From 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.