The Good Feminist

The Good Wife officially transitioned into its post-Will state on Sunday, and followed through on the showrunners’ promise that the next few episodes would not be “all tears—there’s comedy too.” The show is adept at balancing drama and comedy in the same episode, and though it continues to deal with Alicia, Kalinda and Diane’s grief in the aftermath of Will’s murder, “A Material World” has some humorous scenes. Alicia and Diane’s drunken get-together was funny, but the most chuckle-worthy part of the episode comes during Alicia’s lowest moment. Bedridden and in mourning, Alicia watches a detective show that seems awfully familiar.

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Alicia drowns her sorrows in TV.

In it, a couple of detectives run their flashlights over a dead body, while one of the detectives goes on a philosophical rant. “People just think there are black hats and white hats,” the detective drawls. “But there are black hats with white lining, and white hats with black lining. There are hats that change back and forth between white and black.”

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A deep-thinking detective on The Good Wife.

The pontificating detective is a great parody of myriad talky TV investigators, whether it be CSI Miami’s Horatio Caine (never without a pun) or True Detective’s Rust Cohle. The parody further mirrors True Detective through its imagery, the sadly familiar portrait of a brutalized woman strung up to a tree or a fence, on display for the male detectives—or saviors. Image

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Dead bodies on The Good Wife (top) and True Detective (bottom).

Much was made of True Detective’s women, whose frequently naked bodies—dead and alive—were ogled by the camera. The women of True Detective were there to illuminate the male leads: Marty’s mistress was valuable because she proved that Marty was out of control; Dora Lange (above) mattered to the audience not because she was a human being, but because her death offered a doorway into the way Rust Cohle’s mind worked. The Good Wife’s parody is comic relief, sure, but it also places the show’s complex female leads in contrast to True Detective’s flat women. Later in the episode, Alicia Florrick, who throughout the last two seasons has become more and more commanding, finally takes a long-awaited step toward her liberation from the shackles of the Tammy Wynette role: she breaks up with Peter, the husband who forced her to play the titular good wife.

No matter what you think of Alicia lately—the show certainly hasn’t privileged her likability—the character is not stagnant. The recent episode “A Few Words” reminded us of Alicia’s earlier iteration, all bad hair, dowdy suits, pursed lips and wide, nervous eyes. She has turned into a power player, at times a ruthless one. (“Don’t worry, I’m not going to divorce you,” she assures her jilted husband. “You’re too valuable to me professionally, just like I am to you.”)

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Alicia just after the Peter cheating scandal (L) and Alicia in season 5, now a name partner and founder of Florrick/Agos (R).

True Detective rankled some critics, but it was also one of the buzziest television events of recent years. Divergent schools of thought helped drive that buzz—some saw the show as simply a well-executed detective series, using all of the tropes associated with the genre but with snazzier directing and acting. Others praised True Detective for subverting the trappings of genre and offering something deeper. For all that talk, though, The Good Wife is doing something even more revolutionary: working within the confines of a network series, twenty-two episodes and all, and managing to tell a woman’s story subtly and artfully. True Detective created something television viewers love to indulge in: fervor. But The Good Wife creates something much more important: feminist television.

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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.

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.