Aug 122015

ep13-ss01-1920From the beginning of True Detective Season 2, I have been bothered by its sexual politics. Lots and lots of fiction has a tendency to use sexual fetishism as a kind of shorthand for “evil”. Bad characters are voyeurs or exhibitionists or are into porn or (especially) BDSM. Good characters make sweet, sweet love. In the dark.

This isn’t an essay about the quality of True Detective–there are plenty of cogent articles out there explaining why Season 2 was a disappointment. In terms of symbolism and all that, our new Basketwriter Laura has done an outstanding job of teasing out the hidden messages of this season, but Masonry and Greek mythology don’t wash away the surface reading of what the show actually has to say about its characters, what they do, and who they are. The season takes four core characters: Ray (Colin Farrell), Ani (Rachel McAdams), Frank (Vince Vaughn), and Paul (Taylor Kitsch), and shows them on the road to redemption, and asks what it takes for them to redeem themselves from sin- and pain-filled lives. By the penultimate episode, Black Maps and Motel Rooms, it looks awfully clear that anything is forgivable, as long as you’re not gay.

Here are the evil characters: Corrupt politicians, hired killers, evil businessmen. Evil businessmen are, in fact, such a trope that you might mistake True Detective for having liberal politics–all that nasty capitalism and all those bad cops. But Frank, redeemable, complicated, strangely lovable Frank, is also a businessman, and he’ll do anything to have the millions he’s worked so hard and so violently for. And a liberal reading of the show is surely washed away by the poor beleaguered cop who was just trying helplessly to do the right thing during the 1992 Los Angeles riots. That’s one version.

Our evil characters attend orgies, hire prostitutes, and have fetishes. Our good characters do not. Ani’s redemption is painted broadly in the way she goes from sportfucking co-workers to a tender affair with Ray. Lovemaking is good, no strings attached (NSA, as they say in the personal ads) is not. Only the thinnest of plot excuses exist for these characters having this shared perversity–there were other ways to work secret meetings and potential blackmail into the plot.

In True Detective‘s season-long narrative, to be gay is an irredeemable sin on a level with murder. In Black Maps and Motel Rooms, there is a final conflict between Paul and Miguel. Paul, who is marrying a beautiful pregnant woman he cannot enjoy sex with–he secretly takes Viagra to be aroused with her–says he’s trying to be a “good man” while pushing away his gay feelings and his ex-lover Miguel. Miguel tells him he should be who he is–there’d be nothing to blackmail him with if only he were honest with the world. Trying to be a dad couldn’t save Paul. Advocacy for coming out of the closet is spoken by an evil character–a traitor and murderer, while advocating for staying in the closet, for marrying the beard and taking Viagra, comes from one of Our Heroes. And then they kill him.

By the finale, everyone who dies has a clear list of sins. Violence is rated on a scale: Frank has a long history of violence and murder, and died a random death at the hands of people who had virtually nothing to do with what passed for the main plot–Frank’s gratuitous violence makes him the least redeemable character. Ray murdered someone who didn’t, in fact, rape his wife–the implication is that if he’d killed the right guy, he’d have found redemption. But “abnormal” sex is less forgivable than murder: Ani murdered someone at the orgy, and she gets to live. And Paul? Ani and Ray agreed that Paul was fundamentally good, and saved lives. He is the only main character who didn’t kill in cold blood. He is the only main character who was not, in fact, a murderer. In a show with a dominant theme of redemption and sin, what was Paul’s sin? Only that he was gay.

This is an old, old problem in media, but True Detective purports to be a new, new show. In terms of sexual politics, it’s pure McCarthy-era bullshit.

In the end, the sexual politics are even worse, as men die and are remembered only as fathers, and women function almost entirely as vessels for men’s parenthood. Even Ani, a core character, an interesting human being, is reduced to a vessel for sexual perversity to be visited upon her by the bad characters, and then for motherhood to exalt Ray posthumously. Ani, and all the women, are fundamentally about the men. All the women are there to be either sexually violated by men (including the prostitutes, despite the fact that some, like Vera, choose the work), or to give birth so that men can be fathers. The plot gives them nothing else. Jordan Semyon’s entire purpose is to try to have Frank’s baby, and then help raise Ray’s baby. Can anyone even remember Ray’s ex-wife’s name? She was there as a sexual vessel–to be raped, to be the mother of Ray’s son, and to exalt him posthumously again, by having that paternity test.

There was some interesting symbolism about nature in the deaths, and it seems again to be about women as Mother Earth. Frank, the most vicious character, dies in the desert, thirsty. He walks away from his grave and the earth doesn’t hold or sustain him. Paul, who doesn’t enjoy touching women, dies on concrete. Ray, the one who came closest to redemption, dies on the earth, in a sustaining and beautiful forest. And Ani departs on water; on the ocean which is the source of life. It would actually be beautiful and interesting if it wasn’t combined with a lot of homophobia and sexism.

I suppose, just as the season’s writing was a mess of good and bad, the hidden meaning should be equally messed up.


  14 Responses to “The Sexual and Political Conservatism of True Detective Season 2”

  1. Speaking of sexual politics, I need some explanation of just what Ani’s childhood trauma was, something that none of the finale critiques (and I looked through a lot of them) ever brought up. Did I understand it correctly when she told Ray in her post-coital confession in the hotel room that “he never touched me … he told me I was pretty,” which she took pride in? So she wasn’t actually sexually abused as a child, her great trauma was the sin of pride? Was the show trying to lessen the severity of what she went through? Or was it some weirdball attempt to link Antigone to the classic Greek Tragic trope of being doomed by hubris?

    It may be I misunderstood this completely. The dialogue on this show was so muddled and difficult that by the 3rd episode I had to turn on the closed-caption option in order to try and follow it.

    • She has 4 blank days, so she’s speaking only of the kidnapping itself when she says “he never touched me”. It’s pretty common for survivors of childhood sexual abuse to take their own feelings about it–like Ani’s pride–as complicity.

      • I think David Morse’s face says it all (Ani’s father). He had at least two scenes where he reflected on the four blank days. His face was not blank. He knows something happened — and from the dialogue, he may know more than Ani remembers now (even the sister might now more than Ani remembers, even though I think Ani is older). And remember, Ani’s mother commits suicide *after* this event. (Right? Not saying the four days caused the mother’s action, but it may have been an influencial external event).

    • Melville, when she says that she’s only talking about the act of getting into the van. She’s saying “he didn’t force me,” that she was so proud that he called her pretty that she didn’t fight getting in that van. I presume that when it came to the actual sex act. he did very much force her, but they never get into describing that.

  2. My take was that the “best” of the four leads (most innocent, the kindest, most decent) died first, Paul. I also assumed the character was written to be the youngest of the four (i.e., decided way before casting.) His fatal flaw was that he was closeted — otherwise his turncoat lover would not have been able to lead him into an ambush. The four protagonists each had their fatal flaw; you describe their list of sins. Paul doesn’t have a big list of sins (misleading his girlfriend could be one, or perhaps whatever happened in Afghanistan should have been his biggest torment), but he does have a fatal flaw that will kill him. Ray has his fatal flaw (selling his soul for [faulty] info to exact revenge).His macho-macho death was beyond — of course he goes down the way he does (but I agree with you about the natural surroundings). As a young man, Frank could only see an illegal way to a $$$ career…thanks for pointing out dying of thirst in the desert…I’m shallow and was just enjoying the clicheness of it (as I was with Ray’s death).

    I think showrunner Nic P was using Paul’s inability to open up about his sexuality as just one piece of the Paul puzzle — Paul refuses to explain/think on/accept/deal with Afghanistan; Paul doesn’t communicate with his mother about the 5-year stashed money plan (a saftey deposit box, dude!); and so on. Paul’s the good guy, so he goes down first. Somebody tell me if Taylor Kitsch employes facial expressions while acting. I have not seen hiim in anything else, but I know his hair has been another length. (No dig at TK — I’m convinced showrunner Nic P instructed the actors to drain all emotion from their face and infection from their voice [impossible for Colin Farrel, so I found him the easiest to watch].)

    I was pleased Ani got away and could start a new life (after doing some speed healing with her father and sister in a parking lot in the mountains near LA). Doh! Why didn’t I realize that, of course, Ani & Jordan will raise Ray’s and Frank’s babies (both boys?) together in Venezuela! Kind of like the ending of the movie Gone Girl, but you can tell which crime-spree capper was written by a man and which by a woman, After the sexism of season 1, the homophobia of season 2 was no surprise. Not sure I can give another season to such, plus slathered portions of sexual fetishism? When does the new season of Fargo start?

    And TV gods, if you hire James Frain, give him something to do. Please. Let the man act. He can do more, way more, than lean against the side of a desk, look concerned, and take aim with a gun. (“Tara, look how fast I can type #$% %#@.” Remember True Blood, when we thought *that* was a waste of James Frain?)

    How many months to Feb? (When The Americans, season 3 starts up. Tension, followed by more tension followed by a pot-filled giggle. Mail robot! Wigs! You can jump right in — early-mid 1980s USSR spies living as USA citizens in a DC suburb.)

  3. Frank didn’t have a baby. I saw one baby. We were at first led to guess it was Jordan’s, then we understood it was Ani’s with Ray.

  4. Deborah, you make some good points. I too was led to believe at times that Paul might be connected to the villains (which I wrote about in the end of this post—the part about butterflies:

    Thanks for the compliment! I’ve tried to be impartial in my recaps by focusing on what texts I believed Nic Pizzolatto was reading (by researching his interviews) and by very closely examining the arcs of each character.

    It’s too bad that your take on the show was that it was homophobic and sexist, and that each character got the world they deserved based on those concepts. I sort of expected there to be a bit of that going in, after watching last season and just because this is film noir, and that generally happens in film noir (which I covered a bit here:

    In my post last week on “Black Maps and Motel Rooms,” I talked about the reasons why I thought Paul died the way he did: The commenter patroadtrip above mentions Paul’s fatal flaw, that he was closeted, and I think he is right on. But he also was indeed a cold-blooded killer. We don’t know how many people he killed as a mercenary, but it’s rather fitting that the people he once did killing with, Black Mountain, would later hunt him down. I don’t believe Pizzolatto meant for that to be homophobic–it’s really a shame that it came across that way most likely.

    I wrote about Meister Eckhart in an earlier recap because Ray had his book ( There is a quote in the movie “Jacob’s Ladder” often attributed to Eckhart that I am writing about in my finale recap this week. It goes: “The only thing that burns in hell is the part of you that won’t let go of your life: your memories, your attachments.”

    I believe our main characters experienced this, and from a standpoint of each character completing his or her journey, this show was a success. It’s a shame it straddled some taboo issues on the surface that distracted away from that. And that sometimes the dialogue could be awkward, which I’ve also commented on at times. Stay tuned–it will be up soon!

    • I think showrunner Nic P was trying to create a complex, layered TV show with nuanced characters — and failed. NP chose to make a particular character gay, Paul — the young, maladjusted vet who had his life (history) hidden regardless of his sexuality. As Laura says, “taboo issues on the surface distracted” from the show instead of being strands of character, theme, tone, etc. that I’m sure Nic P meant them to be.

      Laura, are you saying the show is a success because the main characters worked through what was holding them in their lives (memories, attachments) while they each completed a journey? I look forward to your final review of this challenging season.

      • I think if you were willing to put in the hours of watching each episode more than once, and got invested in the symbolism and cared about the characters, then yes, the show was a success. But it required a lot of the viewer. If you don’t have the time or energy to do that and you just want to watch it casually, it’s very easy to be thrown by the taboo topics or sometimes awkward dialogue.

        Do I believe it’s a success over all? For a viewer like me, yes. But even I was thrown sometimes by some of the ridiculous stuff that went on.

  5. I think showrunner Nic P was trying to create a complex, layered TV show with nuanced characters — and failed.

    I don’t think he had failed in regard to characterization. Also, I had no problems with how the story panned out. But I had a problem with the execution. And if I must be brutally honest, I had a problem with the execution of Season One’s story arc. I think both seasons suffered from slow pacing, an overly complex narrative and plenty of pretentiousness. I really had a problem with Season One’s finale. I found it hard to accept that it took the protagonists seventeen to capture a serial killer who did not impress me as a character.

    • The characters had depth, but the story was muddy. Too many ingredients, no clarity.

      Season 1 was a two-hander with two incredible, forceful actors giving bravura performances. McConaghey alone was enough to make the weak ending forgivable. But there’s no single stand-out this season. I mean, I think it’s been Farrell’s game all along, and I think Vaughn is the weak link, but there is no reason to sit and listen to the long speeches, the way there was with McConaghey.

  6. Frankly, I’ve been impressed by the performances of the lead characters in both seasons. But . . . Nic P’s execution of the narratives for both seasons left me feeling very frustrated. I wish the series would change its style for Season 3. But I fear that will not change.

    For me, good performances cannot make up for what I feel is the series’ narrative style.

    • Like I said, I think overall it is a success, and I found it very fulfilling. But I’m also a writer and a former art history student and a huge logophile, so I had a strong appreciation for the religious and literary allusions Pizzolatto was making. If you’re not into those things, maybe you wouldn’t like it as much? I think some of the stilted dialogue was meant to be self-referential humor (i.e., “blue balls of the heart”). Vaughn is a great actor–he was trying to sound awkward on purpose. Just some of those lines didn’t land the way they were supposed to, I think.

      I also believe it was impossible for viewers to watch this as its own show and not compare it to the first one. If the first one had never existed, the reception to this season would have been very different. And I think Colin Farrell was stellar.

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