In this golden age of television, there is much joy. Between the premium channels like HBO and Showtime, new world players Netflix and Amazon, and even the occasional cable network, the art of the TV series has enjoyed a recent renaissance. The freshness and vibrancy of these shows is largely thanks to the diversity that has emerged. Although there’s always room for improvement, shows like Broad City, Empire, Transparent, Inside Amy Schumer and Jane the Virgin are representing a wider range of genders, colors and sexual orientations in mainstream culture.
This burgeoning tendency to tell richer, larger stories doesn’t just illuminate traditionally underrepresented populations. It also casts a garish spotlight on shows that are not evolving. The shows that have an Ed Hardy-scented early-aughts aura. The shows that are moving at the progressive speed of Hollywood film. After all, the year that brought us Fresh Off the Boat, the first Asian American family sitcom since Margaret Cho’s All American Girl twenty goddamn years prior, also brought us Cameron Crowe’s national disgrace piece, Aloha.
It’s this stifled, stale air that clings especially to the second season of True Detective, which wrapped up last night on HBO. With the deafening negative buzz surrounding the Nic Pizzolatto’s sophomore effort, it’s tough to remember how monumental a force that Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey enacted last year. The mood and setting and strangeness evident from just the first few moments was captivating in that perfect, magical sense that is almost impossible to repeat.
Although the “buddy” plotline was engrossing and the story (up until the last disappointing episode) kept us writing amazing theories on conspiracy plots and obscure literature (all hail The Yellow King!), True Detective had some problems. And not just with red herrings and continuity. The show was cruel to women. Not only were they symbolically tortured and murdered—this isn’t the first time we’ve endured misogynistic violence as a set-piece, after all. But unlike, say, Game of Thrones, which at least features complex female characters, True Detective’s women were nothing but whores and victims. They remained on the plotline’s periphery, breaking up or cheating on their spouses. Splaying provocatively at a murder scene. Begging to be fucked.
With the freight train of success that True Detective Season One brought HBO, crashing apps and reinvigorating careers, a follow-up was assured. Rumors were circulating early that Season 2 would solve “the lady problem,” maybe even with two women stepping into Matt and Woody’s places. Can you imagine?! Lady cops! What an age.
Big, bold, strong names churned through the rumor mill. Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss was whispered. Jessica Chastain was an early frontrunner. Cate Blanchett. Michelle Forbes. What we know now, of course, is that the duo became a trio, skewing white male with Colin Farrell, Taylor Kitsch and Rachel McAdams. And an incomprehensible, how-do-these-things-happen Vince Vaughn.
What True Detective has shown us is that casting women isn’t the same as featuring women. McAdams’ character is, like most women in True Detective, a sexual assault survivor. So is Farrell’s wife. Vaughn’s wife may not be—we honestly don’t know anything about her except for the fact that she likes maxi dresses and has trouble conceiving a child—but like the other two, her main character trait and motivation stems from her troubled uterus. Farrell’s wife (you’ll have to forgive me, I was so disengaged by this season that I can’t remember a single character name) may have conceived a son by rape. McAdams’ guilt over her kidnapping and assault makes her cold and bad at relationships. Mrs. Vaughn doesn’t seem to do anything except lurk around the house waiting to see if a baby appears. It’s as if Pizzolatto cannot fathom a reason that a woman would be distant or angry aside from “being turned into a whore,” as one of the men spat during last night’s finale.
In the end, Farrell and Vaughn were left to fight out the mystery, as it was. A complicated city corruption case I could only make sense of after reading Slate’s masterful breakdown this week. The men went out in a blaze of glory, shooting at the bad guys and forcing the villains to confess. The women fled to Venezuela in hiding, baring the men’s stories and (surprise) children with them. In the last scene, a flash-forward to one year later, McAdams surrenders all of the case’s evidence over to a (male) reporter, saying that she wants to clear Farrell’s name for the sake of his son. She then facelessly disappears into a crowd, dissolving into a final blur.
This is a world where the only motivation for a woman is victimhood, and that for a man is revenge. It’s a strand of violence that is cyclical, and it’s a trope that is very, very old. There are so many things that make people tick; so many reasons to be jealous or suspicious or ambitious or cruel. Women can have violent pasts and bright futures. They can find an answer in something that doesn’t involve childbirth. And yet, this is what one of HBO’s best backed shows wants to present. Again.
“You’re a lady cop?” Vaughn asks McAdams in the finale. She cannot argue this fact. He clarifies that he means good. Pure. That’s a lady, after all. A vessel that complicated, difficult men like Vaughn and Farrell can pour their stories into. They are the means by which they can live their legacies beyond their time on earth, through bloodlines and legend. Good women are good for this job. Bad women, the whores, are sent away (like McAdams’ sex worker sister) or murdered. Men can be ciphers and enigmas; meaty character studies. They are allowed to be human while the women watch and reflect.
Ten years ago, we might be cheering that a female ran with the boys at all in such a high profile series. But now, with so many brilliant choices crowding our DVRs, I am hungry and I am greedy. I want much, much more.