Can a “Feminist Hero” Save ‘True Detective’?

Rachel McAdams’s badass Ani Bezzerides is the best thing about the second season of the HBO series. Which, given Nic Pizzolatto’s idea of gender politics, may not being saying much.

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In a month when we’ve cheered on female soccer champions, hooted at male strippers, and laughed along as Amy Schumer’s devil-may-care drunk dumps her adoring doctor boyfriend, True Detective’s protagonist Antigone Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) fits right into gender’s new upside-down world order. Easily the best thing (and maybe the only good thing?) about the show’s second season, Ani’s gloomy swagger is undeniably riveting. She never says hello or good-bye, and barely even nods to acknowledge people. She strides angrily in her black stretch skinny jeans, her ragged ombre tangle of hair advertising her indifference to male tastes, preferences, and feelings. This week, she openly mocked a male sexual-harassment-awareness counselor by telling him, in a room full of men, “I mean, what can I say? I just really like big dicks.” But her rapt audience of sexual harassers might like to know that she packs multiple steely knives at all times, and if she were to carelessly cut you with one of them, it’s clear that she’d laugh while you were bleeding, true to Billy Joel’s prophecy of old.

At first glance, Ani’s less-than-zero-fucks attitude, her multiple blades, her big bottle of Jameson and her apathy towards love and feelings and anything traditionally seen as “girly” would seem to make her the perfect antidote to the macho aggression, rapey infidelity, and fumbling victim/vengeful wife archetypes of True Detective’s first season, not to mention its massive heap of dead female bodies. If nothing else, Ani is a survivor. 

But is Ani a feminist hero? She might be, if your conception of gender and female empowerment were all an either-or affair in which characteristics traditionally associated with men are deemed “strong” while characteristics traditionally associated with women are viewed as the weakest of weak sauce. If so, Ani Bezzerides is the commitment-phobic, switchblade-wielding badass cop of your dreams.

Without a doubt, McAdams’s character is one of the most remote, unyielding female protagonists to come along in a while. She effortlessly outshines the giant herd of machine-gun-toting archeologists in hot pants and glossy-lipped nuclear physicists in bikinis that came before her. Just think of all those bustier-clad ninja assassins, shrugging and heading home to their super-secret, starkly appointed, whiskey-and-bourbon-stocked city lofts. Because how do you throw off your librarian glasses, shake out your shiny mane of hair and whip a battle axe out of your Kate Spade bag with Ani Bezzerides out there, out-badassing you left and right? Who could possibly give less fucks than Antigone, who told off her reckless porn star sister, her reckless guru Daddy and her recklessly devoted cop lover in the same breath, then got wasted and flashed the bird at some extra-bulky security guards in what might amount to the most cartoonish “Lives In Crisis” montage ever to air on the small screen? 

Ani’s originality and charisma stand out against True Detective’s empty moodiness, graceless backstory and comically dark monologues like a White Walker raising its arms against a backdrop of zombie corpses. Witness the matter-of-fact way she spews out those unapologetically dogmatic statements that make up Nic Pizzolatto’s signature style:

Ani: Oh, I don’t distinguish between good and bad habits.

Ray: What’s with all the knives?

Ani: Could you do this job if everyone you encountered could physically overpower you? Forget police work. No man could walk around like that without going nuts.

Ray: So they’re equalizers. Makes sense.

Ani: Nah, I’d still wear them, even if I wasn’t on the job. Fundamental difference between the sexes is that one of them can kill the other with their bare hands. Man of any size lays his hands on me, he’s gonna bleed out in under a minute.

Maybe this is our moment to zoom in on Ani’s actual words and ask if they even loosely resemble the words of a real human being. Ani is claiming not only that habits cannot be separated into good and bad categories (Um, what?) but that she’d carry 3 to 15 knives on her person regardless of whether she was a cop or a lawyer or a cashier at Toys-R-Us. Like much of True Detective’s second season, this feels like a stretch. Even though we’re meant to grasp that navigating a menacing world unarmed would drive Ani nuts, even though we’re meant to understand that this is true because she is just like a man, and we’re supposed to celebrate this about her, it still feels like a giant leap. And yes, it’s clear Ani has had some Very Bad Experiences, experiences so terrible that she’s painfully aware that half of the population can overpower her. This is why she must cover her body in deadly blades, and repeatedly imagine—and practice!—making men bleed out in under a minute.

You could argue that it adds up. Her father was supposedly all about self-awareness and balance and feelings, but was likely just another control freak who remained (at best?) willfully ignorant of the predators in his midst in spite of his supposed sensitivity. Her sister, on the other hand, is the kind of train wreck who fancies herself an Amtrak conductor. So it follows that Ani is a powered-down, by-the-books Terminator who’s sure that feelings are the enemy. Maybe she has PTSD. Maybe back when she felt her feelings, her feelings almost left her on top of a giant heap of dead bodies. Clearly, Ani will grow more complex before our eyes as the season progresses. She will feel her feelings eventually, and we’ll be there to watch it happen. 

She’s certainly starting to change by the show’s fourth episode, empathizing with the mayor’s angry, lost daughter, having a poetry-slam-style heart-to-heart talk with her own sister, and taking up the cause of a missing girl. Just to complicate her role as lady avenger, though, she’s been cited for sexual misconduct for her relationship with an underling. “This would not be happening to a man,” she blurts at her superior. He later replies, “No grown woman in her right mind would date a cop.” 

Is Nic Pizzolatto playing with gender roles and feminist expectations, or is he recklessly scatting some man/woman, he/she, gender gobbledygook without understanding how it all fits together? Based on the absurdity of highway patrolman Paul Woodrugh’s (Taylor Kitsch) dream sequence—“OMG, I’m gay! My beloved motorbike has been stolen! My war crimes have been discovered!”—(that turns out not to be a dream sequence at all) it’s easy to choose the latter: Pizzolatto is having some fun, but reading into any dimension of this mess of a second season makes about as much sense as charting your future course by the constellations of Lucky Charms floating in your cereal bowl.

Recent traumas may have humanized poor Ani, who was left gripping one of her blades, preparing to attempt hand-to-hand combat with a machine-gun-wielding maniac, but she’s still playing by old rules. She is not the feminist answer to an endless sea of sidekicks and victims and self-sabotaging “Come back to bed, baby” female characters. But that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to watch her exist in her own binary gender universe, giving up vulnerability for hard stares and nunchucks, starving the (emotional) cat to fed the (attack) dog. When Rachel McAdams steadfastly refuses to break even the slightest semblance of a smile while Colin Farrell’s mustachioed-but-vulernable-but-psychotic Ray Velcoro tries his damnedest to charm her, that’s hard to resist. Likewise, it’s hard to rip the smile off your face when Ani informs her lover, through clenched teeth, that if he doesn’t leave her office immediately, he will leave her office with his teeth in a plastic baggie. 

Such moments offer a rare bit of levity in a second season that’s been nothing but sour. Forget Ani; no one laughs at jokes on this show. Gangsters survey their clubs with a frowny face. Mommies tell their sons “You ruined my career, you ungrateful asshole.” Wives tell their husbands, “You’re a pimp now.” Detectives say to each other, “Bunch of people got shot to shit, nobody cares.” The same morbid indie-rocker lady plays in the same empty dive bar night after night. (She might be the most pitiable character on the whole show, and that’s saying a lot.)

And halfway through this banner year for gender-role enlightenment, celebrating Ani’s “ballsiness” can’t help but feel as outdated as the trash bags full of basketball shorts Caitlyn Jenner likely donated to Goodwill a few months ago. Gender is a malleable thing, and real human beings are usually a little more complex and nuanced than the cardboard cutouts on our screens give them credit for.

While Rachel McAdams’s ability to act the hell out of every scene in spite of being surrounded by some seriously unconvincing male costars is undoubtedly heroic, her character doesn’t come close to representing a balanced ideal of feminism. Gender flipping may be a tolerable (and somewhat enjoyable) intermediate step, but it’s not the end goal. As Carina Chocano put it in her New York Times “Riff” on strong female characters, “[These characters] do serve as a kind of gateway drug to slightly more realistic—or at least representational—representations of women. On the other hand, they also reinforce the unspoken idea that in order for a female character to be worth identifying with, she should really try to rein in the gross girly stuff.”

Ultimately, the most heroic characters aren’t the ones who appropriate the worst traits of the enemy and use their damage to do even more damage. From every Tarantino film ever made to the latest hamburger commercial, those sorts of characters are a dime a dozen. A true feminist hero would refuse to choose between indifference and violence. A true feminist hero would choose something better.


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