In the second episode of True Detective, Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) find themselves at a seedy trailer-park bunny ranch, where Marty becomes outraged at the presence of an underage prostitute named Beth (Lili Simmons). Marty lays into the madam, Jan (Andrea Frankle), for employing a girl clearly younger than 18. But Jan isn’t having it. She tells Marty he has no idea of Beth’s circumstances, what she’s left behind, and besides, “Girls walk this earth all the time screwing for free. So why is it you add business to the mix and boys like you can’t stand that thought? Because suddenly you don’t own it the way you thought you did.” Still disgusted, Marty hands Beth some cash and tells her, “do something else.” Back at their car, Rust asks Marty if he was making “a down payment.”
Even at the time, the show seemed to be on Jan’s side: Marty had already shown himself to be a high-order hypocrite. After Sunday night’s episode we can be sure: Calling it a down payment may have been a crude way for Rust to put it, but it was not inaccurate. Seven years later, Marty cheats on his wife with Beth, the troubled former underage prostitute whose innocence he had once been so keen to protect.
True Detective, let me concede upfront, does not come close to passing the Bechdel test. The show opens with the violated body of a dead woman crowned with antlers, and it has consistently objectified the naked bodies of the young women Marty has slept with—particularly during Sunday night’s extended, groaning, porny sequence with Beth. Michelle Monaghan, who plays Marty’s wife, Maggie, has done well with the material she’s been given, but before this week that consisted almost entirely of her being a (completely justified) nag. In the previous episode, Elizabeth Reaser showed up for a minute so she could deliver one line as Rust’s long-term girlfriend. The other women on the show have been mistresses, prostitutes, corpses, or some combination thereof, most of them barely memorable.
Presenting women as a parade of scolds, sluts, and the strung-out typically makes me hate a television series. But I love True Detective. While it is possible—by which I mean undeniably true—that I am completely in thrall to the ever-captivating McConaissance, I think True Detective has not triggered my usual response because it is, at least on some level, very aware of how stereotypically and perfunctorily it treats its female characters. When it comes to women, True Detective is undeniably shallow—but I think it’s being shallow on purpose.
Ignoring women may be the show’s blind spot, but it is also one of its major themes. True Detective is explicitly about the horrible things that men do to women, things that usually go unseen and uninvestigated. No one missed Dora Lange. Marie Fontenot disappeared, and the police let a rumor stop them from following up. Another little girl was abducted, and a report was never even filed. “Women and children are disappearing, nobody hears about it, nobody puts it together,” Rust told his boss Sunday night, outlining what he believes is a vast conspiracy in the Bayou. Rust is haunted by women who aren’t there—his ex-wife and his dead daughter—while Marty cannot deal appropriately with the women who are.
It’s with Marty that True Detective most often tries to have its misogyny and get away with it, too. (“How good is cake if you can’t eat it?” he says to his girlfriend Lisa when she chides him for wanting a mistress who doesn’t sleep around.) The show presents Marty’s women as kinky and crazed and seems overly sympathetic to Marty’s skewed view of them. But if Marty’s peccadilloes have been used for titillation they have also been used for character assassination. While True Detective has luxuriated in the tawdriness of his particularly pronounced virgin-whore complex, it has also interrogated it: Marty’s inability to control himself with women is his defining, disfiguring character flaw.