The Limits of Control: Six Examples of Masculinity in True Detective


What does it mean to be a man? If you were to ask this question in the world of True Detective, you would probably see a pair of dark, brooding eyes staring back at you. They narrow in suspicion as a hand retrieves a bottle of hard liquor from nowhere, pours a hefty glass and raises it to a parched mouth, lips curled into a snarl. And as the drink is consumed in a single gulp, you find your answer.

Masculinity is one of True Detective’s driving obsessions. While both seasons feature a predominantly male cast of characters, the show is not concerned with definitions of masculinity so much as a single definition: a rugged, by-gone era of machismo. During an interview with Los Angeles Magazine, Nic Pizzolatto said regarding the casting of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson:

"“It was important to me that we cast real men who’ve lived real lives. I wanted men who knew about both failure and success in life, family, and responsibility. They both exude this overt, old-school, very American masculinity that I think is essential for these two characters to work.”"

While some viewers enjoyed this throwback to a dated, perhaps John Wayne era male archetype, others were not so enthused.

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Some viewers and critics scolded True Detective season one for its representation of masculinity, specifically in regard to its misogynistic overtones. Emily Nussbaum, perhaps True Detective’s single greatest detractor, commented extensively on the “macho nonsense” and “paper thin” characterization of women throughout the first season’s run, roundly dismissing the show’s female characters as, “Wives and sluts and daughters—none with any interior life.”

She was not alone. Writers from The Guardian, Jezebel, and Slate all noted sexism and male chauvinism in True Detective season one, but not without recognizing one important caveat.

That representation was intentional. The environment that Nic Pizzolatto populated with bad men and powerless women was not viewed in a mirror of the world as it exists, per se, but through the lens of the protagonists. Our vision was tainted by their worldview. We saw it in the fading towns and trailer camps, the proliferating flora and fauna, the rising plumes of pollution; all manifestations of Louisiana’s physical reality, but selective and embellished. We saw it too in the women, who, in the eyes of Rust and Marty, were either distanced or objectified.

What about True Detective as a whole? As we near the season two finale, what can we glean from the show about masculinity and how, if at all, has the definition changed?

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Marty Heart

Let’s start with season one. Martin Hart is depicted as a man struggling against the current of time, of changing conventions and circumstances over which he can exert less and less control. We see this in his conception of family, a unit designed almost exclusively to satisfy his own needs, the home a place of peace and calm. “Who told you that?” Maggie asks, raising the generational influence that informed this outlook. The women in his life are all objects that he covets and protects until they threaten his way of being, at which point he resorts to violence. This also reveals his outmoded way of thinking, a lifelong endeavor to swim against the flow of forward motion, to maintain control. In the end, it costs him everything.

Rust Cohle

Rust doesn’t fare much better. While he does not share in Marty’s blatant misogyny, his masculinity is also defined in relation to women. A tragic event in his past caused him to disassociate from women and family, which made the dinner at Marty’s home impossible to attend sober. He finds little satisfaction in the one relationship that he manages to hold onto during the season, and feels almost no compassion for women in general. He mocks Marty for showing concern for a girl at the bunny ranch, and goes so far as to tell a woman with Munchausen’s-by-proxy to commit suicide. This again ties into themes of control and possession: Rust has no sympathy for what he knows he cannot have.

Ray Velcoro

The definition of masculinity is not so entrenched in male chauvinism in season two, but a familiar theme crops up once again: control. We see this first in Ray Velcoro, a Vinci City cop with strained allegiances. As he struggles to maintain a relationship with his son and battles for custody with his wife, he also attempts to balance his loyalties between the city police department and the mobster who owns him. He tries to establish a connection with his son by purchasing model jet fighters, an outdated pastime that Chad rejects with the phrase, “It kills people.” He has equal difficulty appeasing both his masters, a God and Mammon situation that establishes Ray as a man with absolutely no control over his situation.

Frank Semyon

The concept of masculinity, or loss thereof, is perhaps most thoroughly explored in the character of Frank Semyon. Former mobster turned straight-laced businessman (sort of, not really), Frank might very well be the most impotent man in California. As he tries to secure a buy-in from Russian-Israeli Osip Agronov, Frank willingly plays the subordinate. “I will close when I am ready to close,” Osip says, and by accepting his empty glass, Frank is reminded of his station. On the home front, he and his wife Jordan want to have a baby, but when they pay a visit to the fertility clinic he has a little difficulty rising to the occasion. Even the poor guy’s avocado trees can’t stay up. While taken to the extreme, the theme of control is once again at play here, and is further explored in a more nuanced manner through the character of Paul Woodrugh.

Paul Woodrugh

Military-man turned motorcycle cop, Paul Woodrugh may feature the most complex (or at least conflicted) exploration of masculinity in the entire run of True Detective. A closeted homosexual, Paul tries desperately to control his desires and live a normal life when he finds out that his girlfriend is pregnant. The result is a life of inner torment masked by icy stoicism. When his past comes back to haunt him in “Black Maps and Motel Rooms,” he chooses not to confront his sexual identity but the men who hold his blackmail photos. He surmounts incredible odds and comes out of the subway gunfight relatively unscathed, only to be gunned down by Lt. Burris. Like all of True Detective’s protagonists, Woodrugh grasps desperately at control, but ultimately fails to seize it.

Ani Bezzerides

Ani Bezzerides, True Detective’s first and only female lead, is more of a man than most. She can throw back whisky with the best of ‘em and brush off her boyfriend like it ain’t no thang. She spends her spare time reading Hagakure and practicing stabbing techniques on a wooden dummy. Truly, she is the very definition of machismo. She finds a kindred soul in Marty to some extant, treating men as idle playthings that can be casually tossed aside (perhaps Pizzolatto wanted to see if her treatment of men would draw the same backlash as Marty’s treatment of women). Like her male counterparts, Ani is trying to run from a past that won’t let her go and find control in life. She attempts to influence her sister, her partner, and even her fellow detectives, usually to poor effect. When confronted with the possibility of losing control after she is dosed with MDMA, Ani still clings onto her faculties for as long as she can. When she finally surrenders control in the hotel room with Ray, it is met only with rejection.

So, what does it mean to be a man in the world of True Detective? It means that your past cannot be reconciled with your present. It means that life will find ways to take from you all the things that you hold dear. And it means that no matter how hard you strive for control, it will always evade you.

Now where’s that bottle of hard liquor?

Next: True Detective's Ratings Continue to Fall Steadily