Recap: True Detective, “The Western Book of the Dead” (2×01)

Well, that was…dour.

While I very much enjoyed the first season of True Detective, I have to be honest: I’m not sure that I’m buying all of what Nic Pizzolatto is selling. The strength of the first season of the show came from a number of things beyonds Pizzolatto’s words: the creepy, malevolent Louisiana setting, the singular vision that emerged from using director Cary Joji Fukunaga for the whole season, and the fortuitous timing at the frenzied peak of the McConnaissance. A year later, we find ourselves in a post-“flat circle” world, ready to leap for Pizzolatto’s jugular at the first sign of a mistake, the stakes raised even higher for all the talk of the showrunner as the newest television auteur.

If anything, the second season of True Detective seems to discredit the talk of Pizzolatto as auteur, if only because it feels, sounds, and looks like a completely different show than its preceding season. Sure, there are familiar motifs: the same highway overpasses that criss-crossed Woody Harrelson’s face in the season 1 credits move to the forefront this season, which shifts the action to present-day California. The male cops (and one woman, but we’ll get to that in a minute) who serve as protagonists suffer from the same deep wounds, and drown their sorrows in the same legions of booze, as Rust Cohle and Mary Hart. But, despite that, something feels… off.

I don’t get the impression that Pizzolatto KNOWS this world of California organized crime the way he understood the backwoods and bayous of his youth in Louisiana. In this instance, he’s an outsider, looking in at what he imagines the world to look like – an image gleaned from the same dozens of hardboiled cop novels and movies, prodding at the seedy underbelly of Southern California, that many of us have read or seen. Season 1 brought us inside a world that was darker and more depraved than you would believe from the outside, but peppered it with a surprise dose of philosophical and moral complication. Unfortunately, season 2’s first episode is all veneer; it feels constructed, and isn’t anything we haven’t seen before. This isn’t helped by Justin Lin’s (Fast & Furious, Fast & Furious 6) surprisingly staid direction. Lin excels with movement and a frenetic pace whereas “The Western Book of the Dead” is a slow burn, introducing us to the primary players in this modern-day noir.  

That said – I’m not giving up just yet. As I said in the opening, I may not be buying everything Pizzolatto’s selling, but I’m still on board with enough.

The most significant problem are how the four main players – or at least how they’re sketched out in the pilot – are a mixed bag. Taylor Kisch, as Paul Woodrugh, a California Highway Patrol motorcycle cop suspended after being falsely accused of soliciting a blowjob from an actress, has the most thankless job here. During a suspension meeting with his supervisor and through the copious scars ranging across the right side of his body, we get hints of a traumatic past both in the Army and before his enlistment. This trauma haunts hims so much that he pushes his bike over 100 mph, hoping to end his life. Instead, Paul finds the dead body of Vinci city manager Ben Caspere, sitting at a rest stop picnic table – the instance of wrong place, wrong time that will suck him into the vortex of the case.

Better served by the pilot is Detective Ray Velcoro, played to a perfect sad-sack tee by Colin Farrell. (If anyone is due for a career rejuvenation a la McConaughey, it’s Farrell – despite the travesty that is Winter’s Tale, his recent and oft-overlooked work shows a renewed focus and a return of his early career promise.) Ray is a corrupt Vinci PD detective, in the pocket of crime boss Frank Semyon (an unfortunately serious Vince Vaughn), who helped him find the creep who assaulted and raped his wife – nine months before their son was born. Of course, that marriage dissolved, leaving Ray with infrequent visitation with the son that may not be his. (In the episodes best fake-out, we see Ray at a table much like the one that Cohle and Hart sat at during their interviews with the FBI – only to find out he’s meeting with his custody lawyer. Well played, show.)

To Ray’s credit, he doesn’t care whose blood runs through his son Chad’s (Trevor Larcom, Fresh Off the Boat) veins. He’s eager to spend time with the boy, and even records an audio journal to share more of his day with him. To Ray’s discredit, he lashes out at the kid after finding out his fancy Nike shoes have been stolen by a class bully, calling him a fat pussy in the process. When he finds out that the improbably named Aspen Conroy stole the shoes and cut them up, Ray finds the kids house and beats Conroy Senior to a pulp in front of his son, threatening to butt-fuck the father in front of the mother’s headless corpse if young Aspen bullies anyone again. (Does Southern California not have Internal Affairs to whom the Conroys would OBVIOUSLY report Ray?) In a conversation with his custody lawyer, Ray insists he has nothing to hide. “I welcome judgement,” he insists. Somehow, I think he’s going to regret that particular utterance.

Ray is tasked to investigate Caspere’s disappearance by both the Vinci Police Department and Frank, who desperately needs Caspere alive and present to legitimate a deal he’s trying to make with a Russian named Osip. California just voted to build a new high-speed rail line, and there’s money to be made by developing commercial real estate along the corridor. This is just the opportunity Frank needs to go straight and to turn his criminal enterprise into something he can openly pass on to the children he’s trying to conceive via IVF with his Lady MacBeth wife, Jordan (Kelly Reilly, Black Box). The only defining characteristic of Frank at this point is his hyper-seriousness; Vaughn plays the character as straight as can be, so we don’t get any clear idea what’s motivating the kingpin-turned-enterpreneur just yet. Hopefully, in the next few episodes, Vaughn will add a bit of his own wry flavor to the role, because as of now, his particular talents are wasted.

Which brings me to Sheriff’s Deputy Ani Bezzerides, played by a sorta-deglammed Rachel McAdams. Ani is a difficult character to nail down, because we learn almost everything about her from the things other people around her say, rather than from Ani’s own actions, reactions, or words. From the man who wakes up in her apartment, we learn that she’s into some kinky sex stuff, but from her green haired, sex worker sister Athena (Leven Rambin, Grey’s Anatomy), we learn that those sexual urges are deeply shameful to her and stay hidden. From her father, a long-haired hippy-dippy preacher at a religious collective called the Panticapaeum Institute, we learn that she had a difficult childhood resulting in abandonment issues. (Panticapaeum was a real city ancient Greek city, located where the modern-day city of Kerch is, in Ukraine. I’m sure this will be significant later.) She may be an honest and good cop; we know she drinks and gambles. You can tell McAdams is savoring the opportunity to play against type, but I hope that she ends up with the same opportunity to reveal an inner life that the male leads are accorded.

The episode’s efforts to introduce all four leads, and the murder of Ben Caspere, definitely made it feel bloated. Because Ani was so tangential to the plot here, it would have made sense to introduce her at the episode’s end, standing around Caspere’s corpse, and then develop her next week, giving the other three (particularly Frank) time to breathe in the premiere.

That said, there were exciting moments. The progress of Caspere’s corpse towards its dumping ground, seated in the back of the car, hit the precise balance of offbeat and unnerving. The final scene, where Paul, Ani, and Ray all eye each other, is appropriately tense. And, if there’s one thing that Pizzolatto can write, it’s the fireworks that happen when people’s personal demons start to collide. My biggest concern going forward is that this painfully self-serious tone will continue. The show cast actors capable of same sardonic levity that Harrelson and McConughey brought to the first season. Hopefully, thrusting the four main characters into closer quarters will break up the morose atmosphere of the pilot. Bleak is fine, but eight hours of constant frowning will be hard to bear.

Odds & Ends

-Ani is also investigating the disappearance of a young woman named Vera, who used to work as a maid for her father’s church institute.

-James Frain shows up in one scene as a lieutenant in the Vinci police department. I’m sure James Frain will have more to do later.

-“Don’t ever do anything out of hunger. Not even eating.” Good luck maintaining that level of self-control all season, Frank.

-Most cringeworthy line of the night: Paul declaring, “The highway, it suits me.” Hard to imagine that one ever even looked good on paper.

-Ray wanted to be an astronaut, but even they don’t get to go to the moon anymore. Society is crushing everyone’s dreams, y’all.

-So…there was an eagle head in the car?

-I’m holding off on a critique of the way the show depicts women because this is only the first episode. (Jordan greets Frank in the morning in her bathrobe with perfect eye makeup! Paul’s gal – a grown woman with butterfly decals on her wall – is waiting for him on the bed in a cami and panties in a perfect sex kitten pose!) But I’m noticing things, and hoping to be proven wrong.

-Once again, True Detective nails the music (not surprising, with T Bone Burnett at the helm). Leonard Cohen’s “Nevermind” plays through the opening credits, and the episode closes with a cover of the Gatlin Brothers’ “All the Gold in California.” It’s literal, sure, but also full of just enough foreboding to carry some weight.