True Detective and Toxic Masculinity

The following contains spoilers for the full two seasons of True Detective.

The controversial second season of HBO’s True Detective wrapped up Sunday, August 9 with a heavy 90-minute finale that concluded the season-long mystery and sealed the fates of the main characters. What the death-heavy climax clarified for me wasn’t so much the (overly) tangled conspiracy at the heart of this season involving transportation deals, rail corridors, sex parties, and corrupt city officials. Rather, it clarified for me that True Detective is a damning look at toxic forms of masculinity.

Exploring the dark side of masculinity is not unique to season two, nor to True Detective as a series. L.A. film noir, of the sort season two deals in, often explores men coming home from the war, debilitated by the atrocities they witnessed and committed, alienated from society, and uncomfortable with a world where women have taken over their jobs. It's clear, then, that showrunner Nic Pizzolatto is working in a well-established genre tradition.

Season one deals with the occult and nihilism and a serial killer haunting the heartland of the Louisiana bayou, but at its core, it is an examination and refutation of the opposing ideals of masculinity that Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson) represent. Rust argues for nihilism and detachment, while Marty argues for codes and compromise. In the end, both men and each of their ideological systems are found wanting. Season one’s arc connects their private evils to the metaphysical evil they seek to defeat in their police work. The characters can only redeem themselves by abandoning their ideologies and catching a serial killer who represents their own faults taken to hellish extremes. Rust and Marty only survive the season because they change from the men they were at the beginning. Rust abandons his nihilism and Marty accepts his hypocrisy.

Season two loses the occult overtones, the serial killer, the Louisiana setting, and the two main actors. It loses most everything that made the first season a hit, but it keeps one important thing beyond its detective subject matter: its focus on men. Beyond that, it keeps its focus on men who are obsessed with what it means to be men. Just like Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), and Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) embody various conceptions of masculinity. Each of them thinks they are holding to some masculine code that dictates how the world works and how men should compose themselves within it, but their codes are built on lies. Everything in True Detective is built on lies, but none more so than the identities of the male characters.

True Detective examines men who think the world and themselves work one way, represent one thing, and then puts them into situations where their illusions are shattered, their identities questioned, and their lies exposed. You see, the men in True Detective are liars. They lie to themselves about who they are, be it Frank trying to go straight, Ray obsessing over whether he fathered his son, or Paul fighting to bury his homosexuality at every turn. They lie to others about what they’re capable of. And their lies ultimately destroy them unless they abandon them. That’s what we see at the end of season two, where the three core male characters end up dead.

Paul Woodrugh (Taylor) is killed in the climax of the seventh episode “Black Maps and Motel Rooms” after succumbing to blackmail that threatened to expose his homosexuality. Paul is so threatened by the idea that he doesn’t conform to the image of masculinity he has created in his head, he allows himself to follow the lie to his death. Instead of live as a gay man, he ultimately chooses to die, leaving behind the memory of a married straight man with the kid on the way.

Season finale “Omega Station” cleans out the rest of the male slate. Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) dies in a firefight in the Californian redwoods after making an ill-advised last visit to his son, Chad (Trevor Larcom). Obsessed with whether Chad is his biological son or the result of his ex-wife’s rape, Ray returns to see his son one last time to convince himself that Chad is truly his child. He sees Chad playing a tabletop game with some of his friends, his father’s old police badge propped up on the table. The badge confirms to Ray that Chad will always embrace him as his father, but it’s too late. Lieutenant Burris (James Frain) and his commandos knew Ray would be drawn to his son and plant a transponder on his vehicle, ultimately following him to the woods until they can find and kill him. It’s a cruel joke, then, that a paternity test later reveals Chad to have been Ray’s son all along.

Ray dies because his fathering of Chad became the sole indicator of his masculinity. His entire identity as a man lives and dies on the fact of whether he fathered Chad. And because he can’t let that obsession go, even after the answer becomes inconsequential—because nothing matters more to him than affirming his own masculinity—he dies.

“Omega Station” also wipes Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) off the map as he succumbs to stab wounds after being dumped in the desert by rival gangsters. Frank is a career criminal who tries to go straight by investing in California’s upcoming high speed rail corridor, but he puts his trust in the wrong men and it ends up costing him his life. After Ben Caspere is killed, Frank loses his fortune and has no choice but to return to his criminal ways to make a living. However, even his old operations have been striped away, absorbed by competitors and past lackeys. Over the course of the season, Frank’s vision of himself as an upright businessman is dissolved. He’s revealed to be nothing more than another crook, only good at running dope through clubs and organizing poker games—low-level gangster stuff—and even then, only good to a point.

Frank thinks he is a great criminal and thus capable of being a great businessman, but neither fact is particularly true. He loses his fortune and his life because he allows himself to believe in the myth of a upright gangster. He believes that his own code of morality makes him impervious to the machinations of others. He thinks that he can order his own world through sheer force of will—a particularly masculine trait. And even when his criminal empire and his future prospects are striped away, Frank believes that he still has the leverage to clear up past affairs with impunity. Instead of merely killing Osip Agronov (Timothy V. Murphy), stealing his money, and immediately disappearing, Frank goes about paying back debts, again believing that his own misguided code will be reciprocated by fellow gangsters. Frank dies because he believes himself to be the kind of man that does not exist in the real world.

In the end, only the women are left standing. Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) and Jordan Semyon (Kelly Reilly) survive the final episode. It’s key that both of them are women. Both Ani and Jordan have lies they live with: Ani is simultaneously obsessed with and repulsed by sexuality, while Jordan also believes her husband to be a type of man he isn’t. But neither Ani nor Jordan internalize their lies to the extent that the men do.

For example, Ani makes peace with her troubled past, accepting that her peculiar aggressions are just coping mechanisms for sexual abuse she suffered as a child. She grew up with ample reason to distrust men, and so created an entire personality that guarded herself against the intrusions of men. Jordan is harder to parse out, as she’s the least developed of season two’s main characters. Regardless, she too is quick to abandon the identity she has created when left with no alternatives. She drops her obsession with having a child, abandons her dream of being rich and powerful, and comes to terms with the nature of her marriage to Frank. Both Ani and Jordan survive because they adapt to reality instead of stubbornly holding onto the lies they tell themselves to reinforce their identities. This is a big reason why they sit out much of the climax of season two.

Perhaps their narrative passivity is another example of industry sexism, which often sidelines major female characters in favour of male ones. Or perhaps Ani and Jordan sit out the final confrontations in “Omega Station” because they’ve given up on the lies they keep telling themselves and have resigned themselves to something different. They don’t let their pride lead to them to ruin like Ray, Frank, and Paul do. They aren’t fixated on some concept of what women are and, thus, are not liable to be destroyed when forced to abandon their constructed identities. They accept change, adjust to the conditions of reality, and don’t follow the same road as Frank and Ray that inevitably leads them to doom.

In the second episode, “Night Finds You,” Ray Velcoro tells Ani Bezzerides that he believes “we get the world we deserve.” He finds the world to be a rotten place, and believes that the people within it are equally rotten. It’s a doomed statement and it sums up the masculine worldview of True Detective. It was even used as the tagline for season two. That being the case, you’d be forgiven to think that it sums up Nic Pizzolatto’s worldview as well, what with his obsession with corruption, cops, crooks, death, and the dirtiness of reality.

However, one of the last lines we hear in “Omega Station” is “we deserve a better world.” The speaker is Ani Bezzerides. Whether knowingly or not, she’s offering a counter argument to Velcoro’s worldview from “Night Finds You.” After having personally witnessed the destruction that men can wreak on the world and also filled with optimism from her child, Ani wants something more for herself and her son. Men have made the world a rotten place, but there are people, mostly women, who are capable of something better.

Perhaps a fitting summation of the philosophy of True Detective is men get the world they deserve, while women deserve a better one. Because if there is one thing that is abundantly clear amidst all the ambiguities of True Detective, it is that either pretensions of masculinity die or men do.

True Detective (HBO)

Created by Nic Pizzolatto. Season one starring Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Michelle Monaghan, Michael Potts, Tory Kittles. Season two starring Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch, Kelly Reilly, and Vince Vaughn.