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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Gender and The Good Wife

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I want to kind of unpack my reaction to this week’s The Good Wife because I’ve noticed sort of a disturbing trend. Those of us who love TV have heard a lot about the era of “difficult men” that The Sopranos ushered in—that is, the largely white, male antiheroes that anchor television’s most acclaimed dramas (Walter White, Don Draper, etc.). I love those characters, particularly Don Draper, which is what led me to question my response to Alicia Florrick’s defection from Lockhart/Gardner on The Good Wife tonight.

By all accounts and purposes, this is a feminist move from Alicia. Even though it wasn’t really acknowledged in this episode, the viewers were led to believe that Alicia was leaving L/G in part because she wanted to get out from under Will (figuratively and kind of literally). She wants to strike out on her own and really fight for the ideals she believes in as a lawyer, because we know that Alicia has often felt ethically compromised at L/G. And her strength as a woman was on display not only through the savvy business moves she made throughout the night’s episode, but also through her sexuality. Sure, she was forced into leaving once Will found out about the new firm, but she was still taking a lot of ownership in tonight’s episode on multiple fronts.

So why, as a regular viewer and as a feminist, did my sympathies lie so squarely with Will? To the point that I was really getting mad at Alicia as I watched, and actively rooting against her and the new firm? I don’t think the show was pushing me that way. This is The Good Wife, after all—it’s her story, so by virtue of that alone, we as viewers should be predisposed to siding with Alicia (which I often do). I don’t think the show was pushing us to take Alicia’s side, but I do think the Kings expect the viewers to celebrate her show of independence.

On the other hand, we also were not pushed to side against Will in this episode. Interestingly, we begin squarely in his head. First we got that long beat where the camera settled on Josh Charles as he let Will absorb the news from Diane, which was a moment that clearly engendered sympathy for the betrayed Will. Then we went right into his head; we literally saw things through Will’s eyes through the point-of-view shot as he approached Alicia. That was an interesting choice, because it put us squarely in Will’s frame of reference. And a great direction note; the POV shot gets the audience right up in a character’s mindset, but it’s also used very effectively in some horror movies, like “Halloween”, to unsettle the audience by placing them in the serial killer’s head as he or she stalks or watches the victim. So in that beginning scene of the episode, we were recognizing Will as a threatening presence to Alicia, but we were also sharing a very intimate moment with him.

Beginning aside, Will and Alicia very much operated in grey areas tonight, so it’s hard to argue that the show took sides. Will’s darkest moment was also literally the darkest moment in the episode, when, barely lit and shrouded in black, he told Kalinda that he would essentially stop at nothing to take the competition down. That was an ominous shot that put him in some shifty territory. But he also had the beats related to Grace’s phone call, which humanized him and gave us a respite from his anger. Alicia also went to some dark places, but she had the wrenching elevator moment. Overall, I thought the show was quite objective, which leaves me questioning my anger toward Alicia. Sure, she did some ethically questionable things while maneuvering out of L/G, but Will has been shady through the show’s entire run. Furthermore, how can I as a viewer not just tolerate but actively root for Don Draper—who is frequently a misogynist pig—and yet actively root against Alicia Florrick as soon as she makes one ethical transgression?

I have to wonder if even I, an avowed feminist, am uncomfortable with the depiction of female power, or of a woman in a morally grey area, a woman willing to make moves for her own benefit. That woman kind of already exists on The Good Wife in the form of Kalinda, but for me I think it’s easy to not react to Kalinda very strongly because 1) she’s such a heightened, over-the-top character anyway and 2) she’s so emotionally opaque that I rarely react to her with any strong emotion, unless it’s related to Alicia or some other character on the show. But Kalinda also doesn’t toggle identities the way Alicia does. Alicia is mother, wife, lawyer, lover, and so on. And maybe part of the discomfort comes in watching a woman really wear all of those different masks; maybe we don’t want to think that a woman has those masks at all. We want to imagine that she is some pure presence—St. Alicia. We can celebrate Will Gardner and Don Draper because despite their transgressions, aren’t these the archetypical American males? Aren’t they—in their well-cut suits, surrounded by  the signifiers of power—filling idealized male roles? And yet when we watch a woman adopt their strategies in order to seize power for herself, there’s a certain discomfort, for me at least. I don’t know exactly what it says about my biases or societal norms, but I am happy there’s a show that’s even challenging me to consider it.

Why Can’t We Be Friends (on TV)?

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My best friend is Black. Her name is Diva, she was born and raised in Brooklyn, and her family is Panamanian. I am White. Not blonde, blue eyes, Blake Lively White—my father is an Arab immigrant, so I have what ineloquent guys at bars call an “exotic look,” but I am still, at the end of the day, White. That’s the box I check on the census form. That’s the color of my skin. Race might be a construct and all that, but my Whiteness and Diva’s Blackness have implications that play out in real-life.

For example, the N-word. I understand that it’s a reclaimed word, that using it is arguably empowering for people of certain races or cultures. I hear it every day, from Diva and our other friends and on the train and on the block and so on. Still, I am not going to use it. I don’t think it’s appropriate for a White person to use it, but I usually don’t flinch when I hear it. It’s as common as “hello”, or something.

Except with the -er. For whatever reason—maybe it’s White guilt, even though I have zero Southern roots; maybe it’s some kind of cultural conditioning; maybe it’s political correctness—but when I hear the N-word with an -er, rather than the more common -a, I flinch. “Nigga,” to me, sounds like “bro” or “bud” or any other friendly colloquialism. “Nigger” sounds pejorative; it’s partly the abrasiveness, the sharpness, of that final -r. Spoken, it sounds like a weapon. Somebody on Urban Dictionary agrees with me because they wrote:

Nigga is a word which evolved from the derogative term “nigger”. Tupac best defined the distinction between the two.

NIGGER- a black man with a slavery chain around his neck.

NIGGA- a black man with a gold chain on his neck.

Diva knows I won’t say “nigga,” and she knows I don’t even like to hear “nigger.” She thinks it’s funny. Sometimes she tries to trick me into saying “nigga”, usually when I am rapping along with Jay Z. Sometimes, when we are out to dinner or on the train and she needs a laugh, she drops “nigger” into her sentence just to watch me cringe a little. This anecdote is not meant to preface some linguistic analysis or argue for or against the use of the N-word; it’s meant to capture the uniqueness of an interracial friendship, to underscore the fact that being a White girl with a Black best friend is not like being a White girl with a White best friend. There are cultural norms, there are social customs, that we contend with. And when we wrestle with them—when Diva makes me confront my race and our country’s ugly history and how far we’ve evolved, all through two seemingly innocuous graphemes—it strengthens us as individuals and as friends.

All this is notable to me because it seems that the reality of our kind of friendship has yet to make it into our media landscape. That’s not to say people of color don’t exist on television. When I run down the laundry list of television shows I regularly watch, there are many main characters of color. They are not always the leads, and they are vastly outnumbered by White characters, but they are there. My issue is less with the lack of color on television than with the lack of context around these characters of color. Think of all of the interracial friendships on TV right now: Bonnie and Elena; Jess and CeCe; Kalinda and Alicia; myriad Glee pairings; Carrie Bradshaw and Jill; Leslie Knope and Ann Perkins; Meredith and Christina; Olivia Pope and Abby. These platonic couples exist, but the realities of what it means to be best friends with someone of another race are rarely acknowledged.

Maybe Diva and I are an exception, but race comes up in some form or another anytime we are together, whether we’re discussing the merits of weave versus wig or she’s arguing that only White people have imaginary friends as children. I am not saying that the minutia of our friendship is interesting enough to be on television, but I know that television writers could mine drama or comedy out of the realities of platonic interracial friendships.

Consider Miley Cyrus, who has been sparking outrage for her blatant appropriation of “ratchet” culture. In response to her infamous VMA performance, some (misogynists) have argued that she’s just “too slutty.” Others have argued that she’s racist for treating Black dancers as props. Miley defended against those allegations in Rolling Stone, saying, “I don’t keep my producers or dancers around ’cause it makes me look cool…Those aren’t my ‘accessories.’ They’re my homies.” I can’t speak to the truth of that, but I do think there’s a connection between Miley Cyrus and, say, that other controversial White Girl, Lena Dunham. On her show Girls, Dunham follows in the footsteps of Sex and the City’s frank quartet of Manhattan mates and draws humor out of the slightly awkward realities of many twenty-something girls’ lives—weird dates, weirder sex, frenemies, text etiquette, body image, and onward. If Dunham were to further widen her scope, to honestly and entertainingly showcase the truths of interracial friendships, perhaps Miley Cyrus’ proclamation that she has Black girlfriends would feel less alien or unlikely to some.

Of course, the onus isn’t only on Dunham, though her show’s tone makes it the perfect vehicle for the discussion I’d love to see onscreen. For too long people have demanded that television be “color-blind.” Kerry Washington said in a recent New York Times interview, “I don’t want to be race blind or gender blind. They matter!” Someone’s race, like their gender or sexual orientation, is often central to who they are; by ignoring that, one is ignoring a part of that individual or deeming that part unworthy of acknowledgment. Television writers and showrunners would do all of us a favor by forgetting about being “race-blind” or “color-blind” and dealing with the beauty and humor in our differences. It’s been done right before; just check out New Girl’s Season 2 episode “Cabin”, wherein Schmidt decides Winston needs more Black friends, to hilarious results. It can be done again. We’ve celebrated Carrie Bradshaw and her gals for openly discussing anal sex; we’ve celebrated Shonda Rhimes for creating a show with a black, female lead; we’ve celebrated Lena Dunham for showcasing a realistic female body. These glass ceilings have been shattered; next, we need a show daring enough to explore the complexities of friendship and race. That would be something to celebrate.

Power-mad Men: Character Manipulation through Narrative Manipulation in Mad Men

In the second scene of critically acclaimed AMC drama Mad Men’s pilot episode, the protagonist, 1960’s-era ad-man Don Draper (Jon Hamm), knocks on a mysterious door and checks his watch.

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It’s soon revealed that Don is paying a late-night visit to a bohemian lady friend, Midge (Rosemarie DeWitt). “You weren’t worried about waking me, were you?” Midge says when she opens the door, smiling slyly at Don. Midge isn’t surprised by Don’s impromptu visit; by now she knows what viewers will soon find out: Don Draper is a man who is only late when he wants to be late. The only clock he runs by is his own. This point is reinforced when, the next night, Don takes the train from New York City to an impeccably decorated home in the suburbs, where his pretty blonde wife, Betty (January Jones) lies in wait. “I thought you were staying in the city again,” she says. “There’s a plate in the oven.” Don begins to kiss her suggestively. “Unless you’re not hungry,” Betty giggles. The pilot episode’s Don, the Don Draper of 1960, is representative of the gender roles of his era. He’s a man in charge, a man who can visit his mistress anytime—early or late—and climb into bed with his wife long after the sun has set with no interrogation. Just as Don refuses to sign an employment contract with the advertising company he works for, he refuses to sign a contract of sorts with any timekeeper in life. He is beholden to no one, least of all a woman, and thus he is powerful. Continue reading

Behind Every Man: Gender Roles at Play in Mad Men

The first time we meet Betty Draper (January Jones), wife of protagonist Don Draper (Jon Hamm) for the first three seasons of AMC’s critically acclaimed, 1960s-set drama Mad Men, she lies in bed peacefully, outfitted in a pale pink nightgown. She’s one of three women introduced in the show’s pilot who seems to play an important role in Don’s life; along with Betty, viewers become acquainted with Don’s bohemian mistress, Midge Daniels (Rosemarie DeWitt), and his new secretary, Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss). Only two of the three ladies have staying power—Midge fades into the fast-growing mass of Draper mistresses by season’s end, but Betty and Peggy have remained important characters throughout the show’s five seasons. Interestingly, despite their consistent presences in Don’s life, Betty and Peggy have only met once during the show’s run. In “5G,” episode five of season one, a panicked Peggy must problem-solve when Betty brings the Draper children to Don’s office for a family portrait, only to learn he’s not in. Peggy rightly suspects that Don is with Midge, and must vouch for her cheating boss in front of his seemingly unsuspecting wife until he arrives and thinks up a lie to cover for his whereabouts on the spot. The scenes between Betty and Peggy are short, taking up less than five minutes of the episode, but even their brief exchange illuminates their differences. Searching for a topic of conversation with her husband’s nervous secretary, Betty goes to what she knows best. “Do you have a boyfriend, a steady?” she asks, lighting a cigarette. “No,” Peggy replies. Then, after a pause: “I work a lot.” In this interaction we see women who inhabit two separate spheres—the home and the office—collide, to awkward results. Continue reading

Welcome to the Hellmouth: Representations of Helplessness in Buffy The Vampire Slayer’s “The Body”

When Buffy the Vampire Slayer premiered in 1997, fans and critics fell in love with the show’s witty banter, creative and insightful retellings of the average high schooler’s struggles and, perhaps most of all, its sharp, strong heroine. Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) was relatable—she fell for the wrong guys and wore questionable clothing—but she was also aspirational. Almost every episode featured Buffy battling it out with various vamps. “Patrolling,” in which Buffy, stake in hand, played one-woman neighborhood watch, was part of the show’s vernacular, and Buffy prided herself on punning while slaying. Watching Buffy land a perfect roundhouse kick or stake to the heart while her blonde ponytail bounced perkily was undeniably part of the show’s appeal. A sad rarity, viewers were treated to a woman with punch—literally. Continue reading