True Detective, Season 2, Episode 1, “The Western Book of the Dead”
Written by Nic Pizzolatto
Directed by Justin Lin
Airs Sundays at 9pm (ET) on HBO
Near the midway point of the first season of True Detective, Nic Pizzolatto became the de facto face of the show. A writer who clearly wanted to take most of the credit for one of the most popular shows on television, Pizzolatto gave off an air of entitlement throughout that season’s last few episodes and then continued to give interviews in which comparing himself to the second coming would have been one of the humbler comments included, deflecting praise to the rest of the team responsible for the gorgeous establishing shots or murky Southern murder mysteries. These details aren’t laid out to place all the blame on Pizzolatto for the average opening episode of True Detective season two, but it does seem as if the other visionaries involved in the first story in this anthology fled for better projects and left Nic holding the bag with little idea of how to proceed. This premiere trades in the ritualistic and occult elements of season one for the everyday goings on of cops and criminals, depicting them with scenes that are overwrought with heavy language and meaningful glances. If Pizzolatto wanted all the credit for True Detective’s gloomy meditations on life and loss then in season two he gets exactly that, only it might not pan out as triumphantly as he imagined.
The opening scenes of “The Western Book of the Dead” tell the audience most of what they need to know about how the episode will unfold. Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), member of the Vinci Police Department, says a stunted goodbye to his oft-bullied son before dropping him off at school and heading to work. Once there, the show dumps exposition on the table about as delicately as an elephant out of an airplane. Ray’s wife was attacked years ago, specifically beaten and raped, and Ray’s son was the result. The perpetrator was not apprehended by the authorities, but a summons by Chekhov’s gangster gives upstanding Velcoro all he needs to find and punish the attacker himself. It’s the beginning of what will turn into “depressing backstory” roulette throughout the ensuing hour of melancholia and mumbling. There’s Rachel McAdams’ Ani Bezzerides, a hard charging CID officer with a drinking problem, trouble committing romantically, and a messed up family who cause her continual strife. She is everything a clichéd cop with a dark side could be, save the fact that she is a woman. So there’s at least that as a deviation from the norm, even if she will now be investigating the death of one man while working with three others. Being a woman only gets you so far when it comes to individualized agency, apparently.
Then there is Taylor Kitsch’s California Highway Patrolmen Paul Woodrugh, with his quiet moroseness and unexplained burns on parts of his body. Most of Kitsch’s line deliveries come off like he has no idea why he is saying what he is saying, or why he is even on set at all. By far his most unintentionally hilarious line is, “The highway. It suits me.”, which includes a pregnant pause longer than a California interstate, but there are many others in competition for the title. His “speeding on a motorcycle to work out inner angst” scenes are also high on the humor scale when they are clearly not meant to elicit laughter. They are shot as if director Justin Lin has taken up permanent residence inside J.J. Abrams’ subconscious and prove that there is no nighttime driving scene that Lin won’t frame as if inspired by a Fastball single.
What makes all of this so pointless is that we don’t learn anything specific enough about our three supposed heroes to care why they act out or look for comfort in the bottom of a bottle of Jack. As introductions go, there is not enough time spent on anyone to give the audience even a basic connection to their behavior and decisions. The same goes for Vince Vaughan’s criminal-kingpin-turned-legitimate-businessman Frank Semyon. Vaughan actually does some of the best work out of the four leads early on, as does Kelly Reilly as Frank’s wife Jordan, but when issues with his legitimate business arise due to a local newspaper exposé, there’s no reason for the audience to latch onto his plight just yet. One of Frank’s offhand comments to Velcoro, “Good job with the thing”, is indicative of so much that is wrong with this hour of television. Everything is laid out as if to paint an expansive picture of the issues plaguing California transit expansion and police departments, but this is done in such a vague way that there is not enough to dig into or care about. Common sense says having four leads instead of the previous season’s two will pan out successfully down the line. These are four talented actors who are being set up to delve into darkness, danger, and more twists than a box of Red Vines. Right now though, not enough time is spent on any of their stories or lives to make them really click.
What does work in this first episode is the disappearance and death of Ben Caspere, former city manager of Vinci and the guy who a lot of people needed to be explicitly not dead when he was found. He was an important piece in Semyon’s plan to build a high speed rail throughout all of California, a fact that is bludgeoned into the audience’s head nearly half a dozen times. As far as central mysteries go, it has a lot of promise. It is connected to local government, intertwined with local crime, results in a hauntingly horrifying death tableau, and has a bunch of head cases investigating the murder. It doesn’t completely make sense why Kitsch will be part of this team (if he actually ends up being included) since all he did was find the body while suspended, but that’s a small quibble as the show will obviously find a way to include him in the proceedings at some point. That said, an episode where every other scene features a supremely absurd character choice or line and yet manages to end with a dead body on a park bench with acid holes where his eyes once were at least deserves the benefit of the doubt. Less mournful glances into highball glasses, more police work related to the most morbid Forrest Gump tribute of all time.
- “I used to want to be an astronaut…But astronauts don’t even go to the moon anymore.” There’s a very good chance Nic Pizzolatto is out and out trolling the audience by including lines like this.
- A helicopter pilot got paid overtime for all the birds’ eye view shots happening here. The episode doesn’t quite earn random establishing shots at such a high frequency, but they are all gorgeous – especially those featuring the highways – so they can stay.
- Intentionally or not, Colin Farrell’s stint in the interrogation room draws immediate comparisons to season one and forces the episode to fight harder to find its own identity away from the McConaughey-centric scenes from last year.
- Which is most hilarious, Colin Farrell’s bolo tie, Colin Farrell’s mustache, or Colin Farrell’s awkward delivery of “Ass. Pen.”? Choose wisely, maximum amusement hangs in the balance.
- All five of the main actors (including Reilly) are walking a fine line between affecting accents and using their regular speaking voices. It will be interesting to see how that shakes out in the next few installments.
- The new credits for this season come off as a True Detective credits parody video. Which is to say they are simultaneously beautifully crafted and incredibly dumb.