Tuesday, March 11, 2014

True Detective--The Internet Response and What I Wanted

I predicted a lot of disappointed reviews of the finale (like my own), and to be honest, I was surprised by how gentle the disappointment was. In those reviews which were of the "disappointed" variety--there were plenty I found early on that were entirely satisfied by the series.

Even the disappointed reviews were surprisingly shouted down in the comments--Dustin Rowles on Pajiba, Alyssa Rosenberg on the Washington Post and Linda Holmes on Monkey See/NPR have a fair number of commenters calling them wrong, misguided, or fundamentally stupid. 

So--people liked the series. I guess that shouldn't be surprising, because the series was a stylish serving of comfort entertainment. People like Rowles, Rosenberg (who I find to be extremely insightful and intelligent generally) and Holmes (who I want to have as my new best friend) were disappointed, I think because like me, they saw the series promise to be more than it turned out to be.

Here's the thing--there are plenty of entertainment options which revel in the presentation of unspeakable acts perpetrated on women. Naked women, beautiful corpses, exploited children, ritual posing, and sexual objectification are everywhere in our culture. This series did plenty of that--creepy sexual murder scene, nekkid gorgeous females, spooky music, in-bred yokels as the bad guys/monsters that get decisively defeated via gun violence, some buddy repartee and a happy ending where the good guys win. Add in a substantial portion of Rust Cohle intoning pretentious philosophy, and we have a horror-film lite--all the gruesome, none of the gore, with premium cable levels of nudity. It's almost by the numbers.

Becky Banks has a alternative take on this--she posits the Venn Diagram of Southern Gothic cliche: (Too) Close Family Relationships, Weird Sex, and Malicious Rednecks. Check, check, and check!

Which is really too bad, because it could have been so much more, and it kept seeming to gesture to greater ambitions than a stylish retelling of a story we already know. And that's why it was so disappointing. Not because I'm a spoil-sport feminist who can't watch a show without complaining about the lack of substantial female characters, or because I object to nudity, or because I was waiting for the tentacle-faced Cthulu to make an appearance. No, I am disappointed because the show seemed to promise that it was going to really do something new, and then it resolutely refused to.

I offer exhibit Number 1, Your Honor: Marty Hart's video interview.

While being questioned and taped by the investigating cops Papania and Gilbrough, Marty Hart mentions "The Detective's Curse": the occupational hazard of overlooking what is right under your own nose. He's talking about it in the context of his family--that those kids, that family, that life, was what he was looking for and he couldn't see it in front of him. And that would be poignant enough, right on the surface, especially if we ever saw him understanding what he had done to lose that family, and actually regretting it. (Maybe this is the cause of his sobbing in the finale, when his estranged wife and kids come to visit? I'll entertain the motion.) But by this point, in 2012, while talking to Papania and Gilbrough, he doesn't exhibit much regret at all. Nor do we see any recognition that he had anything to do with the breakup of his family.

Furthermore, the creepy staging of that comment is done in voiceover as the camera pans across the deeply disturbing scenario Audrey has set up with her dolls--a naked barbie doll likes on the rug, surrounded by four standing (and clothed) male dolls, while a fifth one kneels between her legs, his/its hand covering near the belt buckle. It loos like a gang rape at best, the murderous aftermath of gang rape possible. Marty's gaze sweeps across the room, fails to stop at this disturbing scene, and he leaves.

Now that is a provocative set up, and we ate it up like dessert: what exactly is Marty looking at and failing to see? Obviously, he looked right at this set up, he looked right at Audrey's drawings of naked people, he looked right at his goth daughter and her sexual adventuring with boys in cars, and all he could see was his own self-righteousness. Thus were born a thousand internet theories: Audrey has been abused; Audrey was a victim of the cult; Audrey is going to be the next victim. 

It turned out--that we gave the show too much credit for being smart. We thought it was smarter than it was. Because rather than being a profound comment, or an indication of a subtext, Marty only meant exactly what he said--he didn't see the value of his family when it was right under his nose. This is basically what Dorothy says at the end of The Wizard of Oz:

If I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with! Is that right?

Surely we can be excused for thinking this show was doing something more than this, right? The 2012 edition of Marty regrets the family life that 1995 Marty took for granted and threw away with his tomcatting, and that's what he means by "The Detective's Curse?" How very. . .conventional. How predictable even. How disappointing, really.

Let's go back and talk about the Woman Issue. Again, here was the series telling us that it was doing something admirable, and then resolutely failing to do so. Rust specifically challenges his CO about a systemic failure to account for missing women and children. When it comes to the horrific snuff video, Rust tells us he refuses to look away. The series tells us that he "stands witness" to disappearances and violence that others conveniently refuse to see. Rust Cohle, seeking justice for the disempowered and the disappeared!

Except--then he doesn't. Or more to the point, the show doesn't. Rust keeps working to solve Dora Lange's murder, which is pretty darn heroic. The lengths he goes to--including returning to his undercover narcotics persona--are excessive and risky, and seem to be the show making the point that Dora at least will not be forgotten.

But then the show goes on and marginalizes and objectifies and uses women and children for shock value without making them anything more than props to the "enlightenment" of the two male leads. Nic Pizzolatto even gave interviews insisting "I am not interested in serial killers" and the point of the series is the character study of the two men. To which I say--then why make it a serial killer story? Why sexualize the series to such a degree if there isn't any narrative point to it? Why make the mystery such a huge, showy, lurid, naked, sexualized, ritualistic, and degraded murder if that isn't the point? Because we won't watch otherwise? Because we won't care about Rust and Marty unless they are investigating the most lurid murder imaginable?

Obviously, not true--we all watched Broadchurch.

I won't go over all the appalling ways women are treated by this story, because I don't think I can do better than Emily Nussbaum did for The New Yorker. I will say that, like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, you can't have your cake and eat it too--you can't wallow in the objectification of women's bodies and escape criticism for it by proclaiming that your story is "against that!" Because you are using those women's bodies exactly the same way as the objectionable characters do.

Just take a look at the opening credits, for example. Then count how many female characters are represented ("characters" used here to mean "women with names and actual lines of dialogue"). My quick count is--zero. Next, count how many times women's naked body parts are represented, and ask yourself--were those even in this show? The naked buttocks resting lightly against the spiked black high heels? The curve of the naked back and buttocks that visually echoes the slide on the playground it frames? The dark haired topless woman with the neon cross superimposed on her hair? Sure, the woman in the American flag bathing suit does appear in the show, briefly--because she's dancing at a bar where the detectives go to interview someone else entirely.

(I will give props to the writer of the article at that link--Daniel Walters does a very nice job recognizing and articulating how the themes of the series are laid out in the credits. I am particularly fond of the way he describes the images of the detectives: "Most shows could illustrate loneliness with an abandoned landscape containing a solitary man. But here, in these credits, solitary men contain the abandoned landscapes." Well done, sir.) 

Honestly, at this point, I am simply going to take such visuals as warning signs--"This show is not for you." Because Nic Pizzolatto is completely entitled to write what he wants to, and if he wants to write a story that starts off with the sexualized ritual murder of a drugged prostitute and the provocative posing of her naked body, and he wants to further expand on the theme with serial murders and pedophilia snuff porn, he sure can, and I can spare myself and not watch it. It's like how poisonous plants and bugs in the wild are vividly colored, and those colors warn animals not to eat them. Naked female body parts are a good sign I'm not going to want to consume this media.

Shall we talk about the lack of resolution of the mystery here? Sure, technically, it was solved, in that Dora Lange was (probably) murdered by some combination of Errol Childress and his flunkies, Reggie and Dewall LeDoux. Childress was also probably the perpetrator of the 2012 St. Charles murder as well. But those were not ordinary murders. There were elaborate "paraphiliac maps" with signs of "Satanic worship" and "anti-Christian crimes." They were thick with allegorical references--black stars, Carcosa, the King in Yellow. The very reason these murders are interesting is because they invite our curiosity. Why would somebody do this? Why paint those symbols the body? Why build an elaborate altar? What does it all mean? 

These are not the questioning of hyperactive imaginations. These are the questions the show itself asks. The cops in the CID office speculate as to the Satanic nature of the murder. Reggie LeDoux talks about the black stars right before he is killed. Charlie Lang, Dora's ex-husband describes the spiral brand in LeDoux's back. These aren't just details, they are motifs. And then--the script refuses to explain any of it, other than that Childress is one sick mofo. 

So, HBO and Nic Childress (and Cary Fukunaga), why put all that in if you aren't interested in it and you aren't going to address it? This is not an idle question. If the series was only ever going to be a character study of Rust and Marty, why make the murder such a big showy piece of razzle dazzle? Why not just make it one more murdered prostitute, whose body is just found somewhere mundane. Rust could be obsessed with it for no other reason than it was his daughter's birthday and he was already vulnerable because of it. There could be some detail, some oddity that would link a 2012 murder, and cause Rust to re-investigate the case, purely because it was a way of staying connected with his daughter. It could really have shown us a Rust Cohle whose nihilism truly was a mask, a form of armor to mask the pain of her death, rather than Rust Cohle the badass philosopher whose atheistic anti-humanism slips only at the end of the 8th hour. That would have been a character study.

Matt Zoller Seitz talks about how TD is "about" many different things, including good versus evil. Maybe. But who is "good" in this series? To Pizzolatto's credit, there are no truly "good" characters. However, there are Evil ones. So we get complicated humanity versus Evil--and that robs the Evil of it's believability. Even Erroll Childress had to have some story he told himself about why he killed all those people, and why he was justified in torture, or what he intended to achieve, but we aren't ever privy to it. So that shifts the entire balance of the series--Rust and Marty were men who had a lot of demons, but when it turns out the person they were chasing is himself a demon (in that he has no redeeming qualities) the story flattens out into Good v. Evil.

Rust has a transcendent experience, and finds some hope in a feeling of love from his dead daughter and father. Has he really changed? Doesn't this just show us that all his cynical and nihilistic talk was a serious front he was putting up to avoid feeling the loss of his daughter? Also--spending a decade completely drunk in Alaska--same thing.

How serious was Billy Lee Tuttle's effort to get the Lang murder transferred to his hand-picked task force? We didn't see any real pressure on the 1995 CO to turn it over. In fact, the CO seemed to see it as attractive mainly as a way to save his budget. Do we think that Tuttle took one look at the lead detectives and decided that he didn't need to worry about it. "Eddie's going to be real pleased with these detectives" he says, or something close to that, and if you decide he's being sarcastic, then you can understand why the task force never actually took over--there was no need to.

Did we actually get verification that the Sheriff Childress who shut down the Marie Fontenot case ("Reported in Error") was actually Errol Childress's father--and thus was also the corpse kept bound on the bed in the family estate outbuilding? Was that official misconduct the act of a father covering up his son's misconduct, or did they have a more attenuated relationship? I actually find the idea that this was a twisted case of family covering up for each other in the hopes that they could protect their monstrous offspring much more interesting and complicated than a "rape cult" or "pedophile ring." (To say nothing about the nearly unbelievable report Charlie Lang gave of "some real good killing down south" as if this were a Louisiana version of "The Most Dangerous Game.")

If we had even an instance of seeing complicated family relationships among the Tuttle/Childress clan, the whole Audrey mini-plot ("almost plot") would have resonated more powerfully. Children do unfortunate things, are sometimes sexually inappropriate, and not all parents see the situations clearly, nor do they always react appropriately. Marty's overlooking Audrey's creepy doll display--how different is that from "overlooking" Errol's oeuvre? If the show had made the connection that way--Marty is a small-time version of the Tuttle/Childress parents, protecting their children in unhealthy ways--the story would actually have been creepier, because you could see how small the distance is between the psychopaths and the average people.

I've decided to make it head canon that Maggie got her divorce from Marty, and met a lovely doctor at her work. (We saw Marty accosting her at what appeared to be a hospital after she kicked him out following his affair with the court reporter, so I assume she was at least a nurse.) That big house, the Lillian Bluth wardrobe, and the ostentatious wedding rings she had in 2012 were the signs of how her life improved after Marty. She (and the girls) are better off without him financially, and I have decided that they are also better off emotionally. Dr. Sawyer (head canon!) is maybe an anesthesiologist, who keeps regular hours, makes plenty of money, and has been a terrific stepfather to the girls. So much so that he is the reason they are able to forgive Marty and visit him in the hospital in the last episode.

Odd choice--from 1995 to 2012, Rust gets haggard and scraggly, growing untidy hair and mustache. In the same period, Marty goes bald and gains a substantial beer gut, as well as gets far more furrowed. But Maggie Sawyer--looks exactly the same. I felt this actually served to undermine her character--she hadn't matured in any way, which made her seem oddly insubstantial in the 2012 scenes.

Writer's fatigue? Rust's big revelatory soliloquy, in which he finds cosmic meaning in feeling love from his dead daughter and father is the moment toward which the entire series has been driving, according to Nic Pizzolatto. So does that excuse this? "Beneath the darkness, I felt a further darkness, like a substance." Seriously? Like a substance? Umm, sure--like that's a useful description, dude. I'm sure that's exactly the feeling that would cause a hyper-articulate nihilistic synesthete to entirely change his world view. Because, wow--a substance.

I'm waiting for the YouTube recut, where someone turns all this atmospheric angst into the buddy cop romp that it is at heart. Let me know when that happens.

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