Last Sunday was the final episode of the first season of True Detective, and in some ways, the series finale as well. HBO will continue to air the show, but the new season will be in a new location and with different characters. Even though presumably the same people who brought us season 1 will also create season 2, the show itself will in all other ways be starting all over again, totally new. And so the story that was season 1 is effectively finished.
Somewhere around the fifth episode of the eight-episode season, there was a lot of discussion about women on the show, and whether or not the show was sexist or misogynist. A lot of ink was spilled by some very intelligent people, but I felt that all the speculation was a bit premature. After all, in a season that was clearly intended to be taken as a unit (not that they didn’t use the episode format for some brilliant things), how could you make an argument until the season was over? There are enough twists and turns in True Detective that the last five minutes could very well have changed our whole conception of the entire show. But now that the season is over, I do think the show raises some interesting questions about women in film.
Needless to say, there are major spoilers beyond this point.
For a certain perspective, the women in True Detective get a raw deal. For all my theories about needing to see the whole season, in some ways the beginning of episode 1 sums up the whole series in regards to women. In the scene that begins the 1995 sequence of events, we see the body of a woman who has been killed and displayed in ritualistic fashion as part of what is clearly someone’s sick fantasy, enacted. She has no identification, though she turns out to be a prostitute from a rural bayou town who was sexually abused by her father as a child.
“The show doesn’t give any of its female characters anything resembling the depth or detail of the male characters.”
Child sexual abuse is one of the most prominent themes of the season – and would probably require its own post to really explore – but even without knowing that detail in the scene, this first sequence with Dora Lang sets the stage for every female character who follows. For one thing, most obviously, she’s been victimized by a man. Beyond even being murdered, she’s also been reduced to an object, a prop, in a male fantasy. Even her own murder was not really about her, and the reaction the murder provokes is not about her, either. In both cases, it’s about the fantasy that she was unlucky enough to become a part of.
Women throughout the series are victimized by men – as Willa Paskin wrote for Slate “True Detective treats its female characters badly. That’s the point.” And we see that mistreatment again and again. From Marti’s long-suffering wife Maggie, to his angry teenaged daughter, to Marie Fontano (referred to more often than not as “the Fontano girl”), to the girl found after the shoot-out, all the way up to the seemingly mentally handicapped woman who lives with the serial killer Marti and Cole have been pursuing.
And, indeed, the show doesn’t shy away from these things. It does not excuse Marti cheating on his wife, and it certainly doesn’t excuse the murders committed by Errol Childress. It shows us patriarchal values, their rationalization, and the human toll they take. And though it’s too subtle of a show to outright condemn these behaviors, it’s easy enough to assume the show intends the audience to do so.
Like Dora Lang, the women in the show are victimized by men, in all sorts of ways, and like Dora Lang, the heart of every instance of mistreatment, be it mild or severe, is the simple fact that men in the world of the show feel they can behave however they like without caring about the women they harm and exploit. In fact, some of the most outrageous offenses against women in the show – Errol Childress decades-long murder spree – are actively covered up by respectable, powerful men who are able to keep everything under wraps because the victims are society’s most vulnerable – impoverished women and children. And the way in which the show presents all of this, from cheating husbands to child molesters, it’s easy to see an implicit condemnation of the underlying, entitled callousness.
And yet in other ways the show itself never really grows past that opening scene with Dora Lang. The women in the show certainly have complex reactions to their circumstances and their victimization, but the show doesn’t give them space to showcase them or to discuss them.
“I refuse to believe that the writer who crafted Rust Cohle’s entrancing monologues about time couldn’t have given Maggie’s station-house interview more substance.”
Arguably the woman who is given the most space to develop complex reactions in the show is Maggie, Marti’s wife. Yet we never see Maggie really give Marti a piece of her mind. We see her try to talk, and her frustration when she gets nowhere. In one of the later episodes we see her lash out by sleeping with Rust, a bold move that she still conveys to her husband in as few words possible. The closest she probably ever gets to a monologue is the letter she leaves for Marti in 1995 after taking the girls to her parents’ after learning of Marti’s affair, but the letter is never read for the readers. And so it is not just Marti silencing her – it is also the show itself.
One of the most intriguing moments of the whole season is when, in episode one, the 2012 interviews are no longer presented to the audience through the detectives’ camera. Instead of seeing the recording, we see the recording process, and the story itself steps out from our expectations – it stops following a “true crime” trope, and becomes True Detectives. And Marti and Cole, already interesting characters, become more and more three dimensional from there. Yet the women in the show are never allowed to do so, to step out from the television screen of male projection.
The show is an amazing show, and it doesn’t portray women badly necessarily – it just doesn’t portray them enough. For most it gives no glimpse of what complex motivations they may have for acting the way they do. The show doesn’t give any of its female characters anything resembling the depth or detail of the male characters. And I refuse to believe it couldn’t have. I refuse to believe that the writer who crafted Rust Cohle’s entrancing monologues about time couldn’t have given Maggie’s station-house interview to have more substance. Or given her better lines when Marti comes to see her in 2012, or when she tells him she cheated in 2002. Couldn’t have done more with the girl Rust and Cohle rescued from LaDou’s cookhouse or the young women with whom Marti has affairs. Or Marti’s daughter, or his mother-in-law. Or done anything at all with Rust’s long-time girlfriend who receives exactly one line. Because the acting in all of these instances is phenomenal, but can only take the character so far.
The story says important things and shows important things about women, and I’m not going to so far as to call it sexist. But it is still problematic. Because as many fascinating points as it makes about women who are victimized by men, Dora Lang still never stops being a body in a field. It’s awful, the show tells us, that this woman isn’t even the focus of her on murder, that she’s become a prop in someone else’s fantasy. Yet the show never makes Dora Lang’s murder about Dora Lang, either. Within a few episodes, she’s stopped being a focus entirely. By the end, she’s irrelevant. Errol Childress is notable for the number of victims he killed, not the individual lives he ended.
And the ultimate problem isn’t that the show starts off with a face-less, voice-less, unidentified, victimized woman who’s been reduced to an object. That moment is arguably making an important and powerful statement. The problem is that the show itself keeps the female characters in this same position throughout the whole first season.
In other words, it’s the biggest example of a flat circle you could find.