Franklin Pezzuti Dyer

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The tragic antagonist of True Detective: Night Country

Warning: this post contains spoilers for the series True Detective: Night Country. If you haven't watched it but you're interested in doing so, watch out! (You really should, it's very well done.)

This semester I'm taking a German literature class that covers literature starting during the early enlightenment. One of the readings that I found very interesting was entitled On Tragedies, written by J. C. Gottsched. The author describes the goals of a tragedy and the techniques used by successful tragedies to achieve these goals. He claims that the tragedy strives to evoke "sadness, horror, sympathy and admiration".

As far as how original Gottsched's whole theory is, I have no idea. Some parts of it have seemed a little deprecated or specific to theater, for instance his idea that a tragedy should exhibit unity of time and place in order to avoid confusing the audience. I'm sure it's difficult to design a coherent and easy-to-follow play whose plot is divided between many different places and time periods, but this advice doesn't really apply to film, where it's possible to give much more detailed context clues about the setting.

One part of his theory that, in my opinion, is still extremely relevant, claims that a tragic hero should be a "mixed character". That is, in order to successfully stimulate the watcher's sympathy as strongly as possible, the hero should have both virtues and flaws. He says (translation mine):

Even Aristotle holds this to be true when he says that the heroes of a tragedy should be neither purely good nor purely evil. Not purely evil, since then nobody will sympathize with his misfortunes, but rather celebrate them: nor purely good, because otherwise everyone will blame this fate on injustice for having punished the innocent so harshly.

Recently my girlfriend and I watched the newest season of True Detective. As we were discussing this short series, we realized that Gottsched's (or Aristotle's) theory about tragic heroes is particularly relevant to it.

We were especially interested in the tragic nature of the officer Hank Prior. This guy is by no means a hero, but rather an opponent to the female protagonists of the series, namely Chief Danvers and the police-officer-turned-state-trooper Navarro. He perfectly fulfills the crime TV trope of the lazy, corrupt and misogynistic police officer that always ends up standing in the way. For one, he tries to block and put off the re-opening of the investigation into Annie Kowtok's murder. He gets angry at his son, officer Peter Prior, for removing case files from his house that he was withholding, and shortly afterwards steals info from his own son's computer with which to blackmail the chief. At the end of the series we also learn that he's being bribed and is even involved in the cover-up of Annie's murder.

This makes him one of the most despicable characters of the series, at least in theory - but we found he's also one of the characters that evokes the most sympathy. It became clear to me that this was intentional, and it makes his character more nuanced.

His misfortune with catfishing is independent from the main plot of the series, but it makes us feel sympathy towards him by painting him as lonely and clueless. And even though one would think that his being bribed by the mining company in exchange for being promoted to chief of police would evoke more disgust than sympathy, even this comes off as pitiful: he sacrifices his integrity, his relationship with his son and eventually his life for a prize as small as becoming chief of a dark and tiny Alaskan town. He appeals in vain to family ties to prevent Danvers from stealing his son's loyalty. But in the end, the same son whose loyalty and respect he wanted to win over gives him a shot to the head instead. The same child that he saved from the ice as a little boy ends up shoving his lifeless body right back into a hole in the ice, where he is condemned to an icy grave, never to be found.

Left: Hank wielding an ice pick to break his son out from under the ice. Right: the hole in the ice into which Peter Prior dumps his father's body.

One might ask: if Hank has so many flaws, then what are his virtues? To assert that this character serves as a demonstration of Gottsched's theory, I'd need to show how this character is not only flawed but also virtuous. I'd claim that his love for his son plays this role. Whether or not fatherly love counts as a virtue or is better described as a mere emotion is up for debate, but it doesn't really matter here. As members of the audience we feel for this character because we perceive fatherly love (on an emotional level, if not on a philosophical one) as praiseworthy and relatable.

In this series there are plenty of characters that deserve our sympathy, so how can it be that the antagonist comes off as the most tragic? Consider, for example, Chief Danvers, who clearly has both virtues and flaws and has lost her entire family in a car accident. Or Julia Navarro, the sister of the protagonist Evangeline Navarro who lives through her worst fear, namely her mother's mental illness, by which she was traumatised as a child. Don't these characters deserve more sympathy than Hank Prior? And so why is Hank Prior sadder?

Julia Navarro walking naked onto the ice.

I have just a couple of ideas. When it comes to Chief Danvers, although her story is tragic, she demonstrates too much power over the course of the series to be perceived as a tragic character. She's clever, stubborn, and she eventually gets what she hoped for through persistence, namely the truth. Compared to her, Hank Prior is a loser. In Julia Navarro's case I'd hypothesize that the hopelessness of her situation prevents us from seeing her as a tragic character. From the beginning of the series we get clues about her fate, and one gets the feeling that Evangeline is deluding herself each time she tells her sister that everything will be alright. And Julia isn't much of a mixed character: her mental illness isn't a character flaw, and she is portrayed as an innocent victim. In contrast, Hank is responsible for his own fate and his poor decisions make us feel not only sympathy but also disappointment.

There's still the question of why the writers wanted to portray Hank as a tragic character. It's occurred to me that Hank Prior may allegorically represent an idea or a group of people from our time - perhaps the idea of familial loyalty itself. His conflict with the chief, who, as a widow and serial homewrecker, embodies the antithesis of family values, would fit well with this hypothesis. In this vein, we might think of his death as being a manifestation of his son's compulsion to prioritize his work over his family life, which we also see reflected in his son's marriage. When framed this way, it seems fitting that his downfall would be definitive but emotionally impactful.

I still think there's something missing in this analysis, though. I'll have to keep mulling it over.

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