True Detective offers a uniquely cynical look at love

Is True Detective Season 2 the most cynical love story ever told?

The ghost of Conway Twitty (or at least a decent impersonator) haunted Ray’s dreams in True Detective‘s third episode of the season. No, Ray didn’t die from the gunshot wounds to his chest, because the person in the bird mask was using buckshot. All he got was a trippy dream featuring his father and the timeless love song “The Rose,” first sung by Bette Midler before being immortalized by Twitty.

More: True Detective should have let Ray stay dead

“The Rose” is all about embracing love despite the inevitability of being hurt. It is fear, the song insists, that does the most damage to people. It’s the loveless who should be pitied, not those who dare to love. Ray would beg to differ. He loved his wife and they ended up divorced; he loves his son but he’s too much of a mess to be a father; he loves his father even though the man terrifies him. Ray is motivated by love as much as he is by self-loathing, and where has it gotten him? He is left with a failing liver, a compromised moral code and supervised visitation with his kid.

Then there is the irrevocably damaged Paul. He has a former lover, but he refuses to admit he’s gay. The ex-soldier is so closed off, he spends most of his time expressionless and haunted by all the things he can’t have. On the flipside there’s Frank, a happily married man who is still on the verge of losing everything because he can’t go legit.

More: Women are much better represented in True Detective Season 2

Last but most definitely not least is Ani. The only thing Ani loves is her work, and even that is a bitter, dirty place where her male co-workers call her foul names and advise her to sleep with Ray to keep him in line. As the only female lead, Ani is trapped in a misogynistic wasteland. Love is a foreign concept to her. Love would make her vulnerable, too easy to pick off from the herd of old-school cops who surround her.

If True Detective Season 2 has a theme, that theme might very well be “love is for fools.” Each of the four characters loves someone, even if it is not romantic love, but all they get in return is pain. At the end of “The Rose” there is hope for love to blossom out of even the darkest of places, but True Detective doesn’t seem like the kind of show to allow its characters anything quite so kind as hope. Love for them is the enemy — the one thing that can bring them down.

Ani’s love for her sister, Frank’s desire to give his wife everything she wants, Ray’s love for his son and Paul’s refusal to admit who he is are all liabilities. These are things that can be used against them, to twist their loyalties and turn them into liars. True Detective is going full noir this season, and in a noir it is the dame who can cost the detective everything.

More: Who is the most important character to the story — Ani, Ray, Frank or Paul?

Luckily, we have advanced enough that “the dame” can be any number of things. The miserable quartet of detectives at the center of this tale don’t care much about our social advances when they are staring at so much darkness, though. Love will bring them down, too; that’s just the way of the world they inhabit. There are no happy endings for people who work in the murky world of organized crime and thankless investigations, only small moments of brightness among the gray patches of ice-cold reality.

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