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Real Talk on the Women of True Detective

Real Talk on the Women of True Detective

It’s impossible to deny the pleasures of watching long-time friends and sometime acting partners Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson onscreen together. Currently, the two men are starring in the first installment of True Detective, HBO’s new anthology show. (Like American Horror Story, Detective will tell a new story about new characters set in a new location each season.) As Detectives Rust Cohle (McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Harrelson), the two men are supposed to be investigating a serial killing. But in recent episodes, both men have been derailed by personal obsessions: Cohle by his past as an undercover detective, and Hart by his relationship with wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), who kicked him out of the house after discovering that he was having an affair with Lisa (Alexandra Daddario), a court stenographer.

The show’s given us plenty of time to watch Rust and Marty talk to each other as they work their case. But as their relationships with women occupy more time in the show, they’ve also inadvertently revealed some of True Detective‘s weaknesses.

True Detective badly wants to be a show that doesn’t just embody cliches, but moves forward in relation to them. But if it’s going to do that, it needs specificity, to flesh out the reasons that Rust and Marty embody cliches, and to give them the sort of shading that makes them more than archetypes. Why is Marty cheating on his wife with Lisa, other than that she’s pretty and apparently available? Why is Rust getting close to Maggie, even though it causes friction in his partnership with Rust, other than that the plot requires him to mow her lawn and meet her for coffee?  

Both Lisa and Maggie could be a bigger part of True Detective than they are — and making them more than stereotypes would do a great deal to help us better understand our male leads. As a court stenographer, Lisa and Marty often find themselves in the same room. And while she’s recording him telling what is supposed to be the truth on the stand, their facade of professionalism, meant to hide their personal relationship, acts as a simultaneous lie. Acting professional and disinterested in each other is a kind of lying that’s made their sole interaction on the job charged with tension.

Halfway into the eight-episode first season, all True Detective‘s done so far with the fact that Lisa and Marty work together is to have Lisa stage a scene in the courthouse hallway. That interaction, in which Marty described refusing to engage with her as “respect,” combined with the fact that Marty and Maggie ended up on a date in the same venue as Lisa and her escort earlier in the series, is enough for Rust, whose philosophizing the show seems to take increasingly seriously, to label her “crazy pussy.” I have no problem with an extramarital affair being portrayed as something that could blow up in the participants’ faces, or both partners in an affair coming across as imprudent.  But marginalizing Lisa as just another nutty broad seems like a waste of her presence alongside Marty in the legal system.

Even if Lisa was never going to be a major character in True Detective, she could be more interesting than that. Maybe Marty could talk to her about the investigation. Maybe, hanging around courtrooms, she’s picked up on a thing or two that could be useful to him. Maybe she’s even just got insight on what it means to be a woman, and to feel like your own economic future’s dependent on whatever men you can attract and keep around. Any of these things would be useful to Marty and to True Detective, furthering our understanding of the environment in which these killings have happened, the place where Marty’s rooted his life, and the town that Rust settles in after his voluntary exile from Texas.

Maggie has a less obvious tie to Marty’s work as a detective, though a nurse working the graveyard shift at a rural hospital is bound to see some interesting things, as well as to have some sense of the toll of methamphetamine use and sex work in the communities she serves. But once again, we’ve only ever seen her work as a place for Marty to have a scene with a woman, rather than as a place that might have some relevance for any of the larger issues stirred up by Marty’s case.

And even if Maggie wasn’t ever going to get pulled into Marty’s work, we could still stand to know more basic facts about her. Are she and Marty supposed to be the same age? (Harrelson is 52 and Monaghan is 37.) When did they get together? Did they decide to have their first child, or get pregnant accidentally? Does she work because she wants to, or because she needs to so she and Marty can make it work financially? And what draws her to Rust Cohle, a man who showed up drunk to her dinner table, other than the fact that he cut her grass — is her marriage to Marty really that attenuated?

I understand the argument that True Detective is primarily about the psyches of Marty and Rust, and that there isn’t an enormous amount of room for other characters in the show. But I’m not actually sure that’s an excuse for giving the women in their lives all the expressiveness of department-store dummies.

It’s true that we’ve learned a lot about Rust and Marty from their conversations in the car together and the differing ways they approach suspects and potential witnesses. But Rust and Marty aren’t the whole of the world: in Rust’s philosophical parlance, they might just be motes in a vast solar system. And given that both men want to connect to other people, we’d have a richer sense of Rust and Marty if their interactions with Lisa and Maggie had greater nuance and more dimensions.

Rust Cohle may insist that every human “is so sure of their realness, that their sensory experience constituted a unique individual with purpose… so certain that they were more than a biological puppet.” Maybe he’s right. But he’s also a television character. And giving the women around Rust and Marty more to do wouldn’t just make them feel like more than accessories. It would make Rust and Marty themselves feel like something more than TV puppets.

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