“Anyone can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a dad.”
Just ask the cast of True Detective Season Two (2015). In a series chock full of metaphors and themes, corrupt fatherhood is overwhelmingly the most present. And not just for the main series protagonists - just about every character who is given the gift of backstory has a problem with their male parentage.
Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), the series' bad guy with a golden heart, entered his life of corruption following an abusive childhood from a father who deemed him worthless. Desperate to prove his father wrong, Frank’s ambition is unstoppable, whatever the means. The shadow of Frank’s father essentially ruled his every move. The series also follows Frank’s own failed attempts at becoming a father due to his impotence, and wife Jordan’s (Kelly Reilly) sterility.
Like himself, Ray Velcoro’s (Colin Farrell) father was a policeman - one who retired with dignity and honor. Ray’s reputation is not as shiny, causing him to feel professionally inferior. More substantially, Ray’s fatherhood over his own son was being challenged and questioned throughout the series. His desire to defend and care for his son outweighed all else, and he exploded on anyone who attempted to challenge his fatherhood through biology.
Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) lived a double life, dishonest to himself and those around him about who and what he was. He felt a desire to establish a patriarchy even though he didn’t want to, because somehow that was evidence that would “normalize” him. He also grew up in an environment with no father, and an uncomfortably handsy mother.
Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) had her own struggles with her father (David Morse), a spiritual guru of sorts and an obviously unfit parent. Most of Ani’s siblings ended up in jail or dead, and the two that survived have their own sets of issues. Ani’s opinion of men as a whole were colored by experiences she endured as a child, including a sexual assault, under the care of her father.
Corrupt fatherhood extends beyond the main cast to several of the season’s minor players. It's eventually revealed that Caspere, the man whose murder puts the entire season in motion, was killed by his own son. Caspere was also (unknowingly) in a sexual relationship with his own daughter. Further, Mayor Chessani (Ritchie Coster) was being manipulated, and was eventually murdered by, his son.
Fatherhood became a powerful obsession for the show’s major players, and the source of their downfalls. Frank became obsessed with his own wealth and pride, Ray with his paternity, and Paul with his sexuality. Each let those obsessions, which all stemmed from fatherhood issues, become the death of them. Frank was killed while defending his honor, Ray was captured and killed thanks to a detour to see his son, and Paul was murdered over blackmail about his homosexuality. Each had the ability to escape these situations, but none were able to make the moves that would save them.
While True Detective frequently promotes regressive or misogynistic valuations of women, the females in Season Two, while still represented poorly overall, ended up being the ones working to "save" the men, and ultimately the only ones left alive. Jordan knew what kind of person Frank was, but stuck with him anyway. She urged him to get out of the criminal life, suggested they take what they have and disappear, but Frank wouldn’t listen. Ray’s ex-wife consistently told him to stop investigating her rape, and to stop letting vengeance consume him. Unable to do that, he loses her, his son, and voice messages he’d been recording for his son throughout the series never get sent. He also never gets the opportunity to find out that his son is biologically his, not the product of his wife's rape as everyone assumed. Finally, Paul’s girlfriend knew there was something off about him, remained with him anyway, and was pregnant with his child. But Paul’s inability to reconcile with himself resulted in him never meeting his own kid.
In Nic Pizzolatto’s noir world, men are the ones with the most to gain - and the most to lose. Every significant male character was the victim of a self-imposed system they couldn’t, or didn’t want to fix. The only person characterized under the theme of corrupt fatherhood who didn’t let it get the better of them is Ani, bolstering the polar theme of honest motherhood. Ani even ends up with Ray’s child, and a verbal dedication to carry on his legacy, in the series’ final moments. Her and Jordan (along with Frank's henchman Nails) are the series' primary survivors.