Well, it happened. After six episodes of wheel-spinning and tragedy-teasing, True Detective finally put its money where its mouth is and killed a main character.
After a season of inner turmoil and outer stoicism, the end has come for Paul Woodrugh, the closeted ex-military patrolman who found the penis-free body that kickstarted this messy season. Woodrugh’s fight to hide his sexuality climaxed this week, as he embarked on what basically became a suicide mission to retrieve photos of himself in the act with another man. In the end, it turns out that our dear not-Riggins is being blackmailed by his lover, among others, and given the choice between coming out and almost certain death, he chooses death. For a brief moment, it seems like Woodrugh will get away and have a chance at redemption, but in the episode’s closing moments, he is shot by the seemingly unconnected but apparently evil Lieutenant Burris. Woodrugh tries to crawl away, and we think maybe it’ll be another fake out like with Ray earlier this season, but he’s shot again and this time killed.
We’re rounding out the season now, and things have been so grim, death was bound to come calling for one of our tormented protagonists. But rather than giving us closure, viewers were only handed more questions, not the least of which being: What was the damn point of telling this story in the first place?
This is not to say that tragic gay characters ought to be off-limits. Unfortunately, it’s only Nic Pizzolatto’s treatment of Paul Woodrugh that is dated, not Officer Woodrugh’s story itself. Closeted gay soldiers, like the one Taylor Kitsch was portraying, are more likely to experience mental health crises than their straight counterparts. According to a study done at the University of Montana, a staggering 14.7 percent of gay, lesbian, or bisexual soldiers have attempted suicide, compared to the .0003 percent average of the entire veteran community. It’s also true that LGBT children who grow up in rural areas like True Detective’s fictitious Vinci are more likely to experience harassment, violence, and negativity surrounding queerness than children who grow up in the suburbs or in cities.
It would be nice to be able to say that Officer Woodrughs belong in the past, that our present is not all HRC fundraisers and Supreme Court rulings. But there are many people who experience feelings of confusion and anxiety around their sexuality, even now, and had True Detective committed to telling Officer Woodrugh’s story with a bit of candor, the season might have served as a poignant reminder of the many people who don’t fit into the It Gets Better narrative.
The problem here is not in Woodrugh’s willful execution, but in the execution of the execution. Why is Paul being blackmailed? Why is his lover Miguel involved? If Miguel is involved, why is the show still trying to make it seem like Miguel was a caring partner interested in Paul’s well-being? Why was the murderer even connected to this matter at all? The circumstances of Woodrugh’s death are all so arbitrary that they feel meaningless. The plot needed him dead and he died, and it’s more poetic if his lover dies at his hands so Pizzolatto knocked him off too.
It’s the nature of TV, and really of longform narrative in general, that sometimes characters have to serve as catalysts for the plot. But this is where the history of gay characters on television becomes relevant. Because while it’s true that Paul Woodrugh was merely serving a function that is apparently necessary for the story, it’s also true that gay characters have fulfilled that function disproportionately throughout TV history, and that unlike most straight characters, their deaths seem to always stem from their romantic entanglements.
Gay death is a staple of case of the week shows like Grey’s Anatomy, but it just as often occurs among series regulars on shows as diverse Damages, House Of Cards, The Killing, The Tudors, Boardwalk Empire, and The Sopranos, among many others. Even groundbreaking queer-friendly shows like Pretty Little Liars or Buffy the Vampire Slayer aren’t immune. Some of these deaths are more meaningful in the context of their shows, but when presented as a glut, they seem to reveal an earnest attempt at representation thwarted by mostly straight writers’ genuine confusion at the task of telling queer stories once queerness has been established. Queer characters don’t just get killed because it’s convenient to further the plot; queer characters get killed because writers run out of plot.
If you don’t know how to tell someone else’s story, if you are uncomfortable putting yourself in that person’s shoes, then you are probably not the right person to tell that story, and your character will probably be shortchanged.
We didn’t need this episode to know that Nic Pizzolatto is not the right person to tell Paul Woodrugh’s story. It’s in the skittishness with which Woodrugh’s sexuality is presented, it’s in the empty signifiers that were meant to telegraph Woodrugh’s past. If sex with Miguel is such a defining element of Woodrugh’s behavior and personality, why weren’t we shown that sex? The pictures that were used to blackmail Woodrugh flash up onscreen so briefly that it’s hard to even remember the contents of the photos, just the fact that there was content to be ashamed of, but if you look closely the men are always almost kissing, always still clothed. This looks like a fashion shoot, not a sexual encounter. Why are the most significant moments of this character’s emotional life happening offscreen?
Listen, this season of True Detective has been mostly nonsense, and it’s been enjoyable watching the nonsense unfold. For the most part, I don’t have a problem enjoying the bad for what it is, and appreciating the good when it appears—shout-out to Rachel McAdams, who has been turning lemons into lemonade all season, but never more than in the extended close-ups she’s given in the last two episodes—but Woodrugh’s death surprised me. I read other people’s criticism and thought I was immune. I didn’t realize that True Detective could disappoint me after all.