About That True Detective Sex Scene

Early in True Detective’s run, some were rankled by the sex scene in episode two between Hart and his mistress, in which the camera luxuriated in and leered at actress Alexandra Daddario’s naked body. I wasn’t bothered by the scene because, indulgent as the focus on Ms. Daddario’s assets might have seemed, it effectively replicated Marty Hart’s gaze and thus felt understandable. But it’s true, as Emily Nussbaum wrote in The New Yorker after last Sunday’s episode, that as the show has gone on, its women have not been shaded in much. True Detective’s world is populated by, per Nussbaum, “slack-jawed teen prostitutes,” “strippers gyrating in the background of police work,” “the designated put-upon wifely character” and “the occasional cameo hussy.” These women seem to exist in the show’s world simply to deepen our understanding of the two main characters, which is what made the most recent episode so strange for me.

SPOILERS. In episode six, Maggie Hart (Michelle Monaghan) finds out her husband is, once again, cheating on her. In an effort to enrage Marty and send him out of the house, Maggie seduces his partner, Rust, then tells Rust what her plan was and later tells Marty what she has done, effectively blowing up both their home life and Marty and Rust’s professional relationship.

Due to the show’s framing device, viewers knew that Rust and Hart would split as partners in 2002, and to the observant viewer the reason for the impending split was easy to predict (the show’s first five episodes were peppered with Maggie/Rust scenes that crackled with chemistry), so I was not the least bit surprised when Maggie knocked on Rust’s door in the last episode.

The plot wasn’t what threw me; it was the perspective. The sex scene, as Willa Paskin notes in her Slate piece, positions Maggie as the one with agency. “Rust and Marty both became, however briefly, pawns in her story,” Paskin writes. Indeed, just before Maggie arrives Rust is in his desolate apartment trying to puzzle together the Yellow King mystery. He hears a knock at the door, and rather than track Rust as he finds out who it is, the camera cuts outside so that the viewer sees Maggie looking distressed in front of Rust’s apartment.

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By cutting to Maggie before Rust opens the door, the show is placing us outside of his point of view and sending us a message: Rust is not the protagonist in this scene. Next, Maggie initiates contact.
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And then we get a unique shot of the couple framed through the cabinets and counter in Rust’s kitchen. Rust is still hesitant, and in this shot we can only see Maggie’s face as she tries to get him to capitulate. The shot further emphasizes Maggie’s place in the scene’s power dynamic.

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After Rust is finished, the camera lingers on Maggie’s face, asking the viewer to contemplate these events from her point of view.

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And in a particularly great shot, we cut to a close-up of Maggie’s hand delicately pushing Rust away so that she can put her panties back on.

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From start to finish, Maggie is in control. The scene’s writing and direction emphasize her experience of the event at hand, an extreme change of perspective since until now the entire show has been filtered through Rust and Hart’s points of view. The change doesn’t last long, though. A beat later, we fully shift to Rust’s reaction to Maggie’s betrayal. The scene ends with a shot of Rust alone in his apartment, stricken and solitary.

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Suddenly, the scene seems meant to illuminate Rust for the audience. His reaction to Maggie’s behavior—it is presented as Maggie’s behavior—shows him to be a “good man,” a principled man who has had a lapse in judgement because he is incredibly lonely and vulnerable. Similarly, the next 2002 scene is Maggie’s confession. She tells Hart what she has done, and the moment is meant to further clarify that Hart is a hothead with anger and control issues.

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In the end, Hart and Rust brawl in the police station parking lot and ultimately break up. The story is emphatically not of Maggie’s liberation from her marriage, and I don’t think it should be. But why frame the sex scene from Maggie’s perspective instead of Rust’s, when True Detective hasn’t made any other attempts to consider its female characters’ inner lives?

Rust has increasingly been positioned as the hero of True Detective. He may be deeply flawed, but he is also the only character who seems to really want to solve the Yellow King mystery and save the women and children the killer is terrorizing. The show asks us to root for Rust, particularly in the last episode, which featured Rust in multiple face-offs—with our presumed Bad Guy, the hot mess that is Marty Hart, and The Man in the form of his lazy or willfully ignorant superiors at the police station—in which he was in the right. So is it a coincidence that we switch perspectives right when Rust could, by sleeping with his partner’s wife, become the bad guy? By placing Maggie as agent, the viewer is allowed to let Rust off the hook and blame Maggie, who is once again reduced to a stereotype: the sexually manipulative woman.

House of Cards Questions (No Spoilers)

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On kind of a theoretical level, not a plot level.

First, please take this survey:

1. Is one of the following shows the best drama of all time? 

The Wire

The Sopranos

Breaking Bad

Mad Men

a. Yes

b. No

2. Totally love…

a. Hannibal

b. The Following

3. Currently watching True Detective (or waiting to binge it)?

a. Yes

b. No

4. “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.”

a. Can’t lose…what? I don’t get it.

b. GO PANTHERS (OR LIONS)!

If your results were a, a, a, and b, we, as television viewers, are on the same page (i.e. we are both probably kind of TV elitists), and so you may be more inclined to agree with me (and many of the critics we probably both read) on some of the things I’m going to basically state as objective truths regarding House of Cards. Like:

  • House of Cards looks great. It does not look “inexpensive” (said in Nina Garcia clipped tone).
  • House of Cards is extremely campy.
  • Many of House of Cards’ happenings defy all logic or reason.
  • Character motivations on House of Cards are often hard to pin down.
  • House of Cards writers do generally frowned upon things like inform the audience that a heretofore major character has been fired in a throwaway line, or baby us through upcoming plot twists through early-episode anecdotes from Freddy the grillmaster that basically scream “PAY ATTENTION THIS IS A METAPHOR PAY ATTENTION VIEWER.”
  • House of Cards is very fun and easy to binge watch.

So, could House of Cards possibly succeed if it were aired week to week? This is a show that pulls you in with a distinct, sleek visual palette, a fun, hammy main character and the promise of plot twists and political machinations. It’s a foregone conclusion that Frank will own everyone (and an all-powerful main character would usually be a problem for a show), so the fun is in watching how he owns everyone and who his casualties are. Sometimes the show is patently ridiculous in a vaguely self-aware way (Frank’s outfit when he SPOILERS SPOILER; the computer hacker with the guinea pig; the shenanigans with the Secret Service agent). Other times, it becomes suddenly self-serious, or maybe self-reflective is a better word (that one Claire scene toward the end of this season).

But these tone inconsistencies never seem like a problem if you digest the whole show in one bite, like an amuse-bouche in television form. When you are clicking through from chapter to chapter, you don’t have the time, or in my case the inclination, to sit down and let the show and its various nonsensical plot mechanics and thin characterizations marinate. It’s an interesting viewing experience in comparison to True Detective, a show that begs to be parsed and re-watched.

I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the House of Cards brand of entertainment. If anything, I think it’s kind of genius. Here is a show that fuses method of consumption with content, and has gotten awards and buzz out of it. But will this become a trend? As television shows become available via diverse platforms, will the way those shows are constructed change accordingly? Nothing seems to indicate that a Netflix show has to follow the House of Cards mode (I have not watched Orange Is the New Black, but from what I have heard it is better written than HoC), but given its success, I wonder if Netflix will be inclined to greenlight shows that lend themselves to the binging model, even if they aren’t prestige dramas that are going to launch Netflix into the pantheon of greatness alongside HBO and AMC.

And again, it’s kind of fun to imagine how HoC would be different if it were airing weekly. Would it be better? Less addictive? It’s a moot point, I suppose. Frank Underwood once said, “I hate being kept in the dark. Waiting. Speculating.” No such problem for House of Cards fans.

Oh Captain, My Captain

derek-jeter

I always have trouble writing about baseball. My favorite seat at Yankee Stadium is the very middle of the very top row of the uppermost deck, directly behind home plate. From there, you can see the entire park laid out in front of you: the bursting stands, the immaculate emerald field, the glimpse of the train whirring by through the gap between the bleachers and right field. There’s something about the immensity of that scene contrasted with the specificity of baseball—the act of working the 3-2 count from an 0-2 hole, the bloop single, the centimeters that decide whether or not you beat out the throw to first—that makes the game almost beg for metaphors. Is what you find in that park, in that seat, in that moment between the third out and two outs with one on, is that somehow America in its essence? Does human nature lay in that moment? I’ve never been able to nail down what all of it means to me, or in general.

I remember, though, being in fifth grade, still new to New England and trying to figure out where I fit in. There was a Patriots flag hanging on the wall above my teacher’s desk, and a green monster in the corner near the closet. Ever the contrarian, and perhaps just looking for something to make me stand out, I impulsively stated that I was a Yankees fan when Matt Vanasse broached the baseball subject with me. “I bet you can’t name five Yankees players,” Matt sneered. I remember going home and looking the team up, reading through the roster. Every article I found related to the Yankees seemed to mention Jeter, the green-eyed captain. I vaguely recalled the signs I had seen on my first visit to Yankee Stadium, with “Marry Me Jeter” scrawled in marker. “Who is that?” I asked my mom at the time. Now, as I made myself into a Yankees fan in the heart of Red Sox nation, I had to admit that the guy was pretty worthy of matrimony, based on looks alone. That was before I understood the honor with which he led the team, the sly humor, the predilection for clutch hits. I probably loved Jeter before I loved baseball. When I listed not five but ten players for Matt V. the next day, I said “Derek Jeter” first. And he will always be the first, the best, for me. He represents how I became a fan and why I stayed a fan and what makes the Yankees, and baseball, great.

I remember that on a humid deep summer day in New England, me and my Yankee fan friends and my Red Sox fan friends, all of us thirteen years old or so, piled into my house’s third-floor attic for an afternoon game at Fenway on NESN and stayed there late into the night, when the second bout in the doubleheader finally ended. And then we got back up just a few hours later for yet another afternoon game. I don’t remember anything specific about the series, but I recall the silence when Jeter came up, the lack of heckling from the Sox fans. That silence was fear—of the ubiquitous single slapped the other way, perhaps—and respect. “I don’t hate that guy,” my friend Ryan, a Sox fan to his bones, once admitted. Jeter was a player we, the fans, could be proud of.

I remember being a teenager, hanging out at the old Stadium in my usual seat (I lived just across the bridge from the Stadium and would walk over at any opportunity), pounding the chainlink fence behind me to propel a rally against the Sox forward. A few drunk fans in the upper deck had been jawing at each other all game. Honestly, the Yanks fans were in the wrong; they’d been harassing some Bostonians since the first inning, and the jabs had only gotten worse as the innings progressed, the Sox lead grew, and the alcohol levels increased. As the Yankees fans continued to spit vitriol at the Sox fans, Bob Sheppard interrupted: “Now batting, num-ba 2, Der-ek, Jeet-a.” All eyes reached the plate. One of the Sox fans stood up and screamed, “He’s garbage! He’s trash compared to V-tek.” The entire section of the upper deck erupted in boos. “Throw. Her. Out!” we chanted. “You don’t insult our captain in OUR HOUSE!” one man shouted. Security guards took the bewildered woman by the arm and guided her away, to uproarious applause. I would normally never support the violation of this woman’s freedom of speech, but for the captain, we would do anything. That was Yankee Stadium justice. He’d probably disapprove, but that was Jeter justice.

Someday I’ll take my kids to Monument Park. I will show them the 42, then the 2. How will I be able to communicate how much that number meant to me? How much of my childhood and young adulthood were defined by that number, how it brought me to a place where I, in many ways, found a sense of self, of community, of hope? Will the game mean the same thing to my child? I guess there’s no way to know, but for now all I can say is thank you, my captain. I’ll miss you, and I’ll remember you.

Heartbreak in Homework

David is depressed. His brown eyes, usually flickering with bad ideas, have gone dead, and he cups his cheek in his palm, head lolling to the right. “What’s wrong with David?” Adam says, spinning around in his chair. Adam is David’s best friend, but they are not sitting together this homework period since Adam, within two minutes of the start of class, was moved to a table in the corner of the room where he might quiet down and focus. Lydia, too, has been moved away from her gaggle of girlfriends in the room’s far right corner and sits to my right, with Adam to my left.

“David, WHAT’S WRONG?” Adam yells. (David is less than two chairs away.) I try to quiet him down, but now the class has joined in and a chorus of pleas for David’s attention quickly becomes a class guessing game: why is David sad?

“He’s bored,” Carlos posits, inexplicably wandering from his seat across the room to my table as if he’s about to argue this point before me.

“He’s depressed!” Eric shouts with curious glee from behind his Harry Potter spectacles.

“He’s lonely,” Hanna proclaims, setting down her pencil with a finality that frightens me. She, too, stands up for no reason. “David?” She waves a tiny hand in front of him. David does not respond. I notice that Lydia is not entering the David fray, and remember that they recently began dating, in sixth-grade terms. His forlorn face, then, is obviously the expression of heartache.

Suddenly Mario, who was miraculously focused on writing a Reading Log summary a minute before, careens out of his chair toward David.

Flashback to three minutes ago: Mario, a perennial problem student, is doing his usual incoherent growling routine since I will not sign his Reading Log. He has presented it to me blank, with no summary of the text, although I saw him doing what appeared to be reading. “Write the summary and I’ll sign it,” I say.

“Fine, my mom will sign it,” he replies, pivoting away so forcefully that he almost falls over. Just seconds later, Eric—tables away but apparently eagle-eyed—yells, “Mario is forging his mom’s signature!”

I jump up from in between Adam and Lydia and grab the Reading Log as Mario concludes his forgery. “Who is his ELA teacher? I’ll let her know,” I say. Always more inclined to see a student get in trouble than help him, Mario’s classmates excitedly yell out the name of their ELA teacher.

“What? That’s illegal?” Mario takes the paper back and immediately erases the signature. “Just sign it!” he yells. I try not to stare at the raised scar on the top of his hand where he bit through the skin a few weeks ago, leaving a frightening trail of blood through the stairwell.

“Write the summary.” I point to the blank box and sit back down next to Adam, whose delicate focus is beginning to wane from his Muhammad Ali book.

Mario stands back up and approaches me gingerly. “What’s a summary? How do you write it?” he asks quietly.

I am relieved. So he isn’t just trying to cause trouble; he doesn’t understand what to do. I ask him to tell me what he read about. “Mummies during the Ice Age,” he explains. For a moment I contemplate whether or not this could be true, but then remember that Brad Pitt has a tattoo of Mario’s reading subject. Too much pop culture knowledge sometimes pays off.

brad-pitt-arm-tattoo

I tell Mario to write that down; a summary is just a description of the chapter. Mario gets to work. Adam shares the title of a Muhammad Ali movie referenced in his book. Lydia, who a second before confessed “I just like looking at the pictures” as she stared at her book, now vigorously turns a page. (She later tried to steal the book; I was partly annoyed and partly ecstatic.) The class is relatively quiet.

Fast-forward to present: Mario is flying toward David, who, apparently debilitated by thoughts of Lydia, shows no signs of movement. Mario stops short about an inch from David’s inexpressive face. “DAVID,” he spits. Almost every student in the class has turned away from his or her homework to either silently observe this interaction or offer commentary.

“Don’t touch him, you’ll catch it,” Lydia helpfully advises as I lodge myself in front of Mario. (‘It’ is a series of circles around her temple a.k.a. crazy.)

I instruct Mario to sit back down, reminding him that he is not even supposed to be in my class and that I’ll send him where he belongs without pause. (Truthfully, his rightful teacher begged me to adopt him for the period.)  Miraculously, Mario slowly backs away. He hands me his Reading Log, now with summary, for a signature. I sit next to David, relieved that a crisis has seemingly been averted. I give him a drawing challenge—draw a house with an X in the middle without lifting your pen or going back over lines.

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It’s no love potion, but it seems to do the trick.

Currently Reading

More accurately, just finished reading. Over the last two weeks, I read My Education, by Susan Choi, followed by The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., by Adelle Waldman. It was interesting to read the two novels back to back because My Education has a female protagonist in her early twenties, and by and large chronicles her love affair with a thirtysomething woman. On the other hand, The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. follows a thirtysomething male protagonist as he navigates relationships with multiple women in the Brooklyn literary scene. The books have some commonalities: both take place at least part of the time in New York, both main characters are writers, and I could relate to certain elements of both stories being that I, like Regina of My Education, am in my early twenties and I, like Nate of Love Affairs, live in Brooklyn.

Despite the fact that I probably have more in common with Regina, Love Affairs hit me on a gut level that My Education did not reach. This is how I know: I was devouring the book on my couch while my boyfriend was watching the Super Bowl. Boyfriend Alex decided to cuddle up next to me when the post-game episode of New Girl came on. “You don’t want to watch New Girl, babe?” he asked sweetly, knowing that I like the show.

“No, I’m reading,” I replied without even glancing at the television screen. The book’s main character, Nate, was in the midst of a horrible breakup with his girlfriend Hannah—horrible for her, I should say. I was reading through a scene in Prospect Park where she admitted that it wasn’t working out, to which he nodded his head. I knew, as I read, of the pain of that nod; the night before I’d been out with a girlfriend who had broken up with her boyfriend days earlier. “He didn’t even put up a fight,” she said, somewhat anguished. “I was surprised.”

I was mortified for Hannah, and mad at Nate, and at the same time completely enveloped in Nate’s perspective of the discussion/breakup. The book is written in close third and thus kind of reads like a decoder ringso this is what men are thinking! (I should note, it’s written by a woman. I am reading this blog post to Alex and he is not buying that it could correctly represent the male perspective, but it felt very, very real, and very male.)

Anyway, after I brushed off Alex’s New Girl suggestion, he jokingly said, “I feel like we don’t share anything anymore.” He was not being serious, not at all. Normally, knowing his sense of humor, such a comment wouldn’t bother me, wouldn’t even register for me. I would just smile indulgently. But so disturbed was I by the preceding 200 pages of Nate’s point of view, so wrapped up was I in his stark judgement of women and relationships, so angsty was I over the in-progress breakup, that I set the iPhone on which I was reading down and cried, “What are you talking about? Are you serious?”

Alex was understandably taken aback. He quickly reassured me that he was joking, that it was a stupid joke. I persisted. “Are you sure there’s not some truth to the comment?” I said.

Memories of Hannah and Nate’s fictional miscommunications filled my brain. I thought of how she, in his eyes, became meek and overly emotional, while it was clear to me that she was reacting to his increasing disengagement. She would beg him to tell her if something was bothering him. He, turned off by that very begging, would deny that anything was wrong and continue to shrink away.

“You can tell me!” I nearly shrieked, suddenly irrationally convinced that Alex’s ill-advised joke portended the demise of our heretofore stable, two-yearlong relationship. In a flash, it seemed that our shared cat Chives, Brooklyn apartment not so unlike Nate’s and life together could be on the line.

Alex, remarkably calm, reassured his crazy girlfriend that all was well, and I settled down. I went back to the book. About an hour later, once I’d finished, I admitted the source of my freakout and apologized. Alex laughed patiently. He’s always great, but he was looking pretty damn incredible in comparison to Nate.

It’s not that My Education was bad, or not as well-realized. I fully bought Regina’s progression: her descent into all-consuming love, her deep depression after the breakup, her move into adulthood and motherhood and the professional world. But in My Education men are largely on the periphery; this is a book about two women’s sexual and emotional entanglement, and it looks at love, sex, motherhood, and work from a perspective that I recognized, if not necessarily related to. Nate’s perspective, on the other hand, was quite alien to me, and at the same time particularly affecting because he exists in a Brooklyn that I inhabit. Waldman peppers the novel with images of the gentrifying borough, often through the lens of Nate’s Privileged White Male Guilt Complex. Nate taps away on his laptop in cafes that sprout up like flowers (or weeds, depending who you ask) next to bodegas. Nate hears a cabbie grumble about delivering his passengers to Brooklyn. Nate observes the church across the street from his apartment. I encounter all of these sights and sounds every day, and so it was particularly interesting—and worrying—to imagine Nate-like men just strolling around my neighborhood.

I know assholes exist, but it’s not often I am privy to their innermost thoughts.

I don’t mean to oversimplify Love Affairs, by the way, by making it sound like the white male narrator is such a dick that it’s not worth the read. One of the pleasures of the book is seeing how Waldman manages to keep him likable without giving him some hero’s journey. Alex is saying, now, that he wants to read it to see if it’s “true.” I don’t know if it would resonate with him, though, because his truth is not Nate’s truth (thank God!!!). As I read, it might have seemed like some sort of secret window into the male brain, but maybe it’s not. Maybe it couldn’t be. And nor should it be. Remember when everyone freaked out that Lena Dunham wanted to be the “voice of generation”? (Which she didn’t; her character did, and we were supposed to laugh at that.) People were mad because, here we go, a rich white girl wants to speak for all women. But on a deeper level the notion that anyone could speak for everyone of a certain type upsets people, as it should. (It probably partly speaks to our senses of self; what does it say about my individuality if some voice accurately speaks for me? And if that voice does not represent my experience, what does that say about how society devalues my perspective?) Nate, then, is not any more representative of a certain type of man than Hannah Horvath is of a certain type of woman, but his voice—the voice that Waldman cultivates—is fresh and interesting and, ultimately, enjoyable, even if it did momentarily freak my boyfriend out.

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And a quick currently watching note. Went with the coming-of-age tales this week, with The Spectacular Now and The Way, Way Back. Both bildungsroman, both revolve around young men, both fairly predictable. The Way, Way Back felt like a retread of countless other such tales (mom has a boyfriend, trip to a beach town for the summer, awkward kids gets a summer job, meets older mentor who is also kind of emotionally stunted, but fun—you know how this goes), but it’s breezy and sweet and Allison Janney is great, always. (Also, why does Amanda Peet always get cast in that part?) The Spectacular Now is also easy to call—reminded me of the underrated gem Keith—but Miles Teller gives a beautiful, effortless performance, like he just lives that character. Can’t wait to see his future work.