True Detective 2.1: The Western Book of the Dead – Review

Was Game of Thrones too optimistic for you? Well, don’t worry, lovers of everything dark and depressing, HBO has the answer to squash our re-emerging happiness. True Detective takes over the former show’s time slot on Sundays and brings with it the same fatalistic tone that entranced viewers last year, albeit with an entirely new cast, location, and story. You can refresh yourself on the stellar first season with the first Sam Revisits column. For me, I don’t know what it was, but this episode hit me right in the sweet spot. I loved the aestheticism of misery that creator Nic Pizzolatto brings to the material, a level of majesty to the ordinary that elevates the material into the unique creature that is True Detective.

Set in and around the fictional industrialized California town of Vinci (pop. 95), Season 2 deals with many similar themes as the first, such as corporate and governmental corruption, antiheroic protagonists, and the role of storytelling in our lives.

Farrell is Det. Ray Velcoro, a hard-living, hard-drinking dude in the pocket of local mobster Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn). Velcoro got in with Semyon when his ex-wife was raped and, nine months later, gave birth to their son. Neither are sure who the father truly is. Semyon, meanwhile, is focused on going straight, investing $5 million into a highway project that would connect North and South California. However, the plan is derailed when his duplicitous partner, city manager Ben Caspere, winds up murdered, drawing together Velcoro, Det. Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), a detective with the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, and OFF Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), a war veteran stinging from PTSD and an alleged incident while working for California Highway Patrol. These four become entangled in this year’s web of kinky sex clubs, transportation deals, and compromised morals.

The show’s cast has grown with its prestige, now presenting four main viewpoint characters instead of last season’s two. It’s an ambitious, perhaps necessary, step forward, but it does weigh down the show, particularly in this first episode. It’s an exercise in contrast rather than comparison to last season’s premiere, which started with the nonlinear set-up and the baroque, ritualized murder scene of a young girl. Here, we follow the characters individually until they all intersect at the end, when we finally reach this season’s murder case. Pizzolatto cashes in on the goodwill from last season to take his time here.

Last year’s vision of haunted Louisiana marshland is replaced by the industrialized California landscape. Filmed by director Justin Lin as if it were a living organism, he delivers multiple overhead shots of highways as the veins and arteries pumping filth, both human and pollutant, through the scorched counties. Unlike the first season where Cary Fukunaga directed all the episodes, Lin helms only the first two before handing off to others. It remains to be seen if the show can recapture Fukunaga’s consistently deft camera work and authorial ownership that added to the show’s mystique. That said, this first episode brilliantly uses both music (specifically brass and strings) and old school fade-outs to make it both old-school and stand-out among other, more banal detective shows.

On the writing side, Pizzolatto once again penned all eight installments. The story is somehow even darker than before, and without the Lovecraftian trappings that made the first so unique. There’s no doubt his writing is the bedrock of the show. The danger he now faces is the same danger any auteur has when success engenders complete creative control – a descent into self-obsession.

Unrestrained, he slips close to self-parody at points. One example is when Farrell has to deliver a whopper of a line while threatening his son’s bully: “I’ll come back and butt-fuck your father with your mother’s headless corpse on this goddamn lawn.” Creative? Yes. Distracting? Definitely. 

It’s made most depressing by the lack of humor. Pizzolatto is so determined to hammer home the darkness, he can’t allow a single joke through, lest it diminish the “power” of his nihilism. Right now, it’s not an issue; this is only one episode after all.

But if one thing got us through McConaughey’s monologues, it was Harrelson’s wry responses. Pizzolatto understood his words coming out of McConaughey’s mouth would have been ridiculous without Harrelson (and by extension, the audience) calling him out on it. Here, everything is serious as death. Vince Vaughn stares into a mirror and, to nobody in particular, says “Behold, what was once a man.” Don’t you dare crack a smile!

The acting is great, as it should be. The appeal of the show is to see these film stars delve into Pizzolatto’s world and embrace his sensibility. Our four stars throw themselves into it, even though screen real estate is much smaller than it was for McConaughey and Harrelson. Kitsch in particular is extraneous to the plot of this first episode and his backstory, along with Farrell’s, are so over-the-top in their male crises, you wonder how they get out of bed in the morning.

Vaughn is clearly the one with the biggest chance at a “McConaissance.” years slumming it in broad comedies, the show reminds us this is a guy who was Norman Bates once. His role is also the flashiest. His eyes, sharp as flints, are often the focus of Lin’s camera. His Frank Semyon is a career criminal looking to go straight. Though left out of the promotional material, the fifth main castmember is Kelly Reilly as Semyon’s wife Jordan. Thankfully, she’s given more to do plot-wise than Michelle Monaghan ever was, with edges of Lady Macbeth and perhaps Robin Wright’s Claire Underwood of Netflix’s House of Cards. We’ll see if her role continues to intrigue.

Speaking of women on the show, that’s a big question. Pizzolatto had previously said, in an interview with Alan Sepinwell of HitFix, the season would focus on “hard women, bad men, and the secret occult history of the United States transportation system.” As juicy as that sounded, Pizzolatto later said he abandoned the occult aspects early in his writing to focus on a more “grounded crime story.” Though disappointing for me as a genre fan, it’s a fair point. Getting the right amount of reality and fantasy together was a lightning-in-a-bottle trick that the first season hit perfectly. It would be a mistake to try to artificially replicate it.

Rachel McAdams plays the only female lead, a tough-as-nails detective named Ani Bezzerides. Unfortunately, Pizzolatto seems to only be able to relate to her if she is masculine as fuck. McAdams is great in the role, yet Pizzolatto can’t help but write her as hard-boiled as men. At one point in voiceover, she says, “The fundamental difference between the sexes is one can kill the other with their bare hands.” That statement is a such a contortion, it comes off as satire.

Her rejection of her hippie, New Age dad – played by David Morse – feels like a tacit refusal to bend to critics, both for the character and the writer. It doesn’t help that Pizzolatto gives her a sister who has resorted to online porn to make a living. The show’s fascination with sex workers continues.

Speaking of Morse, the one area the show is unequivocally better is in its supporting cast, with Ritchie Coster the stand-out as the perpetually-drunk mayor of Vinci. Other supporting cast this season include W. Earl Brown, Leven Rambin, James Frain, C.S. Lee, Abigail Spencer, and Timothy V. Murphy.

THE SUM OF ALL REELS:

Despite losing the eerie and ethereal edge that made the first season so distinctive, there’s no doubt that this is another Pizzolatto’s babies, with all the familiar contours of masculine identity, pitch-black philosophy, and sometimes-hammy, sometimes-profound dialogue. Personally, I enjoyed this re-entry into the world with reckless abandon. Somehow, this show has taken angst and made it into an art-form.

But that same profundity is in danger of devouring itself under the weight of the show’s oppressive tone. Similar complaints were lodged with the first edition until the ending came to a surprisingly simplistic talk about good and evil. Will the show pull the same 180? Or are we destined to see our characters mope for 7 more weeks? Let’s find out together.

True Detective airs at 9 p.m. EST on HBO

About Sam Flynn

Wasting oxygen since 1992, Sam thanks the gods he doesn't believe in everyday his parents didn't discard him as an infant. It would have been the sensible thing to do.
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