“True Detective”: A Study In Irony


So let’s talk about Matthew McConaughey.

I’ve been hearing the phrase “career  renaissance” bandied about recently, but let’s be honest – even amidst the rom com wasteland of the early ’00s, there was always an A Time To Kill peeking out from the Fool’s Gold. So I’m not really surprised that McConaughey is good in this show, but I am crazy impressed at how good he is. The neurotic, tightly-wound Rust of the past would be completely unrecognizable from the wry trickster of the present were it not for the way McConaughey allows you to see exactly how one becomes the other – or, to put it another way, past or present, I wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of Rust Cohle in a fight. And it’s the little details that McConaughey (petition to make his name easier to spell if he’s going to actually start doing real work) pays attention to, like the ramrod posture of the detective, or the way the recluse asks for beer right when the questions start getting dicey so anything he says is inadmissible, or when Rust accidentally gets caught in the middle of a drug war and isn’t angry, just disappointed. Sure, Rust is an asshole, but you can’t really blame him, and damn if the show doesn’t spend an approximately equal amount of time making you fall in love with him and demonstrating why you shouldn’t do that.

But I kind of don’t want to talk about Rust, because Rust is flashy and easy to talk about, while Woody Harrelson’s role is rather thankless. As many people have pointed out, True Detective explores a crisis of masculinity, and if we’re perhaps less familiar with Rust’s crisis of the intellectual, we’re pretty much all sick and tired of Marty’s crisis of the American dad – to the point where we root for Rust’s asshole because he’s at least better than the assholes he has to deal with. And yet, Harrelson is doing something very, very interesting with the character. Part of it is the way he leans in to Marty’s repulsiveness (how much of a jackass do you have to be to have a second affair, with the girl you originally met when she was an underage prostitute, and then go home and make your family watch sports?), but part of it is also the way that, on some level, he knows exactly what he’s doing.

Marty is far too ordinary to like – even his fall from grace in 2012 comes in the form of a TV dinner in an empty apartment – and yet he remains compelling, largely because he acknowledges the tropes of his ordinariness. As much as Rust is the one who is so empathetic so as to turn it into something unsettling, Marty is the one who truly understands how people work. He calls out Rust’s pompous philosophy, lays outright the habits of the cliched good cop/bad father, and overtly tells us exactly how his life is “supposed” to function. Marty talks about the “detective’s curse” – the solution is right under his nose, but he’s looking at all the wrong clues, and that’s a pretty decent way to understand his character as well. What makes Marty so compelling is his obliviousness – or, more accurately, the way he engages with his obliviousness. His strength is his ability to navigate social structures; his weakness is his complete blindness when it comes to the individuals around him. (Rust, of course, is the opposite – brilliant with individuals, but, and I’m totally willing to revise this after the finale tomorrow, shit when it comes to social structure.)

Basically, Marty transcends his archetype because he is aware of it, and, really, that’s how the show gets around a lot of its problems. I mean, the treatment of female characters in this show should really, really bother me – the way that most of its women are either prostitutes, objectified, or corpses, the way that Marty’s family divides with an air of inevitability into the madonna, the virgin, and the whore, the way that Maggie’s one real moment of agency comes through sexual betrayal (but hang on to that, cause I want to dig into it in a bit). And sure, when you lay out the narrative bones like that, it doesn’t sound so great, but this show is never working only on a single narrative level. Because, sure, it strains any sort of believability that Alexandra Daddario would be dying to do a striptease for Woody Harrelson – until you take into account that our heroes (such as they are) have been established as unreliable narrators, and so this is more about Marty’s conceptions about himself, and how he’s still deluded after all these years, and how the kind of masculinity he espouses expects this kind of treatment of women and how this very weird sex scene is really just one step on a road that leads to TV dinners in an empty apartment. And while you can’t deny that the camera lingers on Daddario’s body, we as the audience are just as implicated as Marty, and this jolts us out of falling into his traps.

And, jeez, maybe I’m too forgiving or maybe I’m allowing the performance to fill in some plot holes, but I am fascinated by Maggie’s character. Yes, her big down-with-the-patriarchy-as-represented-by-my-dumbass-husband moment came in the form of…sex with another man. But. This was the most cerebral revenge fuck ever shown on television. The sex was almost secondary; what was incredible about this moment was how it took six episodes of growing tension and character development and exploded it in a single blow. Because Rust and Marty would have continued sniping at each other, and Maggie would have continued enduring Marty’s bullshit, and Rust would have continued nurturing what he probably considered the perfect emotional connection towards Maggie, since it could never be consummated – but Maggie was the one to destroy that equilibrium, in a way which betrayed both Rust and Marty and forced an untraversable chasm between the two. It’s cold in a way female characters aren’t often allowed to be, and it’s absolutely brilliant. And the genius of it in terms of the plot is that it works simultaneously as a confirmation of the “women destroy everything” patriarchy and as a destruction of the “women are passive accessories” patriarchy.

And I love that it does both of those things, and that it’s really hard to argue that it does one more than the other, because that’s what makes it so difficult to pin down the potentially problematic parts of this show. I mean, look, at its heart, it’s effectively a police procedural, and that hasn’t been new and exciting since Oedipus tried to figure out who killed the old king. But True Detective challenges the viewer by functioning on multiple levels of narrative, by always doing something else whenever you think it’s doing any one thing. It’s about corruption and masculinity and the misrepresentation of quantum physics, but it’s also about the way that the characters deal with those things, and the way that the audience deals with these characters.

True Detective is about a world that’s dying. Rust, looking at the lovely, faded, crumbling landscape (and, slight digression – holy cinematography is this show gorgeous), says that this place is like a memory of itself. It’s about the entropy of relationships, the death throes of the patriarchy, the way that the fire in young Rust’s eyes dulls to that of a tired drunk. But as everything in this world falls apart (or, in a few choice moments, spins wildly out of control), it does so with the wry awareness of what it’s doing. Put another way, anything that spends this much time talking about how time is a flat circle has to come around at some point to consider itself. Sure, if it were just the writing and the acting and the six minute tracking shots and the obscure literary references, this show would be excellent, but it’s the restlessness, the determination to consider itself as an entity both within and without the story, that makes this show extraordinary.


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