The Double in True Detective

Dr. Jekyll famously posited that “man is not truly one, but two,” a reference to one of the tenets of Gothic fiction: the double. Page through the genre’s staples, and the sets of doubles are as ubiquitous as stormy weather or labyrinthine abodes. Often, Gothic twinning is representative of the duality within man, or simply put, good versus evil, as with the aforementioned Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Other Gothic pairs include Matilda and Isabella in The Castle of Otranto, Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason, and Dr. Frankenstein and the Creature.

The double was passed down to the Gothic novel’s descendant, horror film. Buffy the Vampire Slayer memorably used the double in the episode “Doppelgangland,” wherein Willow’s vampire doppelganger from another dimension takes a trip to Sunnydale and thoroughly confounds the Scooby Gang, who understandably assume that their good friend has been killed.

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Willow encounters her vampy double.

In Buffy, the double is used for comedic effect, allowing for some great mistaken identity gags. But laughs aside, the episode nicely typifies the double’s place in Gothic fiction. In the episode, Willow is questioning her reputation as a reliable, maybe predictable person. She meets her double just as she’s in the process of reevaluating herself. Horror films and novels are often about subverting our constructions of normalcy (that’s why Michael Myers terrorizes an idyllic suburban neighborhood), and what’s more disturbing than being confronted with your own construction of self? In meeting our doubles, we must reflect on the permeability of our identities.

Fitting, then, that HBO’s True Detective, a show that spends a lot of time considering the nature of selfhood, is littered with doubles. The most obvious pairing is Matthew McConaughey’s Detective Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson’s Detective Marty Hart, a couple of Louisiana cops tasked with solving a gruesome murder. At first the men seem quite different; Cohle lives alone, and is fairly antisocial and prone to philosophizing, while Hart is a family man who seems to enjoy beers with the fellas and a good dirty joke. As the show continues, though, the characters become more and more complex, and more and more similar. “You’re obsessive,” Hart says to his partner in the most recent episode. “You’re obsessive too,” Cohle replies. “Just not about work.” Even without verbalizing their similarities, the show frames the two men as doubles, dressing them in the same palette or shooting them in parallel, as if they’re two sides of the same coin.

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Doubling can also be found in the form of Hart’s daughters, cherubic blondes who are often dressed almost identically and, in a recent scene, were blocked to move in unison.

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See also: the double date between Hart, his wife, Cohle and his setup. Notice that Hart’s wife, played by Michelle Monaghan, also physically resembles Cohle’s date, creating another visual double. During the date, a thematic doubling of sorts arises during the characters’ conversation about synesthesia. Cohle explains his condition as “a type of hypersensitivity. One sense triggers another sense. Like, sometimes I’ll see a color and it’ll put a taste in my mouth; a touch, a texture, a scent may put a note in my head.” Replies his date, “So when something feels good, does that mean it feels twice as good? Like, say, two different ways?”

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Lastly, Cohle and Hart, while doubling each other, are further doubled by the detectives who interview them in the show’s framing device.

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Even the show’s title, True Detective, can connect back to doubling, for in not pluralizing the noun it’s as if the two protagonists we see on-screen are in some ways one and the same. Toward the close of the most recent episode, Hart, somewhat uncharacteristically, asks Cohle a question about selfhood. “Do you wonder, ever, if you’re a bad man?” he asks. “The world needs bad men,” Cohle replies. “We keep the other bad men from the door.” At episode’s end, the bad man is revealed: a naked figure holding a machete and wearing a gas mask stalks across the frame, ostensibly the killer we and the detectives have been searching for. But earlier Cohle and Hart were established as bad men themselves, and so is this not another metaphorical, monstrous double? Already the lines between “good” and “bad” have been muddied in True Detective‘s universe, but often in Gothic fiction one double subsumes the other. In the end, this may be a story of death, but the mutilated bodies we’ve already encountered may not be the only victims.

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On Racism

A few evenings ago I was riding the train home from work with two of my coworkers, S and B, and our student, J. J is our only student who takes the train after extended day; 99 percent of the student body lives no more than a few blocks away from the middle school, but J lives in Flatbush, a few trains away. Since S, B and I also live either in or near Flatbush, we wait for J after school so that so he doesn’t have to take the train alone.

J’s school situation is unique for a few reasons, including the fact that his commute is far longer than most kids’. He is also one of the only African American students at school. The sixth-grade class is probably eighty percent Arabic, ten percent Asian, five percent Hispanic and four percent white. J also tragically lost his father recently, and some of those elements led him to act out a lot at the beginning of the year. He got detention for getting in a fight. He threw tantrums and hid under desks. And yet, as the year has progressed, his behavior has gotten better and better. He’s super popular thanks to his undeniable charm, sharp mind and great moves on the basketball court. Despite some huge challenges, he has excelled at school.

Cut to the recent train ride. “Ms. V [one of our coworkers] is racist,” J nonchalantly shared. S, B and I glanced at one another apprehensively. On the one hand, J is prone to hyperbole. At the same time, Ms. V is infamous for saying borderline inappropriate things to her students, so J’s comment wasn’t entirely unbelievable.

“Why do you say that?” B asked.

“In homework, we were talking about lice,” J explained. “And she leaned over to me and said, ‘Black people don’t wash their hair.'”

My mouth dropped open as myriad questions came to mind: Why would anyone say that? Why would anyone say that to their student? Why would anyone say that to their black student?

“How did that make you feel?” B asked.

“She likes me,” J replied. “I didn’t say anything because I need her to keep signing my reading log.”

There was a long pause as S, B and I contemplated what to say. “You’re probably going to meet some racist people in your life,” I began, but trailed off as J looked up at us, his wide brown eyes filled not with hurt or anger, but something like curiosity.

“Yeah,” S added. “But not in school!”

She was right. School needs to be a safe space. What did it say about J’s conception of society that he felt comfortable staying quiet in that moment so that he could get a signature and not cause problems? But clearly he was looking for allies, for someone to be on his side, or else he wouldn’t have confided in us.

“Someone else can sign your reading log,” I said. “You need to tell Ms. R [our boss]. Ms. V has no right to say something like that to you.”

B and S agreed and offered J their support as well. He pushed his glasses off the temple of his nose and looked downward, silently weighing our suggestions. Then he changed the subject. A few stops later, the four of us parted ways at Atlantic Avenue. S headed to her second job as a waitress in Park Slope. B took the Q train to church. J and I settled into two seats across from each other on a crowded 2 train toward Flatbush. I was scanning the New York Times when J said, “You’ll have to remind me tomorrow.”

“What?” I looked up at him. “Remind you about what?”

“To talk to Ms. R,” J said succinctly. “I’ll forget.”

I nodded, but I wanted to hug him. I was so proud that he had decided to take that step, that he understood his self-worth and wouldn’t let Ms. V take advantage of her position of power. It gave me hope that as J gets older and continues to deal with racists, with people who underestimate him or assume that his silence is a foregone conclusion because he is not privileged, he’ll challenge the status quo.

The Good Wife Problems

So, The Good Wife. We got off to a great start with Cary and Alicia splitting from Lockhart/Gardner to create their own firm. Things have gone decidedly downhill from there—both for our characters and for the viewers. Not everything is bad, but I, for one, am getting tired of Will vs. Alicia. I loved it at first, but it’s becoming super petty and their rivalry takes away screentime that could be devoted to interesting in-house Florrick/Agos developments (cough cough, MORE CARY TIME). Besides wonky Will and Alicia, the Marilyn pregnancy bit was weird, and Kalinda is being wasted (although I loved that Kalinda/Cary fun in this episode; much better than previous use of Matt and Archie).

All that being said, I am enjoying the overarching storyline about Peter’s ethics violations, and the murky ethical/emotional ground everyone is on at this point. I knew when we saw Melissa George that the Ethics Commissioner would play an integral role this season, and her purpose has come to the forefront with the reemergence of the stuffed ballot box.

Here’s the problem: Who to root for? Continue reading

Is “The Wolf of Wall Street” Sexist?

Margot Robbie in The Wolf Of Wall Street

I just read this piece on Jezebel titled “A Lady’s Defense of The Wolf of Wall Street,” which seeks to defend the Scorsese picture against claims that “the filmmaker was sexist, and the script was sexist, and the portrayal of women was sexist, and this was offensive and bad and we should not give our money to such a heinous endeavor (because, you know, sexist).” Author Sara Benincasa doesn’t really argue whether or not the movie is sexist (although she does helpfully state, “[T]he film is not sexist or misogynist”); rather, her thesis seems to be that the film is drawing the viewers into the hedonistic, misogynistic, sexist, over-the-top world of its characters in order to hold up a mirror to the audience, to prove that we are “desperate, and greedy, and all too willing to be led.”

All this may be true—I have not seen the movie yet, so I can’t say—but I was disappointed that the article’s response to the film’s sexism (or lack thereof) was pretty much summed up thusly: “depiction of bad behavior does not constitute endorsement of said bad behavior.” I emphatically agree, but I don’t think that really answers the question. A piece of art is not sexist because it contains sexism. A piece of art should convey truth, and if sexism is part of that truth (as it was for Belfort and his buddies), then so be it. A piece of art is sexist when its women are not whole.

Case in point: Mad Men. No fan could argue the point that many of the male leads are sexist, but that does not make the show sexist. The show is not sexist—in fact, it’s quite feminist—because its female characters are as well-drawn as its male characters. The women are real people with thought, emotion and depth; they are not the caricatures many men of that era made them out to be.

So, having not yet seen The Wolf of Wall Street, these are my questions: Does it pass the Bechdel test? Is Margot Robbie’s character as human as any man onscreen? DiCaprio’s Belfort may not treat her with respect, but does the camera treat her with respect?

Those questions are not so easy to answer sometimes. If Scorsese is trying to draw us into Belfort’s world, then is it possible to separate Belfort’s gaze and the camera’s gaze? If Belfort sees Robbie’s character as a plaything, then should the film? I would argue no, and Scorsese’s track record gives me some measure of faith. This is a man who loves to explore masculinity on film, but not always at the expense of his female actors (see: Lorraine Bracco in GoodFellas or Cate Blanchett in The Aviator). How much of this is due to the performers, though? Vera Farmiga’s character in The Departed, for example, is paper thin, but Farmiga is skilled enough to create something out of virtually nothing. (Not surprisingly, you can now catch Farmiga acting the hell out of her role on Bates Motel—television seems to be the medium of choice for strong roles for women.)

Speaking of great performances by women this year, I saw American Hustle last night and was blown away by Jennifer Lawrence. I had read the accolades and was skeptical—I sort of assumed that her newfound status as America’s Sweetheart elevated the praise, especially since Amy Adams is the female lead—but boy, were the critics right. Lawrence is hilarious and sad and bawdy, and every other emotional shade in between. Thinking back on this year’s 2013’s films—with Adele and Emma in Blue Is the Warmest Color, Carey Mulligan’s Jean in Inside Llewyn Davis, Lupita Nyong’o in 12 Years a Slave, Julia Louis-Dreyfus in Enough Said, Oprah in The Butler, Scarlett in Her—it wasn’t a bad year for women in the movies, with or without Scorsese’s help.