“True Detective”Deftly Tackles Race But Leaves Women Behind

In 2014, HBO introduced a new television behemoth with crime drama True Detective—the first season’s finale was so popular it crashed HBO’s streaming service. Seasons one and two featured exclusively white leads, but Mahershala Ali petitioned show creator Nic Pizzolatto to cast him as Detective Wayne Hays instead of relegating him to supporting role in season three. This gambit has worked excellently, making True Detective better able to tackle the ways race and racism function within the dynamics of a small community that is distrustful of outsiders and resentful of nonwhite authority figures. But this season’s narrative has done little to address the show’s ongoing pattern of sidelining female characters and rendering them immaterial to the larger story.

In its third season, set in the Ozarks, True Detective’s central mystery is the murder and disappearance of siblings Will and Julie Purcell. The season uses the framing device of Hays's failing memory as he recounts the events across three timelines: in 1980, when the crime originally occurred; in 1990, when the case is reopened with new evidence; and in 2015, as he explains his role in the investigation for a true crime documentary. The narrative plays with Hays’s faulty recall and imprecise mental diagnosis to trickle out information about the case.

In the intensely segregated Ozarks community, Hays’s expertise as a tracker in the Vietnam War gives him some authority within the rigid institutional system of the police force, but his Blackness is always first and foremost in the minds of everyone he interacts with. Hays sometimes uses this dynamic as a defense mechanism or tactic, playing into stereotypes about dangerous Black men in order to terrify suspects into disclosing information. For Hays, these tools are part of his limited repertoire with the case’s white participants, and establishes a dynamic between Hays—the tough cop bent on finding answers—and his white partner Roland West (Stephen Dorff), the sympathetic civil servant with a well-honed bedside manner. Witnesses and suspects alike push back against Hays’s authority only to acquiesce when West intervenes. Hays often takes point in interacting with witnesses and suspects, but many of them address their answers to West instead, declining to acknowledge Hays’s presence. Others make casually bigoted statements in his presence or directly challenge his authority. When asked to describe the appearance of a person of interest, one witness replies simply, “Well, he was Black,” indicating that the community’s Black residents are regarded as an invisible and indistinguishable mob.

Hays also faces pushback from within the police establishment. His recommendations for how to handle the case are ignored by his superiors and his concerns about inconsistencies in the investigation are dismissed. When Hays returns to the case in 1990, the local district attorney Gerald Kindt (Brett Cullen) condescendingly requests that he not make trouble, dangling the possibility of a career reinstatement as an incentive. At every step of the investigation, Hays’s race plays into the way he is treated and how his authority is challenged.

The character Brett Woodard (Michael Greyeyes) is also a pointed reminder of the insular and racist nature of the small community. A Native American trash collector and veteran of the Vietnam War, Woodard is immediately under suspicion when the Purcell children go missing. His racial difference, despite a similar class status, sets him apart from the community in a way that makes him the perfect scapegoat for their racialized fears and anxieties. His posthumous conviction for the children’s murders happens in the absence of a completed investigation, and his race makes his perceived criminality an easy solution to a problem that haunts the community.

While this newest season makes strides in confronting racial realities, it is once again less judicious about the way it treats its female characters, an issue that similarly plagued its first two seasons. The narrative’s women are few and far between: Carmen Ejogo’s Amelia Rearden is the only woman with significant screen time and Mamie Gummer’s Lucy Purcell, mother to the missing children, is already dead from an overdose by the time the case is reopened in 1990. Both women are depicted as hindrances to the ongoing investigation: the former for what Hays perceives as her boundless opportunism and the latter for her drug addiction and apparent disinterest in mothering her kids.

Amelia and Wayne eventually marry and have two children, and Amelia goes on to write a bestselling true-crime novel about the Purcell case that Wayne declines to read. When the case is reopened in 1980, the book is about to be published, and Wayne is full of resentment that his career imploded as his wife’s ascended. Her work on the novel gives her an excuse to dig into the case’s newest revelations, a fact that upsets and angers Wayne. On multiple occasions he admonishes her for taking pride in what would turn out to be her life’s work and accuses her of turning other people’s tragedy into her own triumph. In the 2015 timeline, Amelia is dead and Hays is haunted by what he cannot remember about her involvement in the case. Every concrete detail about her identity ties directly back to William or the Purcell case, and her death is a device used only to spark Wayne’s memory; she largely does not exist outside of his words. Her Blackness is mostly ignored altogether, save a sly conversation early in the season about the whispers she hears from students as she walks the halls of the local school. The narrative does not meaningfully confront the way her race might have acted as a hindrance to her desire to insert herself in the case, or, coupled with her keen interest, made her a suspect in the ongoing investigation.

Lucy Purcell, on the other hand, is treated as disposable from the very beginning. We are introduced to her character when she arrives home late after a night of drinking to discover that her children are missing. She immediately berates her husband Tom (Scoot McNairy), who hurls epithets right back, calling her a whore and a slut who is always out “looking for dick.” Several other characters make a point of noting Lucy’s “loose morals” and her propensity to cheat on her husband. Tom later says that they hadn’t known each other for very long when they got married after Lucy’s pregnancy. In a quieter scene that later turns angry, Lucy confesses to Amelia that she is afraid her children’s death is her punishment for being a whore; she laments that she couldn’t help her proclivities and that her children are paying the price. The impression we are left with is that Lucy was a damaged woman who cared about her children too late, throwing her life away on drugs and vice instead. It is an unsympathetic portrait of a woman living with very little, trapped in a life she barely chose, and trying and failing to survive through her grief. In contrast to Amelia, who is depicted as an intelligent and stately cipher, Lucy’s portrayal places her firmly in the realm of “white trash” stereotypes, reinforcing the lack of sympathy other characters feel for her and framing her death as an eventual inevitability.

When the crime is finally solved in 2015, all fingers point to Isabel Hoyt, bereaved daughter of the community’s wealthiest family. She makes no appearances before the finale and exists only in the memory of her reluctant accomplice, Junius Watts, the “Black man with a dead eye” the detectives have been searching for all season. Isabel’s grief at the loss of her daughter and husband led her to fixate on Julie—Will’s death was an accident that occurred during Julie’s kidnapping. Watts’s retelling of these facts is entirely sympathetic, and frames Isabel as the unfortunate victim of her own grief, despite being the nexus of the town’s upheaval. Watts, now an old man filled with regret, is left to shoulder the burden of guilt for her actions, having spent the intervening years hoping to find and help Julie Purcell. In one fell swoop, the story erases and excuses the culpability of a white woman in her own crimes, while filtering her story through another Black man while laying the blame at his feet. It’s a perfect encapsulation of the ways in which the show intermingles its ideas about race and gender; foregrounding the former while erasing the latter.

Racebending often promotes more egalitarian casting behind the scenes, but True Detective shows that by acknowledging the race of its characters, it can tell a deeper, more fleshed out story about anxiety, racial fear, and crime in a way that isn’t possible with an all-white cast. The next necessary step is to extend this expanded interiority to its women, so that their characters and identities might also contribute to the story in meaningful ways.