True Detective as Subversive Feminism

I read another article in The New Yorker, this time by Rachael Syme, who found the ending to have been a great let down. Her advice, to the droves of internet sleuths (no doubt referring, in some degree, to these forums):

“We have to be careful about the shows we choose to make into Trojan horses, packed with meaning and insight. Sometimes what we are watching contains multitudes, and sometimes there’s nothing inside but air.”

Masculinity seems to be at the absolute center of TD, and the plot revolves around it in almost every way. The female characters, which have been criticized for their flatness and their expected HBO-Gifworthy objectification, as well as their absence from positions of power in any way, have been criticized from a rote feminist perspective that hunts in the shallows for its quarry. The same critics who decry these characteristics tend to accentuate the “plot holes” and the lack of universal, neatly packaged resolutions, and I can understand that too, but only if you look at TD as a continuation and celebration of a narrative of “male dominance” tropes, or a celebration of the centrality and power of men in general.

Consider the barely muted historical context that seethes just beneath TD’s aesthetic gloss. The backdrop of Louisiana pre and post Katrina means something to us, as Americans. It represents the chaos of New Orleans and the secondary cluster-fuck in the aftermath. It invokes memories of FEMA camps, police shooting “looters,” and the corruption of the NOPD and the Louisiana government more generally. It invokes the corporate malfeasance of BP, when it simply ignored OSHA standards of practice and destroyed the Gulf coast. It invokes an administration that presented itself as the “white saviors” in the face of an uncaring universe who took time away from their “real” quest to protect us from the perpetual onslaught of encroaching, terroristic, barbarian “Others.”

But the show isn’t only showing a coastline ravaged by storms and serial killers; it shows, in the background of the settings, oil refineries and global industry shimmering in the same light that illuminates the poverty and decay of the surrounding communities. These are industries that, in 1995, flourished and provided an economy with jobs—jobs traditionally occupied by men. Between 1995 and 2012, that very industry utilized the trauma of 9-11 to manipulate gas prices forever by suggesting that reserves in the Middle East were going to run dry, and perpetuated an idea that we have no choice but to accept the reality this cosmically massive, unaccountable industry created.

In 2001, the phrase “Shock and Awe” ushered in a change in our relationship to our own government, and in the decade-and-a-half since, has been turned inward, and the cosmically large presence of corporations has been mimetically reciprocated by government bureaucracies, most notably the NSA. The Iraq war, you might say, began a rhetoric that eventually turned itself toward a domestic front, and to question it used to mean, in 2002,being a tin-foil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorist. By 2012, people were starting to wake up, in part due to the Ahabian sacrifice of Edward Snowden, to the notion that, if you remove the stigma attached to really expecting accountability for those we expect to protect us, you find that there is much for which they should be held to account. I’ve made the case in other posts that Cohle is directly described as an Ahabian figure, and I stand by that, but, in addition to the audacious gall Ahab showed in hunting the whale until his name became a signifier that will always and forever be mentioned any time you mention Moby Dick—like Edward Snowden and the NSA or Cohle and TKIY—what did Moby Dick illustrate? The answer is a crisis in masculinity that is imposed from the outside by a patriarchal system that boxes men into expected modes of being as much as it has women.

On a deeper layer than even the historical subtext, TD works directly on the relationship between men, men and women, and men in relation to the institutions they supposedly control collectively. If you consider TD from the perspective of a crisis of masculinity, the plot elements begin to fall together a little more neatly, and TD takes on a different, more heightened significance. Susan Faludi, who took an empathic feminist approach to the changing roles of men in a world where men are increasingly commodified and disconnected from the loci of power they were told they would inherit, points out the fallacy that “the male crisis in America was caused by something men were doing unrelated to something being done to them” (p. 188). She suggests that, like women in the 1950’s, men are told to operate under a set of directives that tells them what it means to be masculine.

So, what is TD saying about masculinity? Marty’s relationship to his wife and daughters is an idea that IS perpetuated and passed along both culturally and intergenerationally. It says that, to be a man, you need to shut off your emotional capacity and “go it alone,” while at the same time maintaining the illusion of a nuclear family unit. I don’t think that’s all Marty’s fault, any more than it was the fault of 1950’s housewives who internalized the idea that their place was “in the kitchen.” You can say that those housewives ought to have been more conscientious of the forces imposing their will on them (and 2nd wave feminism sought to do just that), but can you fault them for not getting to that point without help? Can you fault Marty for responding to a program that was passed on to him? It’s an illustration of “bro” culture that says that men can extend their adolescence, and to a certain male perspective, it’s acceptable—passed on from father to son and supported by a dehumanizing culture industry. TD illustrates the catastrophic effects of such a response to manhood, and Marty ends up isolated and ineffective as a member of a family unit. His character arc, in building a true friendship with Cohle, is the psychological arc of any man who embraces that uneasily celebrated philosophy; the best he can hope for is to find a single friend in the aftermath of a life lived by “acceptable,” boorish, adolescent masculinity. It’s a neutering of full manhood, and our response as an audience, both as viewers and critics, mirrors the varying responses to such a lifestyle, and, like a shibboleth, TD deliberately delineates the camps we invariably fall into.

Like Ahab, Cohle responds to a deep personal trauma by allowing himself to be absorbed in his work, letting his family simply fall apart as a result, and heightening his suspects to the level of a cosmic cultural entity. His metaphysical philosophy, like Ahab’s, forces him to pursue “the thing behind the pasteboard mask.” And, like Moby Dick the novel, TD illustrates a feminine aspect emerging in the masculinity of its male leads to necessitate their growth as a team. Ishmael sleeps next to Queequeg, as “in a marriage bed,” and the men aboard the Pequod are lorded over by a “mothering” Ahab who oversees, amongst other things, a crew working hand in hand, kneading spermaceti to increase its viscosity before storing it on the ship. Cohle is similarly divided between an idolization of his “masculine” loner trope and recognition of the isolating tragedy such a life leads to. Ultimately, like the crew of the Pequod, Cohle adopts feminine characteristics that lead to a more communal atonement, even if his community, in the end, only has one other member.

Does TD facilitate a similarly deep anxiety in us? Well, that depends on whether you open the Trojan horse and find multitudes or empty air. Consider the symbol of the spiral and the notion of the flat circle of time and reality. What Cohle says about the perspective of fourth dimensional beings is:

“We’d see our space-time look flattened, like a seamless sculpture. Matter in a super-position—every place it ever occupied. Our sentience just cycling through our lives like carts on a track. See, everything outside our dimension—that’s eternity. Eternity looking down on us. Now, to us, it’s a sphere. But to them, it’s a circle.”

Intellectually speaking, the spiral, and Cohle’s notion of eternity, signifies that all ideas and human experiences exist in the same space simultaneously, from the beautiful to the revolting on a disk, rather than a sphere, which leaves its opposite side hidden. What Cohle and Hart experience as a more acceptable response to masculine imposition from outside themselves, Reggie and Errol experience in its traumatically horrific aspect. They are mirror antecedents on different parts of the spiral of experience, but they are nevertheless of the same substance. The truly uncomfortable reality is that, if the spiral in the show illustrates the “consubstantiality” of the two principle heroes and the two principle enemies, then Cohle seeing the spiral star nursery (what we can call the metaphysical Carcosa within the corporeal Civil War fort), is TD’s assertion that “All the world’s a stage” –an assertion art and philosophy have been making since humans began making art and engaging in philosophy. And that assertion, like the great art that came before TD, is suggesting that we, particularly men, live our lives on another part of the spiral inhabited by Cohle, Hart, Childress, and Ledoux, like a seamless ideologically carved sculpture representing a vast spectrum of destructive masculinity.

Faludi suggested that the feminist movement had, to its advantage, to find what is “patriarchally imposed” and simply counter it in the home, in the workplace, and in the university. But, if men are in the same position as women in the 1950’s, where their expected behaviors are considered innate to their biology rather than imposed from the outside, then against what do men resist? The answer is to embrace, like the characters in Moby Dick and Cohle (and eventually Marty) in TD, the “feminine” traits of intuition, creativity, emotional attachment and vulnerability, commitment to family, and the audacity, like the feminist movement itself, to call into question the ideological purpose of those who truly hold power—rich, white, authoritarian fascists who, in the twilight of the American Empire, are counting on fear and destructive gender and racial identities to continually isolate individuals until the kinetic energy their mass contains is muted and hegemonized into powerlessness.

If you view TD as more misogynistic bullshit, then Cohle’s last line sounds actually flat and unequal to the rest of the show’s depth. But, if you view the show in its historical and cultural setting, rather than shoehorning it into the same space as Lethal Weapon, Tango and Cash, or Law and Order, you might just consider it an opening salvo in a culture war that, at least for the last 15 years, has seemed all but lost. If, instead, TD, on a certain frequency, works in the paradigmatic-shifting way I’ve been suggesting for the last month, it belongs to the same discussion of masculinity and the relationship between the individual and society that includes Melville, Shakespeare, Poe and his antithesis, Emerson. If TD illustrates all the ugliness of a masculinity that, unlike a historical feminism, has no explicit enemy “out there,” then we are watching a gender that’s necessarily at war with itself. The prize is a male population more in tune with its feminist counter parts who have been rightfully and righteously sounding the battle cry that gender identities are programs imposed on us, like Marty and Rust’s behavior, like TKIY for Errol and Reggie. That’s why Maggie can’t overtly state the obvious, nor can a Gillian Andersen character (as suggested by Nussbaum) destroy the cult herself. That would simply remove the autonomy of these men to illustrate a necessary battle between a gender and itself in a corrupted empire it was told to take responsibility for and inherit, but one that ultimately cares nothing for the well-being of any individual or their participation in their own destiny.

And, in the end, if you find a Trojan horse that, upon opening it, is filled, not with multitudes but with air, then unlike the original Trojan horse in The Iliad, there is nothing for its contents to combat. The Trojan horse signifies an army at the gate and the gods looking down on the lives of the combatants. If you find one and it’s filled with nothingness, that doesn’t signify that there is no encroaching metonymical army, it signifies that there is no metonymical substance against which it can fight in us. In other words, the challenge art offers requires an equal participant in ourselves against which it acts, and the greatest critics do their best to make sure the ground is tilled for the artist to plant his or her seed (Roland Barthes was able to recognize the multitudes embedded in professional wrestling for god’s sake, and that wasn’t even trying to speak on a different cultural level). We need to make sure that there is something there against which that Trojan horse acts, or be humble enough to trust our intuition when it tells us we might have missed something, and then go find it. Sadly, I don’t think most television critics are ready for literary-level television, and I know it will make their jobs harder. But, when they do, I’ll be pleased to return to them when they help facilitate discussions at the deeper levels at which television is starting to operate, as allies when something does emerge from those Trojan horses and infiltrates our living rooms.


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