True Detective Review: "The Western Book of the Dead"

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<i>True Detective</I> Review: "The Western Book of the Dead"

I have never had an older sibling, but I would imagine that if I had, I’d be less than thrilled at the prospect of living up to them. Who wants to be compared to a family member when you’re a sovereign body, living out your own story? Even if you win, you lose—it neuters your independence, and defines you, good and bad, by the achievements of another entity.

So I apologize, Nic Pizzolatto, for all the comparisons that the second season of your show True Detective will face to the iconic first season. I’m sorry that a unique creation, tied only to its forebear by you—not by any characters, or directors, or plot—cannot realistically be an autonomous artistic creation. Because, look, you’re using the same title, and we all know there are benefits from that association. But I am sorry that there’s a flip side to that coin.

And I’m sorry that I’ll be piling on, if only for a moment.

So let’s get this out of the way, because it’s a bummer and it’s barely relevant, but since it’s so prominent in my head, I imagine it’s prominent for others as well: Season two of True Detective will not be as good as season one. I can’t put it more plainly than that. I’ve seen three episodes, and it’s enough to understand this basic truth. We always knew that season was lightning in a bottle—a flash of greatness that could never be repeated—and this proves it. Period.

Now that I’ve got that off my chest, I promise I’ll never mention it again. At least until the next paragraph.

Here’s the story with season two: It’s dark, it’s brooding, and in an atmospheric sense, it’s utterly unique. If that sounds exactly like season one, well, yeah—but this is dark, brooding, and unique in a different way. From the first scene, when Detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) drops his heavyset son off at school and attempts to prepare him for the bullying that he faces daily, there’s a hopeless tint to this season that pervades everything. Whereas Rust Cohle and Marty Hart were undoubtedly damaged, there was always an undercurrent of optimism—it wouldn’t show its face easily, but it was there nonetheless, shining in the black night sky.

I can’t quite say the same for season two. Rather than “damaged,” the people who populate the regions in and around Vinci, California are less damaged and more corrupted. That corruption infiltrates every aspect of their lives, but I want to start with a strange recurring theme: Sexual dysfunction.

Early on, we get a heavy implication that Velcoro’s son is not truly his son at all, but the product of a sexual assault his ex-wife suffered that resulted in a child nine months later. There has never been a paternity test, and Velcoro raised the boy as his own, but his wife soon left him, and the paternity could play a role as he tries to expand his visitation rights.

That introduces us to Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), a local criminal-turned-businessman who first met Velcoro when he helped him track down the rapist, back when Velcoro was just a clean-shaven cop. Of course, Semyon says he wants nothing from Velcoro. Except that, oh, “maybe we’ll talk some time.”

Years later, Velcoro’s eyes are haunted and empty, his mustache has flourished, and he’s completely in Semyon’s pocket—but then again, so is the entire Vinci PD, since Semyon is about to secure a business deal, complete with federal grants, that could make everyone a lot of money. Almost peripherally, we learn that Semyon is also trying unsuccessfully to have children and has turned to IVF.

Ani Bezzerides is next. A detective played by the excellent Rachel McAdams, we first see her at the end of a sexual encounter with a fellow cop that ended in some act—never specified—that apparently took him by surprise. His inability to roll with her desires turned her off, and all the begging in the world can’t land him a second chance. Instead, she’s off on her own fiercely independent crusade, and one of her first stops lands her at a house operating a web cam business, where she’s dismayed to find out that one of the performers is her sister. Bezzerides grew up the daughter of a spiritual guru, and while her hatred has set her on the straight and narrow, it’s had a more painful effect on her other siblings, several of whom have committed suicide.

Last, there’s Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), a highway patrolman who needs a handful of pills just to make love to his beautiful girlfriend. Everywhere you look, sex lives are a little screwy, and though I’m still not exactly sure what the collective dysfunction means, the fact that some version plagues all four main characters cannot be an accident. In some way, it’s a symptom of the greater corruption that seems to touch every part of their lives.

The link that ties them all together—at least the practical one—is the dead body of Ben Caspere, the city manager whose disappearance has threatened to sabotage Semyon’s real estate development. Woodrugh finds the body, Bezzerides draws the case, and Velcoro is added in order to keep them from uncovering the various layers of corruption plaguing Vinci as they seek to protect Semyon.

This first episode is mostly a process of discovery—we see Velcoro brutally beat the father of a boy who has been bullying his son at school, and he also takes care of a meddling journalist seeking to expose the Vinci underbelly. There’s violence in every movement, and Farrell delivers every line from his throat in a hoarse echo of his natural Irish accent. Bezzerides has angry words with her father before getting tossed out of a casino, Woodrugh steels himself to make love and then drives dangerously on the highway, and Semyon fails to close the deal with his investors after Caspere fails to show.

Of course, it’s hard to show when you’re dead, and the episode concludes with the discovery of the body. For the first time, the three cops enter each other’s realm, and a rotating shot vaguely reminiscent of the final gunfight in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly lets us see how they react to one another. Following a literally and metaphorically dark meeting between Semyon and Velcoro in a dive bar, featuring the morose strains of a Lynchian chanteuse, it brings us out on a much-needed note of anticipation, and even a bit of excitement.

Caspere’s eyes have been burned out by acid, and there’s no telling who did it, or for what reason. That ambiguity is understandable—nobody clamored to know the identity of the Yellow King after one episode. However, there’s a deeper confusion about this show that’s slightly more worrisome. In the first season, the stakes were expertly set from the very start, and the meandering path we took felt rewarding because it clearly extended from a single point of origin. In the first episode, at least, that grounding is not quite there, and as a viewer, it left me with some anxiety that this would be little more than a mood piece without much substance.

Of course, the rawness of tone persists, and it makes “The Western Book of the Dead” a compelling hour of television. I just hope that as we dig into this world, we move past the stylistic bag of tricks so expertly provided by director Justin Lin. At some point, we need to hit a foundation. Stay tuned.