worldviews.

In the 2014 installments, both male leads are plagued by their own emotional dishonesty. Hart blusters about what a great family man he is — since that’s what he believes is expected of him — but is in fact a serial cheater. Cohle sucks down cigarettes with comic gusto and holds forth on the great emptiness at the heart of things. (He believes in nothing, Lebowski.) But in the finale, he’s apparently blindsided by the realization that love is the answer, that “the light’s winning” over darkness. His closing monologue punctures all the ones that precede it.

Hart avoids self-reflection because it interferes with his fun; Cohle wields his supposed self-awareness and clear-eyed outlook on life as a weapon, defending a vulnerable core. Perhaps if these guys hadn’t been programmed to eschew stereotypically feminine receptivity, to avoid at all costs talking about their feelings, it wouldn’t have taken them eight episodes and a voyage through Hell to discover that they loved each other.

At one point in season one, Cohle advises Hart to avoid “crazy pussy,” but one would be hard-pressed to find crazier cocks than those in season two. Malfunctioning, too: Taylor Kitsch’s closeted bike cop Paul Woodrugh has to pop little blue pills to perform for his girlfriend, Frank Semyon falters when it’s time to provide for his wife’s IVF treatments, and Velcoro has a flaccid mustache and a son who might not be his.

Why so much performance anxiety? Semyon gives us a clue in the third episode when he says, “There’s no part of my life not overwrought with live-or-die importance. I take a shit, there’s a gun to my head saying, ‘Make it a good one, don’t fuck up.’” Later, Velcoro’s father mumbles that this is “no country for white men.” But before we take out the tiny violins for Caucasian dudes, it’s worth considering that True Detective’s thesis is that this is no country for anyone, that a patriarchal culture places absurd, corrosive expectations on everyone.

And the men this season sure are absurd. Velcoro is a lunatic whose explosions of anger carry with them a strong dose of surrealism: what exactly are the logistics of “buttfuck[ing] your mom with your dad’s headless corpse,'” and why, upon hearing that his son’s shoes were stolen by a group of bullies, does Velcoro immediately assume that the boys shit in them?

Woodrugh comes across as a bit of a joke, too. In the second episode, his homophobia is skewered when he mentions wanting to “clock” a gay guy who hit on him. The older Detective Dixon (W. Earl Brown) just stares at him and says, “Why would you do that?” Poor Paul! He was led to believe somewhere along the line that this is how real men behave; what is he if not so grimly hetero? (Probably a much happier out gay man.)

Like the men, Bezzerides is plainly Not Okay, but her bitterness feels hard-won rather than based on a received notion of how she is supposed to live. The best investigator by far, her competence stems from her awareness that she has to be that much better, since men look at her like she’s a “cheerleader on an oil rig.” (Whereas Velcoro has the luxury to be “not exactly Columbo.”)

Like Detective Dixon, she deflates the hubbub around True Detective’s tortured sexuality, dismissing a victim’s fetishes by saying, “Guy thought about fucking a lot.” She gets it in a way the guys don’t, but her irony doesn’t weaken her dedication to the work. This is what a complex character looks like.

The men, however, holding fast to Marlboro Man masculinity, are dangerously divorced from self-knowledge. (And fun: I’ve counted one smile so far.) They’re mysteries to themselves.

Problem is, so is True Detective.

Fans were let down by last season’s resolution because they’d been on board with the Gospel According to Rust Cohle, and weren’t prepared to retrofit their ideas once the finale took all the air out of his nihilism. The confusion isn’t their fault: the show itself was unsure how enamored it was with Cohle’s philosophy. Lines like “Human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution” felt like the truth, until they were abruptly revealed at the conclusion to be nothing more than armor.

This season is even more inconsistent. Does it aspire to Lynchian camp or Law and Order: SVU ponderousness? The moody nightclub singer and the grotesque psychiatrist are straight out of Twin Peaks, but the leads seem to be acting on another show entirely.

When Velcoro tells Semyon that he’s abstaining from booze because it “tends to take the edge off, and I want to stay angry,” should we tremble at a line that sounds like it wandered over from a Miami Vice script? Woodrugh’s self-destructive highway bike jaunt is played straight, but are we really not supposed to laugh at the sight of his cheeks flapping in the wind? A male hustler Woodrugh questions has it right when he refers to “this angsty cop drama you rollin’.”

Angsty Cop Drama might be a better title for the show, and viewers would probably be less disappointed with its sophomore outing if they interpreted it as a broad parody of fragile masculinity. True Detective isn’t anti-feminist. But the problem is that it doesn’t know what it is.