Back to IndieWire

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.

This Article is related to: Television and tagged , , , , , , , , , ,



Why do we applaud when Maggie happens to dislike her husband cheating on her? She stands up for herself?? Well, what were we expecting??
So, you're saying that women of the south are being portrayed accurately for time period and place? Ok so that means that even though they're abused, used, exploited, etc…they sure seem to be loving it. Maggie only divorces her husband, not because he's a jerk but because she wants more of him, Lisa breaks up with him because she wants more of him, not less. And, Beth just can't get enough of him. Wow, I didn't know our expectations of women in the south should be soooo low. Marty doesn't even show interest in any of these women, he barely looks at them, they all come to him, offer themselves up and want his exclusive attention. Misogyny must have mysterious aphrodisiac-like powers. According to this acclaimed show anyway.

Olivia Gibson

Mac, you make some good points. I agree that the men of S and the C are through the female perspective and I have laughed and rolled my eyes at their protrayal many times. But it's a silly, fun show, I would be interested to hear if you feel degraded by the show or just annoyed.
I've heard the perspective that these women in TD are just through our protag's viewpoint. I know a lot of viewers see it that way, I don't think TD does a good enough job in that respect. One of the themes of the show (besides the men's relationship with each other and with themselves, masculinity, etc) is sexual exploitation and murder, of women. It's like 'look how badly women are treated but here's some boobs and ass for your viewing pleasure' "oh look how badly men treat women but I guess they enjoy it because she sure looks satisfied (cue writhing, ooh and ahh of Beth while on top and then her begging for anal).

Olivia Gibson

To address your applause for the whorehouse madam: Men DO own prostitution, they make the most money off of it and experience the least risk. Men don't have a problem with prostitutes because they benefit the most from its existence, ie gratification, license to degrade with no consequences and money. It's NOT a woman's game. Prostitutes are marginalized, they are often trafficked or runaways, with nowhere to turn, they have almost ALWAYS been sexually abused as children. The only thing men don't like about prostitutes is having to look at them after they've achieved gratification. Patronizing prostitutes is having access to a piece of flesh, get off on it and not have to have a conversation with "it" (the flesh)
If a whorehouse is actually run by a woman, it's a rare occurrence. Did those women look like they were raking in the money? Happy, clean, well taken care of? NO.
And, the women talk back? That's laughable. They do more to create hatred of them. Either they're throw away sex toys or whiny, pissy wives. The show only created the two forms of women: the throw away sex toys, Lisa, overalls girl, Dora, hookers, the drug dealer who opened her legs in offerance, the asses in the opening credits and in the strip club…and the other form: the pissy, whiny ones, Lisa once she decided to share her mouth with someone else, and Maggie who is just a destroyed, pathetic nothing reduced to getting it from behind from smelly, unsexy Rust.


Trailer park whorehouse manager refers to 'it'; so does True Detective. Female characters sell 'it', they have sex with 'it', they use 'it' vindictively and sadly, they get killed, raped, possibly molested (?daughter) because of 'it'. "It" is front and center, primary motivations for female characters. Is there ONE female character who exists outside of 'it'? Personhood is so far in the background it doesn't even exist. So, Maggie hurts Marty / uses Chole with 'it' because she's mad at her shitty husband? Wow, that's really deep. The poor daughter is now 'of age' and fair game to be defined by her 'it' also. Let me ask the females out there: do YOU exist as a HUMAN BEING or are you just ass, tits, vagina? Or, in Maggie's case you only exist to illustrate the male characters in your life?


Full disclosure: I have not seen True Detective, though I'm interested. And so I can't exactly take issue with your arguments in context of the show. But the arguments themselves are troubling. I wonder, have you spent any significant time in the South? Others parts of the nation and world have a certain idea of it that is not precisely true. And 1995 was not so long ago. I was young, being raised in a rural town of women who were vibrant, strong, and multifaceted. Is my experience unique? I don't think so. Fiction has long ignored large swaths of women who did not fit into the conventional roles prescribed. Your comparison with "Girls" is troubling as well. A big hole in every critic's argument of this kind: SHOWS CAN BE MADE ABOUT ANYTHING YOU WANT AND TAKE PLACE IN ANY ENVIRONMENT (EVEN AN IMAGINED ONE). The fact that so many of our shows end up in these locations or time periods that so conveniently preclude limited roles for women isn't just an accident–it's an evidence of the industry's systemic denial of women's voices and stories. Why not make a story with two female detectives? There have been rumors that the next season will be just that. But why not begin the show that way? Have there not been enough stories about men? Maybe consider that all shows are constructed with intentionality before writing another article.

Nina Seavey

I don't know why there are women, including Emily Nussbaum, who find it difficult to understand that there is a whole history when women didn't matter, except to procreate. That there are still hundreds of square miles on this planet today where women still don't matter. That women are in "True Detective" mere cut-outs is because that's frequently the way it actually was and frequently still is. The women of the Bunny Ranch, the scorned irrational wife – these are real people who don't have too much more to offer than the story affords. Nussbaum can decide not to like it, but she's foolish to try to deny its veracity. "True Detective" is about the dark, deep, recesses of Southern men. It is brilliant in every way. Not everything has to create a character where there is none. This is actually the way that many people live. A lot of women in places all over the world and all through history are just like that. No matter how one might feel about it through one's educated, hyper-intellectualized, overly-psychoanalyzed New York lens, it's really not a subject for a value judgment. Great art allows us to go into the most interesting of places even if we don't want to live there.


The show does a good job of portraying the "dirty south", as these parts of the state are. Louisiana's only real city is New Orleans – Baton Rouge scrapes by due to film incentives. I commend the show for exposing the gritty truth of an ugly place.


An SPOILER ALERT in this article would have been nice to start with…

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *