True Detective’s second season was built on the Shakespearian adage “all the world’s a stage.” Its four protagonists were assigned a part to play long before we the audience ever met them, a role that they can never embody, an impossible ideal of masculinity that dares to be aspired to.
True Detective Season Two holds up the myth of masculinity that so often drives the behavior of the modern man and in no uncertain terms shouts “this is not working.”
It’s hardly clearer than when Colin Farrell’s Ray Velcoro visits his father. Troubled over his difficult relationship with his own son, Ray sits beside his old man, who stews in regret and vice, before the televised black and white alter of Kirk Douglas hocking the masculine Hollywood nonsense that has two generations contorted into impossible poses as they desperately try to fit into a fictional mold they can never match.
Ray’s life becomes defined by a moment in which he pursues vengeance that isn’t his to have, but no person, no culture, no natural law would dare deny him. He commits a sin that knocks his entire existence off course because that is the character he is meant to play. He does what his father would have done, what a Kirk Douglas character would have done, what he is instilling in his son should be done. He does what The Man would do and his entire existence is derailed for it.
Yet despite seeping through generation after broken generation The Man somehow remains undeniable. Paul Woodrugh doggedly clings to the ideal at the expense of his own personal happiness and mental health. He possesses no shortage of evidence that The Man is not a character he can ever be happy portraying and yet he chases the myth like a greyhound after a lure, perpetually behind, sprinting just to keep up. It’s telling that Woodrugh seems most at ease in the moments he is least burdened by having to act his societal part: guns blazing, fighting for his life. Staying alive while outnumbered and outgunned proves a far more possible task for Woodrugh than becoming The Man he thinks he’s supposed to be.
Frank Semyon chases a similar lure, some nebulous, undefined state of achievement that’s only concrete characteristic seems to be that it is consistently beyond his current circumstances. Time and time again Frank has the opportunity to leave well enough alone and settle into a comfortable role, but settling is not what The Man does. The Man does not lie down, he presses on, The Man ascends via whatever cobbled-together means he can concoct.
Womanhood provides Ani Bezzerides no sanctuary from the toxicity of The Man. Her life is spent playing the character that could have saved her from a bleak childhood trauma. She lives every moment as if the next could see her brought back in time to relive the pivotal moment of her girlhood because what happened to her as a child would never have happened to The Man.
One way or another all four characters learn that the role they’re aspiring to does not work. The Man is not a person. The Man is not a human being. The Man is a fiction, a two-dimensional character unattainable beyond the eye of a camera. The Man doesn’t live a complete life. The Man is not fulfilled. The Man is not secure. The Man is make-believe.
The waning moments of True Detective’s season finale are quiet and hopeful. The Man has taken its toll, but there’s an understanding arrived upon. An understanding that The Man is an old way, a fading religion from a dying age, and in the season’s final moments there is the spark of potential for something new.
Though the imminent protagonists of True Detective’s presumed third season likely won’t get the memo.