Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Good Old Boys

A Review of the TV Series True Detective starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.
This is for those of you who have seen this series. Be warned - it’s a spoiler piece for those of you who haven’t….

So a smart script, great acting and moody cinema photography set in Louisiana U.S of A. Music by T Bone Burnett. What’s to gripe about? Let me tell you…..

The director/writer Nic Pizzolatto gives us a story that he himself advises is shaped by binary opposites  - of light and dark, good and evil, good cop/bad cop, science and religion.  Opposing forces clash throughout the story – even the environment is shot through with a lingering on its natural beauty constantly being pitted against the ugly detritus of industrial and urban surroundings. 

At the heart of the story pulses the tension between two men who are posited as radically different in their approach to life and work. They are in fact the only well-developed characters in the whole 8 hours plus story. Everyone else around them are really just human ciphers who help carry the plot and enable the growth and ultimate transformation of these two central, compelling personalities. The men are police partners who are held together by their job and their particular task in tracking down a serial killer of women and children.

At the beginning, the two men collide repeatedly and seem unable to comprehend each other’s motivations. Their insensitivity to each other is staggering.

Woody H plays a social, gregarious man who idealises the concept of family (which in his stated opinion is there to solely support and nurture him). He has a wife and two small girl children. He also enjoys a younger woman whose role is to succour him in transgressive sex.

His partner played by Matthew Mc had a marriage that broke up after his 2 year-old daughter was killed. He is an atheist misanthrope, an intellectual (although we never do see him with a book) who when he does deign to communicate (no small talk for this guy) sees no need to play the social game. He offends authority figures and around his partner, spouts metaphysics, science and philosophy, creating an intellectual defence system that justifies his self-hatred, and grief.

These altercations are needless to say, a refreshment and delight for the viewer.

Ultimately these two men over the course of the series become true friends. They traverse deep into the heart of darkness in true heroic fashion, they conquer the evil monster, find honour in near-death, and the movie ends with their metaphysical conversation about how the dark holds the light. The misanthrope finds his humanity and their animosity is transcended.
A rollicking good story-line is played out along the way with lots of action, amusing word-play and psychological tension to keep the viewer in thrall.

The interesting thing to me about the story-telling though, is the way the creators of the show quite consciously use dialectics to contain and grow the story - but in very selective ways. Quite significant binary opposites are either neglected or blurred. Gender and race dialectics are a case in point, not to mention the way in which violent means are never questioned as to whether they are appropriate methods to reach a desirable end.

This is a storyline that sets itself up to discuss the human condition through the use of binary opposites, attempting to reconcile them through the two main characters. However it seems a problem when deeply embedded binaries such as gender, race and means vs the ends are neglected or half-pie addressed then left hanging. The binary opposition between the two men is resolved, but not much else.
Man - Clothed

As for the creators of this series, it is hard to know how conscious or unconscious is their negligence and inattention to these matters. Sexism, racism and violence are so embedded in our culture that their prevalence in all forms of media has normalised and backgrounded them.
Woman - Unclothed

In America, land of the free, the tension between black people versus white people creates one of the biggest dialectical tensions constantly being played out in the culture.
In this script we find two black men investigating the two white protagonists, yet the binary opposition in this situation is ambiguous and remains unexplored.

This story is situated in Louisiana. Consequences of its tragic history of slavery and deeply rooted oppression of black people by white, leak into the script rather than being addressed openly. The interviews are conducted as if the men involved are all the same, except for issues of rank. However once, one of the black investigators loses his cool and calls one of the protaganists “whitey”. So we know there are hidden unacknowledged racial tensions between them.

There is one big scene when a drug raid on a black ghetto is enacted by a white Biker Gang. The all-white male production team discuss this scene in the Special Features solely in terms of their pride in overcoming the challenges of shooting it.

At the conclusion of the series, the black men are duped both by Matthew Mc’s cunning, and the collaboration of the two white partners joining forces against their investigators. The ‘resolution’ of any black/white tension that was present throughout the script, finds the black men having to eat humble pie. Mmmm….

And then there’s the gender issue which is treated in a highly problematical and disappointingly stereotypical manner.

The opening scene is set in place with the classic investigation of a murder of a female victim. She is left dead under a huge beautiful tree, in a field. She is naked and mutilated and there are deer antlers attached to her head. Her back and bottom are filmed – she remains a faceless body. She appears to be in an attitude of prayer and ritual artefacts made of wood and twigs are hanging from the great tree, which in Special Features we are told is symbolic of the Tree of Life.

There is this extraordinary long shot of an army of all-men – clothed policemen – striding towards the sole, naked, dead women’s body. She comes under the detached, collective scrutiny of many men.

Now apart from the occult or pagan aspects of this particular murder, this is a pretty typical trope we are all familiar with in every TV cop show and movie. Woman as object; woman as victim. The viewer’s gaze is the male gaze – she is dead, disfigured flesh. Alongside the clothed men, we, the viewer subject her to their/our “objective” investigation.  She is acted upon by those in control.

This theme is really too, too trite. It is the subject of every damn cop show and boys’ own movie we watch every run-of-the-mill day. Men investigate and solve the murder of female victims, preferably mutilated in more and more horrific and graphic ways.
In this particular storyline, children as victims are quite quickly thrown into the mix.

This is patriarchy at work, formulating and shaping our view of the way life is. Action heroes save the passive (female) victims in every thriller and are not loathe to use a little or lots of violence along the way to keep us on the edge of our seats.

The male/female dialectics in True Detective are also rather tired – or should I say – tried and untrue.

Woody H’s character has a lovely wife and two young daughters, so we get not only adult man vs adult woman playing out, but later father/daughter relationship tension to observe.
Two women are involved in Woody H’s life. His wife who holds the family in place for him, and his young beautiful mistress.  Again we have the clichéd, classic sexist motif – the nurturing mother/wife versus the whore - that women are subjected to again and again in all forms of media.

There is never any resolution or transcendence offered to these two female characters themselves. Untidy ends are left untidy.  Woody H goes ballistic and behaves with intolerable and illegal cruelty towards his whore when she dumps him. She is left to pick up the pieces of her life - unobserved and forgotten very soon by the viewer as the men’s action propels us further into the conquest of the beast.

As for his long-suffering wife; she mothers both him and his partner, swallowing her husband’s paternalistic crap for the sake of the family. When his cover is blown, she then has a go at becoming the whore. With a flash of her bottom (the male gaze in this show is quite taken with women’s bottoms – very sexy obviously) she seduces poor old Matthew Mc much to his chagrin of course. 
Because he’s a “real” man, he then goes on to dominate the sex scene by taking her from the behind, so doesn’t give her the pleasure of face-to-face contact. The men who wrote the script definitely have something going on with women’s bottoms.

Her motivation is something only a male script writer could dream up. It was all a manipulating ploy to get her husband out of her life. She immediately tells him what she’s done, knowing he’s a red-blooded good old boy whose honour will be smitten to the core when he discovers his partner has slept with his possession (ie wife).
It was interesting watching in Special Features the young men who made the movie, animatedly discussing this aspect of their storyline. To me it is one of the least authentic scenes – not because there wasn’t real sexual tension between Matthew Mc and his partner’s wife, but because her motivation just didn’t ring true. She had shown real kindness to him and using him in this cold-blooded way to get back at her husband just seems too much of a stretch. Sure it’s a possible scenario, but not really probable. The viewer has to take on trust that a woman can be that calculating in this emotional scenario.

The wife/whore never has a real character to develop – her job in the plot is to play a role that will carry forward the ‘real’ story dynamic between the two male buddies.

The other woman who is brought in briefly to keep Matthew Mc’s bed warm for a while, is constantly shown through her body language as completely emotionally involved with him, while he is the emotionally unavailable man playing the role of partner- for- the- time-being.

So the dialectics between men and women in this show are really boring and not really even dialectics. There is never any authentic clash between two equals. The story is all about the men and from their point of view. The women are used as plot devices and are complete clichés. Stereotypes replace archetypes.

We gaze upon the murdered woman at the beginning as if she is an object. She too was a whore to be used and abused by men. She starts and finishes as the victim, the subject who is acted upon. She is shown only as a beast – although it is her murderer who is the real beast. There is no female agent/hero who can redeem her feminine body as a vessel of life. There is no transcendence for her or any other woman in the show - only loose ends. 

Then there is the daughter/father tension played out through Woody H’s inability to be a loving father. Much is made of the disquiet that both men face when confronting the dialectic between the devastated female and child victims they are dealing with on the job - versus the live, loved and known children. The stress comes to climax when Woody H erupts in violence towards his own teenager (verbally) when she becomes sexually active. In a cowardly act of masculist dominance, he viciously beats up her boyfriends.

Another dynamic is intertwined within this  – that of good cop and bad cop. Matthew Mc speaks in an earlier scene, of how a cop can behave with complete impunity to punishment. Here his partner acts this out when he mercilessly violates two cowering young men who had been jailed for fooling around with his daughter (his possession). The cop is shown vomiting afterwards, but the lost boys are another forgotten strand of no consequence.

Male violence and dominance always demand a blood sacrifice, and the story offers no counter-balancing argument. Do not the means and the end constitute a dialectical argument? In order to get their man, these men go far beyond the law and any moral imperatives around violence and murder. Maybe it’s the American way? (rapidly becoming the New Zealand way).

Isn’t the tension between the means and the ends an extremely important theme in our culture? Isn’t it a philosophical given that the means always shape the end?
We know and observe every day that violent means always perpetrate and perpetuate violent ends.

In their creators’ eyes, these two charismatic men are heroes. They are not in mine.
The heart of darkness they confront needs a lot more light bought upon it than the kind of courage these two men show us. The darkness of the human condition demands we urgently attend to more than just male bonding if we are to defeat the beast within.
We must surely learn to synthesise the binary opposites that are posited in this show – science vs. spirituality, love vs. evil, the “locked room” of alienation vs. our interconnectedness with the living mystery of nature.

But simultaneously we must not neglect or abandon the fundamentals of gender and race. Actually, the complexity and tension that resides in the current societal inequality between those competing and complementary forces makes for powerful story-telling. But it is imperative that we have female voices to tell alongside the male version. We must learn to weave together a new kind of story that carries hope for our shared future.

 The tree of life is a recurring visual symbol in the show. It is one of the more ancient universal symbols in our world. It marks the threshold of death and life and connects these two binary opposites. The tree is where life and death are transcended - a sacred place where unity can exist.

Traditionally the tree is associated with women for it is a woman’s body that is the vehicle for birth. Here are 3 images from the past that express this idea.
1489 (B. Furtmeyr) 1862 (L. Burger) and 1892 (F. Leighton).

Tree of Life Flanked by Eve and Mary

The Garden of Hesperides

The Norns under Yggdrasil

The modern story begins with a murdered woman in a parody of prayer at the foot of the tree. She is the original problem the TV series sets out to solve.
The dead woman – a blood sacrifice - at the foot of the tree of life is the problem posited by patriarchy.

That army of men marching through the fields to solve the problem are the very cause of her death. Individually and institutionally, it is their methodology of dominance and violence that have produced her death.
Violence is antithetical to life.

Tree Goddess

Until women’s experience and voices are fully involved in that army - behind the scenes and on screen - working together to transform our present rapist, murderous society into a life-giving culture again –– women and children will go on dying under the tree.

The tree of life represents the anima mundi – the soul of the world -  dancing life for us all. Male experience doesn’t own or solely represent the physical or the metaphysical world – we all hold up the sky.


  1. Great critique, Fern. From a writer's point of view, the male writers defended the criticism of lack of female 'story' because it was meant to be from the two cops point of view, who were males. Their job wasn't to tie the other characters' loose ends because we are following the story through the two main characters' eyes. And these two men ARE a product of the violent world they inhabit. To a certain point I agree with this defence -- the shot of the posse of men descending on the crime scene is probably a reality -- I imagine the make-up of policeforce in that area in the 70s? to be nearly 100% men. Also the scenes in the office at the police HQ made a shiver go through me -- so misogynist but probably how it was. Having said that though, I found your critique on the male/female dictomy to be so important to be said. We need to see women on the screen as equal and opposites to the men -- because it's just not true to see it any other way. As an aside, I also agree with your comments that Mc's wife wouldn't have slept with his partner, yes, because they were friends and it didn't fit her character -- or his! Stunning stuff Fern, great writing, and loved the tree pics :)

  2. Thanks for that insight from the writing point of view. However I disagree about "their job wasn't to tie the other characters' loose ends..." the writer deliberately set up tensions between a whole lot of dichotomies and never tied any of them - many questions opened, but never any attempt to reconcile them - EXCEPT for the male buddyship. And a really good/great writer would have been able to tell from the male point of view but given humanity to the women characters as well as been truer to the other tensions which the plot and writing kept throwing up. For example the atheism of Mathew Mc's character was completely undermined at the end when he appears dressed like a Christ-like figure (in the white hospital gown and long hair- classic Victorian Christ) spouting metaphysical claptrap, that Americans seem to lap up. Certainly these two characters are a product of the world they inhabit but just how aware of the deplorable sexism the writing was is deeply suspect. AND the writing utilised that sexism in very cynical and formulaic ways.