When it's not shredding buddy cop cliches, True Detective is complicating the idea of the Dead Girl.
“For, in truth, the Daguerreotyped plate is infinitely… more accurate in its representation than any painting by human hands.” —Edgar Allan Poe, “The Daguerreotype,” 1840.
Someday, when I am Queen of the Universe, I will make two things happen. All HBO shows will have a precise balance of male and female nudity carefully optimized between titillation and legitimate character development, and serial killer dramas will no longer employ one of their most beloved tropes: the investigator poring over forensic photograph collages of victims. The former needs no explanation; the latter highlights a fundamental problem with the genre. Without an in-depth analysis of how a living person came to be a dead body, there is no plot, no character development, and no point to the narrative. Even a show like True Detective, whose creator has stated that it isn’t really about serial killers or solving crimes but is instead a larger metatextual analysis of Rust and Marty’s characters, still needs its chopped-up Corpse Girls.
But an odd thing has happened over the past six episodes. Dora (played by Amanda Rose Batz) hasn’t made an appearance since the pilot. While previous genre standouts like The Silence of the Lambs and Twin Peaks made a point of showing us repeated forensic analysis, picking over bodies for information (like a newsprint letter under a fingernail or a chrysalis behind a soft palate), True Detective has gone in another direction entirely. The emphasis is not on Dora as a physical thing for the detectives to use to solve a fascinating intellectual puzzle, or even the idea of her as a victim to be avenged—no, the emphasis is on Dora as a person whose life and interactions with other lives are the real key to the case.
But wait! you say. Those previous genre standouts did that just fine, back before the earliest events of True Detective. And they did so without half as much chest-thumping dude action! In response to which I would point you towards my analysis of the dude action and its own genre tropes, and suggest that writer/creator Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Fukunaga are doing something similar with the basic elements of serial killer dramas, screwing just as thoroughly with our assumptions about women as visual objects. Namely: those forensic photographs that drive me so bonkers, and their portrait counterparts.
This juxtaposition creates a binary state for the character: Static Alive Smiling Portrait (1) and Static Dead Forensic Photograph (0). The point of the former is to be as attractive as possible to whomever might be looking, and the point of the latter is to assist an investigator. Neither takes the place of the actual person who sat for the portrait and then wound up all corpsified, but that’s the fun thing about photographs: we’ve managed to convince ourselves that they do in fact replace people. “Do you know this person?” is one of the most clichéd crime drama lines, always accompanied by handing over a picture.
(Dora, at least your death spared you the realization that mall bangs and spiral perms were fashion nadirs in the last century. I was not so fortunate.)
Which makes it all the more interesting that Rust prefers to draw his own impressions of crime scenes, including Dora’s.
“If we examine a work of ordinary art, by means of a powerful microscope, all traces of resemblance to nature will disappear—but the closest scrutiny of the photogenic drawing discloses only a more absolute truth, a more perfect identity of aspect with the thing represented.” —Edgar Allen Poe, “The Daguerreotype”
This assumption that photographs are people also underlies porn’s main reason for existing: it reduces people to images solely for sexual stimulation without the bother of having to deal with their bodies or personalities. Neither Marty nor Rust are doing so well at dealing with women’s personalities of late, no matter how appealing the bodies in question may be. However, Polaroids and phone pics have their own shortcomings, especially when produced by the women in question as favors to undeserving men:
Marty: Showed him pictures of her?
Charlie: Yeah, I guess so. Yeah, I had some, she gave me when I first went down, stuff for me to look at. You know, like Polaroids.
Blessedly, Rust then places the blame squarely where it belongs: not on Dora for taking the pictures and giving them to her horny imprisoned husband, but on Charlie for sharing them with his large and scary cellmate and putting a real live person at risk. The jury is still out on whether or not his actions resulted in her death, but it was still a spectacular betrayal of trust in return for a favor. This trope also occasionally comes up in the genre, most notably:
Beating out even Charlie at the top of the list for people who don’t deserve your phone pics.
(Frederica was nice enough to take these for you, and how did you repay her, Jame? As Hannibal would say: so rude.)
Likewise, Marty may try to explain Beth’s phone pics as a “crazy bitch sending me pictures,” but Maggie is having none of it, and neither do we. The pictures are not half as important as the person who sent them, nor what she means to Marty.
(Maggie, you don’t have anything to worry about in comparison, butt-wise. She’s totally arching her back in this shot.)
True Detective’s position in this regard is a pleasant change from the usual discussion surrounding nekkid pics, which is that women are to blame for giving in to men’s requests for them. If you needed any further proof that time is a flat circle, the return to 19th-century double standards via modern cell phone technology should do nicely.
Then we have Laura Palmer’s Flesh World picture from Twin Peaks, which doubles down on the dehumanization by removing almost all of her face:
By reducing their victims to photographs, no matter how pretty or ironic or plentiful, both Silence and Twin Peaks turned Laura and Frederica into objects rather than characters for audiences. The latter tried to have its huckleberry pie and eat it too in this regard, giving viewers both Binary Laura and Real Live Maddy. Fascinating Lynchian duality tropes aside, this approach had the additional unfortunate effect of suggesting that Laura and Maddy were interchangeable as people because they looked alike. That’s not so very far from thinking of women as swappable components in a girl suit, when you get right down to it.
In contrast, the images we’ve seen of Dora lately have been filtered through a church wall first and Rust’s ledger second, and they’ve been impressionistic in the extreme; no one would ever assume that they could take her place. (They also don’t contribute to an aura of romance, but then again, it’s not like Maggie gave Rust any advance warning before stopping by.) She’s still present as a topic of conversation in True Detective, and when she comes up, it’s almost always by name. She isn’t “the victim” but Dora Lange, loopy ex-wife who wanted to be a nun, nice dispenser of prostitution tips (how were they, Marty?), churchgoer, and person who might have been changing her life around. Above all, she is Dora, Dorrie, Dora Kelly Lange.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because you heard it in a movie theater 23 years ago this month:
Senator Ruth Martin: I'm speaking now to the person who is holding my daughter. Catherine is very gentle and kind—talk to her and you’ll see… You have a wonderful chance to show the whole world that you can be merciful as well as strong, that you’re big enough to treat Catherine better than the world has treated you… My daughter is Catherine. Release her unharmed.
Ardelia Mapp: Boy, that’s smart. Jesus, that’s really smart.
Male Student: She keeps repeating that name.
Clarice Starling: If he sees Catherine as a person and not just an object, it’s harder to tear her up.
—The Silence of the Lambs
Congratulations, True Detective watchers: we are all Buffalo Bill, and Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Fukunaga are Senator Martin, begging us to think of Dora Lange as a person. Not as a victim, not as a thing for men to pick over for evidence, not as a chilly uncredited actress holding her breath with her lips painted blue, but a person. If only Thomas Harris, Jonathan Demme, and David Lynch had been so generous to the dead as they were to the living.
“All language must fall short of conveying any just idea of the truth, and this will not appear so wonderful when we reflect that the source of vision itself has been, in this instance, the designer.” —Edgar Allan Poe, “The Daguerreotype”
La Donna Pietra (@ladonnapietra) is a Duke City denizen with opinions about pop culture, gender, and ice cream.
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