When I was sixteen, I dated a guy a with a madonna/whore complex. I had no idea what that was, at the time, being a young woman from a rural town where belittling women as sluts and whores was pretty typical. You were either “the type of woman men married” or you were… well, probably a slut. All I knew was that when he talked about me, he said I was some transformative goddess, superior to all other women – smarter, and sexier – and all other women he spoke about were bitches or whores. He disrespected his mother and grandmother – got into screaming fights with them and belittled them. He had no female friends. I took him for a poor abused and misdirected kid too smart for his own good.
Boys who backlashed were to be pitied and sympathized with. They’d just had rough lives. You needed to sympathize with them, and I could, I really could, because the world was filled with stories of men who’d had hard times, and who lashed out at others because of it. I had a fistful of excuses, as did he. We had a narrative on TV, in the movies. Men ran after you and screamed and got upset because they loved you. Men were abusive, maybe, even… because they loved you.
We know this story.
What first really bothered me, though, was when he made fun of a former friend of mine because she was fat. That might seem weird, after all this other behavior. But the reason it bugged me is because as he sneered over her being another man’s “fat girlfriend” I couldn’t help but note that she was, in fact, thinner than me.
His extreme compliementariness toward me had nothing to do with me – setting me up as a singular goddess was his way of justifying his relationship with me. Because if all women were bitches and whores, the fact that he was in a relationship with a woman must mean I was something different. Something else. So he made me into something I wasn’t: a perfect picture of womanhood. A crowned goddess.
But woe to the goddess who falls.
Needless to say, a perfect picture of womanhood I was not, and have never been. Things began to fall apart in the typical way they do when these sorts of guys finally wheedle you away from family and friends. When we moved in together, a five hour drive away from our hometown, things got pretty bad. Not that they were candy before – I tried to break up with him three times during the two years of our courtship prior to us moving in together, once because he cheated on me, and twice more for outbursts of screaming temper. But then came the weeping, the apologizing, about how he was imperfect, and I was a goddess, and could I please just give him another chance…
Once we moved in together the swing between these behaviors became more extreme. There would be screaming fights. He’d throw things. I put on a bunch of weight and starting wearing frumpy clothes, secretly hoping this would finally be the thing that got him to break up with me. When that didn’t work, I actually hit him on the shoulder once, during a fight, hoping he’d hit me back and I could justify leaving him. I contemplated suicide – anything to get out.
In the end, he joined the military to spite his grandmother, who’d cut off his money for college, and the break gave me the chance to call up my parents and pack up on home. When he returned from boot camp, we went round again for a few weeks, trying to “be friends.” When that didn’t work, the death threats started.
They didn’t stop until he got a new girlfriend.
I have heard stories about him and his wife, still, and they remind me of that old life. Bullet holes in the ceiling. Screaming fights. I’m told he justifies this by saying he simply has “a temper.”
Some people never change.
True Detective is a cop bromance that takes us on a journey across the poor, rural south of the 90’s – when I was a teen – following an odd-couple cop duo as they track an occult serial killer targeting women and children.
I’m pretty burned out on murder shows featuring slog after slog of dead women, but the weirdness of the opening murder, paired with the bromacing odd-couple and great opening credit sequence intrigued me.
There are a number of things to praise in this show, from a storytelling perspective – the narrative jumping between 1995, 2002 and 2012 is remarkable and skillfully done. The writing is superb. I haven’t bumped into writing this good since… Well, OK, we’ve had a resurgence in excellent TV lately, and Mad Men and GoT come to mind, but even those shows are not, to me, this narratively ambitious. True Detective trusts viewers to connect the dots; it invites us to take a leap of faith.
I was amused to see a little of my own grim humor in the character of the introverted and this-world-is-fucked-up Rust, but the character that made me laugh out loud was Marty.
Why Marty? Because, as I said to my spouse during episode two or three, “Holy crap! I DATED that guy!”
My spouse looked appropriately horrified, because though it’s one thing to hear about a thing, it’s another thing to see it. Watching Marty neatly box up different aspects of his life, telling lies about how he lives and his morals and *believing them* while cavorting with young women and putting his wife on a pedestal was oddly cathartic, for me, because it was a validation that these type of people exist, and they are, indeed, their own brand of monstrous.
True Detective is a bromance at its core – if you think this is not a romance story, I challenge you to watch that scene in the Monster’s Liar at the end, when Marty is reaching out to Rust, and then cradles him in his lap, and you tell me that’s not some Greek hero romance shit. It’s a story of men incapable of living in the very society they purport to protect.
But unlike Marty, Rust understands his own monstrousness. He understands he’s had to become evil to fight evil.
Marty continues to think his behavior is normal, and he is rewarded for it, even partially pardoned by his family with a lukewarm reunion there at the end in his hospital room.
True Detective’s failure is the same failure of its heroes – a failure of empathy for, and acknowledgement of the humanity and autonomy of – the very women and children these men insist they are here to protect from men far more monstrous than themselves.
Marty’s inability to draw this line – if it was not made clear before – was made crystalline at the very end of the series, when he does finally end up fucking the former 16-year-old prostitute he hands a few hundred dollars to seven years before to help her “get out of that life.” Rust snarkily says at the time “Is that a downpayment?” and, of course, it turns out that it is.
Where the show pulls its punches with Marty, here, is by making the girl the instigator of this relationship, later on in the show. It doesn’t have the balls to make Marty the one pursuing her, though it would have been a much more narratively accurate choice. It wouldn’t surprise me if it was Harrelson himself who rewrote this bit to make Marty more likable – by painting the woman as the primary problem. By perpetuating this narrative of the sexy lady instigator, Marty is painted as in irresponsible child who can’t resist the flirtatious temptations of a 21-year-old former prostitute. What man can control his dick, amirite? (counterpoint: Twin Peaks’s Agent Cooper). But however much they tried to tamp this down to reduce the impact, the text was still there. The women in Marty’s life were virgins and whores – his wife and everyone else.
When he loses his shit at his mistress for telling his wife of their affair, his true nature becomes apparent. Even more than trying to control who his mistress dates, and bursting into her home unannounced to beat up the guy she brought home, it was the screaming phone conversation where he says, “I’m going to skullfuck you!” that really peeled back the layers of affable family man to reveal the raging, poisonous monster beneath (calling his daughter a slut came in a close second. Have I mentioned that ex of mine has two young children now, at least one of them a daughter? Yeah).
Rust, by contrast, understands his own darker impulses. His backstory is not a fridged wife, interestingly enough, but a fridged daughter; I expected laziness here where his whole family would have gone out in a flaming wreck, but it was more telling that he lost a child through accident, but a wife through an inability to cope. When he goes off the rails and becomes a horror, he recognizes that he’s not fit to associate with the very women and children he’s chasing after serial killers to protect.
He has no illusions of what he is.
Pulling his punches does not make him any less of a monster. This is brilliantly illustrated again and again, but in particular in his fight with Marty, when he lets Marty beat the shit out of him, right up until the very end, when he grabs hold of his wrists the way he did years before, when he told him he could break his hands. You see the death grip. You see the monster in his eyes. You see Marty is about to never be able to hold a gun again.And then a group of other men pulls Rust away, and Marty keeps his hands.
Monsters wrangling monsters.
We are also not fooled after watching the crazy shoot-out in the projects, where he joins with a biker gang to go terrorize an entire community. Though he is given his “save the cat” moment by sparing a young boy in the house and telling him to hide in the bathtub, and though he tries to incapacitate instead of brutally murder the neighborhood folks as they try and defend themselves, it’s clear he knows exactly what he is, and exactly what he’s capable of.
I have always had an obsession with the monsters who walk among us; the ones our society excuses and supports, especially. I’m interested in the narrative that to fight monsters, you must, necessarily, become one.
Rust and Marty spend their lives limping along, trying to find ways to live in civilized society as casual monsters, but in the end, as shown in the brief and sadly funny roundup of how they’re living their lives in 2012 right before their final fight – they have failed at it.
Marty sits at home alone eating TV dinners in front of the tube, divorced and estranged from his daughters. Rust spent seven years working at a bar four days a week, and drinking himself senseless the other three. All they know how to do is fight monsters, because they know monsters. They understand them. They are uniquely equipped to fight them.
Because they are monstrous.
I’ve said often that there’s a difference between a show that portrays misogyny and a show that is misogynist. Mad Men portrays misogyny. True Detective, sadly, is misogynist. It paints the world in the viewpoint of its monstrous heroes, so I suppose it shouldn’t be any wonder that it comes out that way. But here’s what makes the difference, for me:
Marty’s wife, Maggie, tries to leave him, again and again. She asks Rust if Marty is having an affair – Rust knows he is, but protects Marty (remember, this is a bromance). Eventually the mistress confronts her, and she packs up her shit and leaves Marty for a few months.
But I know Marty. I dated Marty. I know this dance. And they have kids. Kids make it harder.
He woos her back. He gets down on his knees. He sweet talks and apologizes. He makes small concessions. They go to therapy. He quits drinking. But as his daughters grow up, we see his controlling nature rear its head again; he beats up the men having sex with his daughter. He calls her a slut. He pokes at her choice of clothing in a particularly amusing scene in which she tells him with the haughty voice of a disgruntled teen, “You can’t control what women wear, dad.”
And, years later, he has another affair. This time, Maggie knows. This time, she calls Rust again for confirmation. Rust again pretends ignorance.
Maggie knows she needs to leave Marty. She knows she needs something besides “you’re having an affair” because she knows how things will go. He’ll get on his knees. He’ll apologize. He’ll make excuses.
But there’s one thing he won’t stand for: another man touching what he considers his. She has spent her life wrangling this monster. She knows him intimately. She understands what she must do to beat him.
So she endeavors to have an affair.
She tries to pick up a man at a bar; no dice. Instead, she gets drunk and tracks down Rust. She knows her husband well, knows how he thinks, and knows exactly what will hurt him most and end their relationship with no blubbering apologies and promises to do better.
Though poor Maggie hadn’t been given a lot of screen time, and in fact, was only brought in (of COURSE) during the present-day interrogation to discuss this particular incident (because a woman’s role in a narrative is only as victim or whore, you know), I knew exactly why she’d chosen to do as she did, and I understood it. And I knew she was right.
I’d been there; boxed into a corner, unable to figure out how to get away. In the end, I hadn’t had kids. I’d been able to pack up my shit and move to Alaska.
Maggie didn’t have that luxury.
So Maggie has a quick coupling with Rust. Why she couldn’t have just made up having an affair, I don’t know – because, plot, I guess. Of course, Marty is also a detective. Perhaps she feared he would know if she was lying. He would demand to know who it was, interrogate her, try and find proof.
When she sits at the kitchen table with her glass of wine, waiting for him in the dark, she is finally, supremely confident. Because she knows this will wreck him. She knows, after all this time, she finally got him. Because she understands exactly what she is to him – a possession – and that the only way to bust herself down from that pedestal he put her on was to paint herself as a whore.
I hated Maggie for this as much as anyone, which was shocking. I knew Maggie. But the narrative! Oh, we know the narrative of the woman who ruins everything. Marty and Rust battle it out, naturally, after this incident, and are no longer friends. It feels like grim trickery for her to do it, and it is. But I completely understood her, and I sympathized with her. I knew she’d made the choice she felt was the only choice to free her from her situation; she’d done something awful, to escape something worse.
But I wondered, the way this whole mess was painted – how many others saw what she did as I had? How many others really sympathized with her situation? How many actually considered her a scheming whore, just the way Marty did?
Because when she shows up at the end of the show to see Rust, even knowing what I did, sympathizing as I did, I hated her. I hated that she’d hurt his feelings. I had to remind myself that she had, in part, also lashed out to hurt Rust because he’d known from the start that Marty was having affairs, and he’d lied to her about it. He’d protected Marty, and this was the most powerful way this fucked up, misogynist world had given Maggie to say “fuck you.”
It occurred to me that in a world ruled by misogynist monsters, they end up pushing people into becoming the very stereotypes they’ve created in their own minds. I flashed back to the gun fight in the projects – the four white men with guns terrorizing the neighborhood, getting them to fight back, and the cops and helicopters that swoop in. I imagined the scene in the minds of the cops who descended on the scene – “Those violent black people,” they’d say, when it was white thugs who’d instigated the violence in the first place.
Through force, abuse of physical and social power, neglect, these men perpetrate the very narratives they’ve created in their heads. They’ve made the world they imagined, and it’s a very terrible place.
Much has been made of the Cthulu mythos present throughout this tale of monsters fighting monsters. But in truth, this whole show is set in a fantasy world – the world as painted by two broken men who strive to extinguish a greater darkness than themselves in order to atone for and justify the darkness they themselves have delivered into the world.
If there was ever a show that so accurately represented that old cliché “Women take up with men to protect them from other men” this is it. What True Detective makes clear is that that saying could just as easily be “Women must take up with monsters to protect them from other monsters.”
It was for this reason that the show’s final lines, delivered by Marty, held a different meaning than the obvious one.
Rust says that when you look up in the sky, all is darkness, and the darkness is winning. Marty disagrees because, of course, in the beginning there was *only* darkness, and now the sun comes up again. So to his mind, light is making a fair bit of progress.
For me, this was not so much a glorious mythic handwave to the great literal battle between light and darkness, but the figurative one, the battle between darkness and light that goes on inside everyone, especially men given the power these two wield – the gun and the badge, the sword and the scales.
Power is a funny thing, because if you asked these two men if they had it, they would say no. They would say they were underdogs fighting a corrupt system.
But when you pull back, when you see Marty abuse prisoners and call his teen daughter a slut, and Rust cover up the shooting of a handcuffed man and sneer at Maggie, you recognize that their whole lives have been about fighting darkness to cover up their own, and raging at powerful men because those men treat them the same way they treat their wives and daughters – you understand that they cannot stand for enduring that type of abuse from powerful men. They cannot be made women in their own world.
The body they saw posed in the cane fields that day did not evoke their sympathy for it being the death of a human being, a woman. No, it bothered them because in it they saw the work of a man who believed himself to be more powerful than they, playing out a battle of wits with them writ large on women’s bodies, as so many wars between monsters have been waged.
On reflection, looking at shows like this and considering my own experiences, what fascinated me was that we have so many stories like this that help us empathize with monstrous men. “Yes, these men are flawed, but they are not as evil as THIS man.” Even more chilling, they tend to be stories that paint women as roadblocks, aggressors, antagonists, complications – but only in the context of them being a bitch, a whore, a madonna. They are never people.
Stories about monstrous men are not meant to teach us how to empathize with the women and children murdered, but with the men fighting over their bodies.
As a woman menaced by a monster, I find this particularly interesting, this erasure of me from a narrative meant to – if not justify – then explain the brokenness of men. There are shows much better at this, of course, which don’t paint women out of the story – Mad Men is the first to come to mind, and GoT – but True Detective doubled down.
The women terrorized by monsters in real life are active agents. They are monster-slayers, monster-pacifiers, monster-nurturers, monster-wranglers – and some of them are monsters, too. In truth, if we are telling a tale of those who fight monsters, it fascinates me that we are not telling more women’s stories, as we’ve spun so many narratives like True Detective that so blatantly illustrate the sexist masculinity trap that turns so many human men into the very things they despise.
Where are the women who fight them? Who partner with them? Who overcome them? Who battle their own monsters to fight greater ones?
Because I have and continue to be one of those women, navigating a horrorshow world of monsters and madmen. We are women who write books and win awards and fight battles and carve out extraordinary lives from ruin and ash. We are not background scenery, our voices silenced, our motives and methods constrained to sex.
I cannot fault the show’s men for forgetting that; they’ve created the world as they see it. But I can prod the show’s exceptional writers, because erasing the narrative of those whose very existence is constantly threatened to be extinguished by these monsters, including monsters they trust whose natures vacillate wildly, you sided with the monsters.
I’m not a bit player in a monster’s story. But with narratives like this perpetuated across our media, it wouldn’t surprise me if that’s how my obituary read; a catalogue of the men who sired me, and fucked me, and courted me.
Stories that are not my own.
Funny, isn’t it? The power of story.
It’s why I picked up a pen.
I slay monsters, too. And I won’t be written out of my own story.