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Real Talk on the Women of True Detective

Features
by Alyssa Rosenberg
February 14, 2014 12:00 PM
25 Comments
  • |
Woody Harrelson and Michelle Monaghan in "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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25 Comments

  • Yawn | July 3, 2014 6:05 AMReply

    Reading the various and clearly female opinions expressed in both this article and the comments below about an HBO show, I'm reminded of a line from an entirely different HBO show.

    "You want it to be one way......but it's the other way."

    -Marlo Stanfield in "The Wire"

  • Joe H. | May 21, 2014 3:36 PMReply

    Complaints that True Detective is misogynistic is hogwash. If anything the show serves to expose the misogyny in a traditional patriarchal lifestyle. Most of this soft sexism comes from Marty's character early in the show, and none of it is lauded or encouraged. Quite the opposite. Additionally, Marty's and Rust's trip to the bunny farm uncover's Marty's hypocritical double standards about prostitution and decency. Any misogyny found in the show is purely geographical and circumstantial.

  • sam | May 22, 2014 11:42 AM

    sorry, but that's bullshit. it could have been seen like that if you wouldn't have the male gaze all over the place. if you have to show misogyny than don't do it in a sexist way.

  • Kevin | May 21, 2014 11:07 AMReply

    My only criticism of the show is that Rust and Marty didn't quit the case, open up a sports bar together, and go to Disney World in the finale.

  • Damiand | May 3, 2014 7:34 AMReply

    Shut up and watch the show.
    Stop thinking so much.
    Damn feminists.

  • sam | May 22, 2014 11:37 AM

    oh, you stoped thinking... for a moment i thought you were just dumb. this explains a lot.

  • robertg | March 4, 2014 1:00 PMReply

    I couldn't agree more. Why you people want to make things so complicated? IT'S A FREAKING TV SERIES COMING FROM IMAGINATION.!!! acusing TD of misogyny, gender discrimination and the likes? people incapable of feeling joy!!!
    i was very pleased to see Lili Simmons breasts and buttocks and how she moaned,also pleased when i saw Maggie's rack in Cohle's house..and watch Daddario's beautiful titties,what in the hell is wrong with that? don't watch TD then.

  • sam | May 22, 2014 11:36 AM

    i hope this is satire.

  • kung sune | March 3, 2014 8:24 AMReply

    Looking forward to your piece on the lack of interesting and developed male characters in Girls and Sex & The City...

  • sam | May 22, 2014 11:40 AM

    write it yourself if you think it is important to talk about how men are not represented in the media. fortunately for you you don't have to do that because men are already everywhere.

  • Dumb Bitch | February 24, 2014 5:03 PMReply

    What's wrong with the women of this show?
    Who doesn't like to see a nice pair of boobs and an assembly line of asses? I mean, it is HBO. The women don't need to be actual human characters because then it would have to be called "True Humans" and nobody wants to see that. I mean with all of these asses, hookers, strippers and vindictive women around why shouldn't they be referred to as 'crazy pussy'. Marty has every right to tell Lisa that he will 'skull f***' her. She deserves it because she is a slut. I mean, even Marty's daughter is a slut and Maggie is a vindictive slut who makes him buy tampons. Poor Marty. No wonder he cheats and beats people up.
    Honestly people, Nic Pizzolatto simply wants to have a bunch of young sexy naked women around the studio acting out his fantasies, oops, I mean his 'art'. Why does he need to do more than write marginal one dimensional female characters against a backdrop of asses and sex workers and a dead naked prostitute. Why shouldn't he be able to do that without all of these feminists complaining? After all, he is receiving wide critical acclaim for being 'new and different' and female viewers love the show so it must be OK. Stop complaining, suck it up and deal with it. Or, you could change the channel and watch Lifetime.

  • sam | May 22, 2014 11:44 AM

    yeah, tell people you disagree with and who actually have a point to shut the hell up joe h. very manly. as pointed out above you just don't get it.

  • villemar | May 22, 2014 5:09 AM

    Where's your series that schools True Detective and enlightens the world on what a talentless hack Nic Pizzolatto is? Oh, that's right.

  • Joe H. | May 21, 2014 3:40 PM

    Will shut the hell up. Your sarcasm isn't funny. The misogyny in the show comes from the characters and it's frowned upon. The existence of bad behavior doesn't imply promotion or encouragement. If you're a fan of equality and would like to see more men than women abused in a single show go watch Oz. You won't be disappointed by the ratio of naked men to naked women.

  • Tricia | February 15, 2014 2:15 AMReply

    I would have to agree with you specifically with Lisa's character. I feel that her character needs to be developed profoundly. Based on her very short scenes, she is not just the "bimbo" Rust mentioned, she's smart and strong that's why she can decide for herself after the reality bites that she can't really have Marty all along. Alexandra has nothing but good words about the show that's why she accepted this but majority of her scenes seems to perceive her as just the "decoration," the young pretty thing of the show. Although she did really well with her few scenes I am craving to see more of her. More history of their relationship, who and what she is, and where she came from. Lisa is a very interesting and deep character (even more interesting than the wife). She is more than what we see. With episode 4, one of the scenes I look forward to is the confrontation between Lisa and Maggie but none. Just a letter and a phone convo of Marty and Lisa. I know the guys are this show's leads but they don't have to be in every scene sometimes it gets tiring. Alexandra is a breath of fresh air and I can't believe her role is just this small.

  • ASFan | February 15, 2014 2:14 PM

    I'm kinda hoping she takes a lead character in a new season of True Detective, playing someone else as the series is an anthology.

  • Jack | February 14, 2014 6:16 PMReply

    This article is certainly well-intentioned, but "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" sounds like every other insipid, cliche TV show on broadcast TV. I'm really glad Lisa isn't involved in the case, because there's no earthly reason she should be.

    Maybe they introduced Marty's fling to establish the reason for Marty's separation, and to tell us more about Marty? The entire show is a character study of the two main characters. That may be too much testosterone for you, but that's your problem and not the show's.

  • Sean | February 14, 2014 3:05 PMReply

    Not everything is about you. Not everything needs to be plunged through your prism of feminist rage.

  • Prism of Feminist Rage. | February 23, 2014 9:06 PM

    Prism of Feminist Rage would be an awesome band name. AmIRight!?

    (Not everything is about you, either, dude.)

  • Deb Rox | February 14, 2014 2:08 PMReply

    Interesting. I think we've been held away from them intentionally, letting them be as symbolical and ritualized as the victim in the case. We are seeing them through Rust and Cohle's eyes only, and in order to see their two different lens we aren't shown the real women. Rust sees women as whore/Madonna, and justifies his affair as the steam valve he keeps in ritual to come to his marriage clean. Cohle sees women as symbolic of what he has to cauterize himself against, ie "crazy pussy" and poignant memory that creates feelings of guilt, pain and grief, and he cuts Maggie off as soon as she starts becoming a real person in a conversation. Both are the ways of thinking that kill women, but I think what their absence is intentionally communicating. I'm so interested to see what comes next.

  • ASFan | February 14, 2014 2:23 PM

    Rust should be Marty in your paragraph. McConaughey plays Rust Cohle.

  • ASFan | February 14, 2014 1:30 PMReply

    Rust's 'Crazy Pussy' remark about Lisa I don't think was meant to be taken at face value. Rust knows Marty well enough to know that the thought of someone putting blame on him would make him erupt like the Yellowstone Caldera did in 2012, coincidentally which Woody was a part of. Rust put some blame on her so to make Marty feel less guilty and he could therefore focus more on the case, which is what Rust wanted from the get go.

  • sam | May 22, 2014 11:46 AM

    oh yeah, what a hero. using slurs to calm marty down. brilliant...

  • Kat | February 15, 2014 8:12 PM

    That's just what I was going to say. Cohle's gotten a feel for Marty at this point, and despite the fact that "beside manner" is not his thing, he knows that Marty's explosive and that the timing of this in regards to the case was terrible. He wanted him to calm down and get over it for the time being so Cohle could get what he wanted. "Crazy Pussy" is not even something Cohle as we know him would say casually. It's something Marty would say.

  • Hey...HEY! | February 14, 2014 1:11 PMReply

    So, you would enjoy the show more if the characters acted the way you wished they would act? And not as a representation of the complexity of real people? Good luck with all that!

    Also, Woody is his characters age now and the 1995 scenes are him regressed. (Hint, he's wearing a hairpiece in the '95 story) So the age difference between Woody and Michele Monaghan in real life is not relevant.

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