True Detective and Rape Culture

[Content Note: Discussion of sexual violence. Spoilers from the series True Detective.]

image of Matthew McConaughey looking at birds flying in a pattern from an episode of True Detective

So, I wasn't really invested in a lot of the fan theories during the eight-episode run of True Detective, although I enjoyed reading them. Me, I just took showrunner Nic Pizzolatto's word for it that it was primarily a story about two men and the changes they go through as they pursue a disturbing case over the course of 17 years, and I didn't expect every little thread to be tied into a neat bow at the end. (I'll come back to that.)

But I'm completely fascinated by all the disgruntlement being expressed about the series finale. (Which is why I love this post by Danger Guerrero.) Specifically the consternation regarding two things: 1. Rust Cohle's hopefulness at the end; 2. The failure to tie up some aspects of the larger conspiracy of abuse and concealment.

1. It might not seem on its face like Rust's final, beautiful observation—"Once there was only dark. And if you ask me, the light's winning."—has anything to do with rape culture, but stay with me.

Throughout the series, Rust was a nihilistic atheist deeply mired in personal darkness. In the final scenes, he reveals to Marty Hart that, while on the brink of death, he experienced a feeling of overwhelming love from people he'd lost, before making his hopeful comment about the light winning.

Some people have read this as a betrayal of Rust's atheism, which is really a whole other post; I personally didn't see anything that suggested a sudden god-belief or spirituality, but whatever. And others see, or also see, his new-found hopefulness as too tidy an ending.

It was, they argue, too easy, too trite, too insubstantial for Rust to emerge from a near-death experience following a 17-year pursuit of a serial rapist and killer to find himself hopeful in a way he had not been before.

I can't emphasize enough how truly not tidy or cheap it is to show a person who has spent long years immersed in the rape culture seeing light in a world where once zie had seen only darkness, especially following a victory after long pursuit of justice.

This is a reality for many people involved in anti-rape and anti-violence advocacy and the investigation and prosecution of these crimes. It fucks with your hope. It is a dark and shitty place to spend your time, and moments of hopefulness are hard-won. To not understand that, to not recognize how profound and meaningful and precious Rust's thought of a winning lightness really was, is a luxury granted by never lingering inside that hope-fucking space.

I also feel like it's important to acknowledge that there are people involved in this sort of work (as well as people who aren't) who are essentially nihilistic in nature, but rely on key moments of hopefulness to sustain them. They are not as wholly incompatible, especially inside the complex context of the human psyche, as the desire for a more simplistic narrative of impenetrable nihilism in order to maintain authenticity, or integrity, would suggest.

2. Two of the major "loose ends" that some fans are annoyed weren't neatly tied up are the higher-ups in the abuse ring and the suggestion that Marty's daughter Audrey was a childhood victim of someone associated with the abuse ring.

Well, the truth is, Important Men get away with abusive shit all the time. So, it's frankly more realistic, and more reflective of what the rape culture actually looks like and how it functions, for the Important Men at the top of the abuse ring to escape justice.

That said, I do think dismissing the potential for a theoretical continuing storyline in which the two black cops run with the investigation dismisses their importance to the story. They went all in, when it came down to it. In this fictional world, I'll trust them to see it through.

And Audrey. Oh, Audrey. I identified so strongly with this character in so many ways. And I think that it's very likely she was sexually abused by someone connected to the abuse ring. There were signs throughout the story—her childhood drawings of graphic sex; possible references to the Yellow King in her artwork; her precocious sexuality.

The scene in which Audrey has been brought home by Marty, her father, after being busted having sex in public with two boys, was incredibly difficult for me to watch. He yells at her and slaps her and slut-shames her. He is a detective charged with investigating sex abuse, who has nothing but murderous contempt for sexual predators who harm children, and yet he fails to notice the evidence suggesting his daughter has been abused. When she acts out sexually, in a way many survivors of childhood sexual violence do, he has violent contempt for her.

Like many Professional Patriarchs who hate men who harm women, Marty isn't very good at seeing evidence of that harm in his own home. Even and especially when it's harm he's done via neglect.

That, too, is reflective of a truth about the rape culture. (And it's reflective of Marty's characterization throughout the show, who never paid enough attention at home.) Sometimes dads get angry at their daughters for being survivors, because they've overlooked altogether that their daughters are survivors.

And often it's the men who are most invested in stereotypes of male protection who fail the hardest to see evidence of abuse in their own homes, because their own self-identities are so wrapped up in there not being evidence of abuse in their own homes.

That is a loose end that can't get tied up, because Marty's not the guy to do it. He's a better cop than a father. And that hasn't changed when the series ends.

That would have been too tidy.

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