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A Southerner’s Defense of Bayou Gothic ‘True Detective’

A Southerner's Defense of Bayou Gothic 'True Detective'

Emily Nussbaum may be my favorite critic working today — her New Yorker column is my North Star of trusted opinion in the televisual wilderness. But she gets “True Detective” wrong, wrong, wrong. (SPOILERS BELOW if you are not up to date with the series.)

HBO’s twisted police procedural, written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, has assumed a toehold in the zeitgeist, and Nussbaum’s is the most trenchant among proliferating critiques. Yet supporters and dissenters alike are battling over terrain — the role of women, and especially women’s bodies — that circumscribes the debate from the start. “True Detective” appears shallow only when you view it through a single lens.

That’s not to say the series’ depiction of women is not fair game. In the gape-mouthed gauntlet of traumatized girls through which Det. Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) passes to pursue his line of questioning, or the undressed curves of Det. Marty Hart’s (Woody Harrelson) extramarital paramours, “True Detective” assumes a leering gaze out of sync with its troublesome subject matter.

But on the whole, Nussbaum’s claim that “every live woman they meet is paper-thin” is overstated. What are we to make of the proprietress of a “hillbilly bunny ranch,” who counters Hart’s hypocritical, holier-than-thou condemnation with defiance? Or of Marty’s wife, Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), who revenge-fucks Rust and reports back to her husband, knowing full well he’ll fly into a rage? If there is, to the series’ discredit, a queasily anonymous quality to the women whose deaths prompt Hart and Cohle’s investigation, the live women of “True Detective” are in fact anything but mere backdrops for the action: they talk back.

It’s worth remembering that the lion’s share of “True Detective” occurs in rural south Louisiana in 1995, not Lena Dunham’s New York. Underemphasized in lamentations about the lack of diversity on “Girls” is the notion that Hannah Horvath’s refreshing brand of young womanhood is class-based and site-specific. The same could be said of “True Detective”: the sum total of the (admittedly small) female roles — women who work in exurban strip malls or chemical processing plants, pray at revival meetings or hang out at bars, wear prim dresses or punk-inflected jewelry — reflects their respective struggles against constraints of time, space, and circumstance. The tough madam’s response to Hart may not be as satisfying to our ears as Amy Jellicoe’s revolutionary aphorisms, but it’s nothing if not honest. “Girls walk this Earth all the time screwin’ for free,” she says. “Why is it you add business to the mix and boys like you can’t stand the thought? I’ll tell you. It’s ’cause suddenly you don’t own it the way you thought you did.”

Indeed, it may be the relative absence of place in Nussbaum’s analysis that leads her to conflate the series’ sexual politics with what she calls the “premium baloney” of Cohle’s running commentary. On closer examination, the title sequence reveals not a simple story of heroic men and naked women, as Nussbaum suggests, but an iconography of the land that time forgot: sputtering refineries, derelict churches, overgrown bayous, and run-down houses recognizable to anyone who has lived or worked in this particular tropic. If we are to take the opening credits as an indication of what “True Detective” is “about,” it is as much about the invisible, idiosyncratic South(s) that folks from New York and Los Angeles call “flyover country” as it is sex, or misogyny, or murder.

This is the land of willful eccentricity that produced Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy, Carson McCullers and William Faulkner, and it is the latter’s grim, ruinous rambles that provide “True Detective” its most consistent referent. “Tell about the South,” Mississippi’s Quentin Compson says in “Absalom, Absalom!,” repeating Northerners’ irksome questions. “What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.” To call “True Detective” “shallow” is to misapprehend its steadfast Southernness, the deepest of deep roots.

Pizzolatto does himself few favors by littering the tale with Nietzsche, Lovecraft, and “The Yellow King” — as with “Lost,” “True Detective” is in danger of taking its own cosmos so seriously that it prevents viewers from seeing the forest for the endlessly allusive trees — but the real mark of the series is its Faulknerian fascination with the mechanics of storytelling. The only thing on which Hart and Cohle seem to agree is their compulsion to fashion a narrative.

“This has scope,” Cohle says in reference to the paraphernalia attending the killings. “She articulated a personal vision. Vision is meaning. Meaning is historical.”

“You know the job,” Marty relates. “You’re lookin’ for narrative. Interrogate witnesses, parcel evidence, establish a timeline, build a story, day after day.”

“True Detective,” marshaling all its intellectual resources to this point, might in fact be seen as a competition among the narratives — supernatural and literary, religious and psychological, philosophical and pragmatic, historical and of-the-moment — from which “the South” is made. Only it is a competition, six episodes in, without a clear winner. “True Detective” may yet reveal itself to be merely a shell game, all foreplay and no payoff, but thus far its attention to the (in)efficacy of narrative is ingenious, and altogether fitting. To tell about the South, as Quentin Compson understood, is to come up against the dense web of horrors that comprise the tale. Pizzolatto and Fukunaga’s series, for all its acknowledged shortcomings, sounds these depths admirably: it is rich Southern Gothic for our premium-cable age.

“Nothin’s ever over,” Hart claims.

“The past is never dead,” Faulkner wrote. “It’s not even past.”

“True Detective” airs Sundays at 9/8C on HBO.

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