In defense of “True Detective”: A critical apology of the first season

I don’t think anyone could accuse HBO’s “True Detective” of being a bad show. Pretentious perhaps, leaning on its shadowy influences a little too hard in spots, but not lacking a certain and fairly unique artistic vision and execution (and I have yet to hear anyone complain about its acting, direction and soundtrack). But badness takes many forms, and some people have accused the first season of “True Detective” of containing certain weaknesses. However, I think that some of the common complaints about “True Detective” are simply misunderstandings–if anything, some complaints disguise noirish strengths.

One complaint that has surfaced frequently involved the depiction of women in the show. The complaint has been that women are unimportant on the show: that the program lacked any strong female character, focusing almost exclusively on Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart and Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle, and that women only exist to be abused by men. To complain that a show focuses on its main characters seems a bit odd, but to say that there is no strong or important female character is to ignore Michelle Monaghan’s Maggie Hart–the wife of Woody Harleson’s Marty Hart. She is far more than a tipsy point in a romantic triangle. She proclaims that women in the dark society of “True Detective” are the savvier sex: “Girls always know before boys,” she says of sexual politics in the third episode. “Because they have to.” This is not necessarily a good thing. Maggie Hart is shown to be capable, intelligent and just as manipulative as the men. Indeed, the women of “True Detective” can be just as underhanded as their male counterparts, and they suffer just as much for it. To say that the series treats its women badly is to ignore the fact that men are punished as well. “True Detective” is an equal opportunity abuser.

Another problem some people had was with Glenn Fleshler’s character, Errol Childress. I know this was a more widespread complaint, but it was introduced to me by a colleague of mine. Childress was, or so he said, a stereotypical redneck killer, which felt like a bit of a letdown after miles of mystical meanderings. But Childress is far more than a mere redneck with a chainsaw. He is shown to have flashes of grace and intelligence–his mimicking of Carey Grant on television–which contrast with dangerous cunning–his winding pursuit of Cohle through Carcosa. Childress can be understood on the level of metaphor: He is a representative of our darkest, most primitive urges, our ugliest ids. Childress is not so much a resident of the backwoods of Louisiana as he is a resident of the backwoods of the mind.

But more to the point is the fact that Childress, despite being the killer, was not the ultimate evil of “True Detective.” In a delightfully detailed analysis, the Vigilant Citizen points out that Childress became a patsy for the Tuttle family, the powerful men who control local politics and religion (conspiracy theorists can make excellent art critics, as their attention to minutiae is downright fanatical). The Tuttle family are civilization to Childress’s caveman. This highlights the interesting relationship between Childress and civilization. Like the fascinating background of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” civilization in “True Detective” is a shadowy lunar landscape that can be ignored but impossible to deny. The supposed gentrifying effects of civilization seem to exist only to push men and women down paths of violence and self abuse. With this reading, although Childress is still a killer, he becomes almost a tragic one: His mimicry of Carey Grant’s grace takes on a twinge of sadness, of fallen potential.

But the most confusing of all complaints for me are the complaints about the ending, which was deemed too happy (despite the fact that the real villains–the Tuttle family–went unpunished) because of McConaughey’s final mumbled lines: “Once, there was only dark. If you ask me, the light’s winning.” The Last Psychiatrist actually wrote a (tiny) additional bit of blocking and dialogue to finish the season off in a more satisfying manner.

We have to do a bit of reality check here. It would be strange for a character like Cohle, who is burdened down with contemplation, to come out of a mindbogglingly complex experience–a 17-year-old crime was solved, a murderer was killed, Cohle was almost killed and he saw his dead wife and child–and not be changed by it. It’s not like he’s had a religious conversion; he just seems more accepting of a metaphysical framework for reality. It also seems that the Last Psychiatrist simply wants an ending that’s more in line with Cohle’s earlier pessimistic attitude. In short, said Psychiatrist suggests, Nic Pizzolatto didn’t know his own show.

It’s a bit pretentious, and certainly presumptuous, to tell the author of a work that he didn’t understand his own work. Check your Freud; our interpretations usually tell us as much about the work as they do about ourselves. But, I understand. You want a downbeat, “uncompromising” ending, and two can play at this game. Here you go:

RUST stares up from his wheelchair into infinite space.

If you ask me, the light’s winning.

MARTY smiles and pushes him off screen. A TRUCK honks and screeches into the sounds of an accident. Rust and Marty cry in terrible pain. SIRENS rush to the scene, but they will be too late.


Now wasn’t that much more satisfying?

Like this essay? Check out a simultaneously published companion piece guest blog by Garrett Andrews about the “True Detective” season two premier.


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