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tv True Detective Season 2 is All Penis Problems, All the Time

Above all else, True Detective wants to explore the role of Men in Society.

Todd VanDerWerff, culture editor: It will surprise precisely no one when I say that, above all else, True Detective wants to explore the role of Men in Society. I capitalize the phrase to indicate the larger concepts the show feints toward, but I might as well use all caps when it comes to anything involving True Detective and men, so fascinated is the show by the role of masculinity in America. At times, it feels like the living embodiment of the Two and a Half Men theme song: "Men, men, men, men, manly men, men, men... ."
This is part of the reason the show was so easily able to enter the "great TV" conversation last year, and why the backlash against it seemed unusually pointed. For the most part, the best TV of this millennium has been obsessed with ideas of masculinity and manhood, and in recent years, we've been seeing a real pushback to this, as the great well The Sopranos tapped long ago runs dry.
And to be sure, many of the best shows on television are about anything but the nature and role of masculinity in society, which makes True Detective a kind of throwback to the shows of 10 years ago. Yet if season one was already interested in the topic, then season two has nearly jumped off the cliff with its obsessions, to the degree that Rachel McAdams's Ani is defined largely by her rejection of the more open and traditionally "feminine" New Age philosophy of her father and her embrace of the hardened, traditionally "masculine" life of the emotionally closed-off police officer. (Also, I don't know if you've heard, but she carries around knives.)
But it's the other three guys who are carrying the season's masculine weight, as you'd expect. And through them, creator Nic Pizzolatto both interrogates and celebrates masculine ideals. Let's look at how!
Colin Farrell as Ray Velcoro
I opined on Twitter a few weeks ago that your feelings on this season of True Detective may stem from just how much you buy Colin Farrell as Ray Velcoro, and I still think this is sort of true. (For the record, I go back and forth, just as I do on the season as a whole.) Ray is the character who seems most like any character from season one (namely Woody Harrelson's Marty), but where Marty was good with a sly one-liner, Ray seems tortured by having to exist as a man in this world that doesn't share his ideals.
Season two is obsessed with fathers and sons, and conveniently Ray is both, even if he's not sure his son is biologically his, due to his wife's rape. And in his determination to be a good successor to whatever legacy his father left him and to leave a good legacy of his own for his own kid, he is slowly digging his own grave. The implication is clear: Being the kind of man who would have been commended in the past, the kind of man who takes care of his own (sometimes brutally), isn't a good fit for the modern world. And it's not immediately clear if the show thinks that's a good thing or a bad thing — or even if it has mixed emotions about the idea.
One thing to note, however, is that all three of True Detective's season two main men have, for lack of a better way to put it, "penis issues" — but with three completely different explanations. For Ray, the fact that his son might not be his, even though he and his ex-wife were trying for a child at the time of the boy's conception, hangs over him at all turns. And the kid is as little like his father as could possibly be, heavily suggesting that Ray is fighting some sort of losing battle against biology. On True Detective, nature always wins, no matter the nurture.
(Rough bets: This season ends with Ray learning that, yes, his son is his own. I would put good money on that. I would be less likely to put money on the idea of Ray getting Ani pregnant, but I think it will probably happen.)
Vince Vaughn as Frank Semyon
Vince Vaughn's Frank is trying to walk a very noble, masculine path by taking his dark, dirty enterprise legitimate, but he's finding himself boxed in by a world where seemingly everybody owes him money, a world where nobody wants him to go legit, because it doesn't really have time for criminals who turn the corner. So Frank is caught between the soft, fat, and happy world of the upper class and the ruthless, criminal world he came out of.
When Frank issues his beatdown to a subordinate who's disappointed him, it's the clearest break we've seen so far with his otherwise polished surface. But it's also an indication, I think, of True Detective's position on being a capital-M Man: You can never wholly escape the savagery of your own soul, so you may as well give in to it now and again.
Frank's penis troubles stem from impotence. He wants to become a father, to have someone to pass his empire to, but he is physically unable to make it happen and will have to turn to science for help in that regard. For a moment, I was worried that his outburst of violence would "solve" this problem (as it would have in a lesser story), but it seems as if that was not the case.
Taylor Kitsch as Paul Woodrugh
Of the four main characters, season two has spent the least time with Taylor Kitsch's Paul, who is mostly playing out a very typical story of a deeply repressed gay man who's trying to fight back his own impulses. In a way, Paul's penis troubles are integral to his character journey. He appeared to have a problem with impotence in the premiere, but the next two episodes have made it all the more clear that he's gay and refuses to admit this to himself or others, even though he's slept with men before.
His "troubles," then, aren't really troubles at all. They're a big lie he's telling himself, and they point, in some ways, to True Detective's ultimate message about masculinity: It's a lie to insist that men have to be or act one way to still be men. Paul can be an ace highway patrol officer and a terrific military man and still be gay; his sexual orientation doesn't negate either of the former options. Similarly, Ray can open up a little and let in more of the world without necessarily ceasing to be a man who protects and guides his son.
The characters of True Detective, then, are trapped by the toxic masculinity they see all around them. Is that the most original idea in the world? Not really, but it seems to be the one this season is most interested in examining, and in some fleeting moments, it works. Here's hoping there are more of them.