Recap Digest: True Detective 2.1, "The Western Book of the Dead"

Jun 22, 2015 by Alex Castle

It’s hard to imagine higher expectations for what is essentially a new show, but after the first season of HBO’s True Detective seemingly captured the imagination of the entire country last year, it feels like season two will be judged as a failure if it’s anything less than mindblowing right out of the gate.

Since it’s an anthology series, this season begins anew with different characters, a different setting, a different crime to investigate. No more Rust Cohle and his fascinating existential monologues; no more Marty Hart and his improbably gorgeous young girlfriends.

By the looks of the premiere, season two is also stepping away from the supernatural and occult elements that set season one apart from most crime procedurals, as well as the time-jumping flashback narrative structure. The latter I am going to miss; the former, not so much. In their place, we’ve got twice as many main characters, and this episode is very deliberate in establishing each of them before bringing them together; the crime that presumably sets the main plot in motion – the murder of the city manager upon whom Vince Vaughn’s character’s plans to go straight depends – isn’t discovered until the end of the hour.

As a result, it feels a little like the season is getting off to a slow start, but then you could have said the same thing about season one of The Wire, and that turned out all right.

It’s interesting to see Vaughn playing in a different key than what he’s known for; quiet, intense, withholding, as opposed to the comic filibustering of his best-known work. Rachel McAdams, an actress I have always found hugely appealing, manages to shake off almost all of her innate charm and put an angry menace in its place, and Colin Farrell is right in his comfort zone as the bent detective with rage and substance issues.

As for the plot, there’s not a lot to deconstruct or predict, as it only clicks into place in the final moments of the premiere, but what we’ve seen so far is promising; the idea of McAdams, Farrell and Taylor Kitsch, all clearly damaged individuals in their own ways, working together might very well bring some of the spark (if not, it appears, the humor) that McConaughey and Harrelson brought to season one.

Visually, the premiere was terrific. The final shot was breathtaking, as were some of the aerial shots of the Los Angeles industrial landscape.

The A.V. Club’s Erik Adams appreciates how the premiere makes a clean break from the first season while also sticking to its roots:

The unloading zone of a public school is the perfect place for “The Western Book Of The Dead” to begin, because “The Western Book Of The Dead” feels like a kid starting classes at a school where an older sibling’s reputation precedes them. Big brother was popular with the brains and the jocks alike, an effortless charmer who also had a bit of philosophical mystique to him. He left cryptic scribblings in his notebook margins and gave a stoned pronouncement about the human condition as his yearbook quote, yet he was still crowned prom king.

It’s a lot to live up to, and “The Western Book Of The Dead” would rather not talk about it. When Elvis Ilinca (Michael Irby) tries to engage his partner Ani Bezzerides in a bit of the old Rust-and-Marty back and forth, Ani shuts him down. “Don’t talk about my family, Elvis,” she says. This isn’t going to be that kind of partnership, and this isn’t going to be the type of show where flashbacks throw pebbles into the pond and we get to watch the ripples show up with stringy hair, a bad mustache, and Big Hug Mug full of cigarette ash. Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) does some Rust Cohle role play with a lawyer—he even drifts off into someone’s memory of a town where Ray’s an L.A. County sheriff’s deputy and aspiring developer Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) is a leather-jacketed hood working from a barstool, helping the deputy find the lowlife who raped his wife. But that’s all over pretty quickly.

Instead, this is True Detective back at square one. No green-eared spaghetti monster, no king in yellow, no flat circles beyond the game of Ring Around the Rosie that director Justin Lin plays with Ani, Elvis, Ray, and Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch). Just cops, crooks, crime, corruption, coercion, cloverleafs and other “c”s that aren’t “Cohle.” The sooner we accept this, the sooner we can get properly lost in season two’s tangle of highways and high speed rail.

It’ll also allow us to accept something that got squeezed out of the True Detective conversation rather quickly last winter: Despite the sheen of prestige provided by the A-list stars, the stylist behind the camera, and the former lit professor writing the scripts, True Detective has always had a heart of trash. “The Western Book Of The Dead” is flowery pulp, a lurid opening chapter in which everyone’s getting drunk, no one’s wearing pants, and our interest is piqued by the guy doing a Weekend At Bernie’s in the backseat of someone else’s luxury car. There’s sex and violence, outrageous erotica and prosthetci scars, all set against the backdrop of a paradise that’s been corrupted by asphalt and steel. True Detective’s default gear is vulgarity, and “The Western Book Of The Dead” stays in that gear for most of its running time.

Grantland’s Andy Greenwald notes the second season’s focus on its pulp-noir roots:

Rather than draw from obscure sources like Robert W. Chambers’s The King in Yellow to tell his story, Pizzolatto seems to have reached for all the familiar signposts on California’s long, lost highway. Into his whirring blender go long stalks of Chandler and Connelly, a healthy scoop of Chinatown, and a light dusting of the collected works of Paul Thomas Anderson. (In particular, David Morse, as a bearded cult leader, and ’80s rocker Rick Springfield, as a ghastly psychiatrist, could have been airlifted directly from the set of Inherent Vice.) I’m not entirely sure if the resulting juice is greater than the sum of its parts, but it goes down smooth, especially if, like me, you have a particular affinity for tarnished visions of the Golden State. Vinci appears to be a stand-in for Vernon, which is just south of downtown Los Angeles, but in its ebullient corruption it reminded me of Pelican Bay, the fictitious oceanfront town that’s at the center of one of my all-time favorite mysteries, Chinaman’s Chance by Ross Thomas. But why stop there? Pizzolatto treks up and down the state like a hobo in search of raw material: Vinci’s mayor, the titanically drunk Ritchie Coster (Luck), lives with his trophy wife in a Lebowski-esque mansion in Bel-Air; the missing Caspar kept a The Canyons–like crash pad in West Hollywood and the investigation threatens to roam as far north as Sonoma. Pizzolatto’s appetite for the state is voracious. He wants all the best myths and he wants them double-double, animal style.

Over at Vulture, Kenny Herzog points out another way the change of venue to Los Angeles informs the narrative:

Try not to judge Vinci PD detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) when he shakes down his own son for the name of a schoolyard bully, coercing the info by calling him a “fat pussy.” Ray’s merely projecting. After all, he just finished roughing up an innocent newspaper reporter at the behest of his own personal bully, local mob thug Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), who helped Ray locate his wife’s rapist years earlier and has been calling in favors ever since. Similar consideration is advised when encountering local sheriff Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), who’d prefer her sister Athena (Leven Rambin) be off the wagon rather than soberly pursue a porn career. Truth is, Ani’s got a drinking issue and likes to think her job is a righteous cover for personal failings.

But in True Detective executive producer Nic Pizzolatto’s world of urbane crime and corruption, everyone’s playing a part, making greater Los Angeles the perfect symbol and setting for their stories. Frank’s wife Jordan (Kelly Reilly) assures her husband that power suits him, even though he can’t stop second-guessing the venue he rented out to pitch city muckety-mucks on a high-speed California rail system, à la the East Coast’s Acela Express (or, if you prefer, Campbell Scott’s Seattle Supertrain from Singles). Meanwhile, highway motorcycle patrolman Paul Woodrugh’s (Taylor Kitsch’s) girlfriend thinks he’s a perma-erect macho man with irresistible mystique, when in reality, he needs half an hour in the bathroom and some Viagra to get hard and considers suicide after his boss puts him on administrative leave. (Dudes and their bikes.) Even Vinci city manager Ben Caspere, who’s supposed to be the credible face of Frank’s light-rail presentation, has gone missing, leading Velcoro and his partner Teague Dixon (W. Earl Brown) on an investigation that uncovers Caspere’s apparent predilection for extreme sexual kink. (Whatever floats your weird naked lady in a bowl of milk.)

And Salon’s Sonia Sariya notices that the show still has masculinity on its mind:

All the male characters in “The Western Book Of The Dead” struggle with different expressions of impotence—which might well compare to Pizzolatto’s own feelings of impotence, or might just be a smart-bro homage to the original smart bro, Ernest Hemingway. 15 minutes in, the episode offers up sex workers clad in the silly trappings of male fantasy—fishnets, plastic high heels, neon wigs. A few minutes later, Colin Farrell’s character Ray Velcoro walks with his partner into a missing man’s apartment, only to find it chock-full of dildos—strewn on the counters, literally, next to erotic paintings of women and a view of a naked woman bathing in a vat of milk. It’s exaggerated to the point of absurdity—an elaborate “f— you” to viewers of the show who found “True Detective”’s first season a little to self-consciously obsessed with sex, a little too indulgent of male feelings. Lest we have any doubts about Pizzolatto’s feelings towards the press, drunk and unstable Ray puts on a ski mask and beats the s— out of a senior staff writer that is too critical of a major business deal headed by Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon, a criminal boss trying to go legitimate. That’s a stance reflected in how all of our characters respond to criticism in just the first hour: Rachel McAdams’ tough cop Ani barely restrains murderous rage towards her “prick” father; Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh responds to a formal reprimand by asking sharp questions about the hierarchy above him (when not getting dangerously self-destructive); and Ray, in the first few minutes, says with unearned swagger to a family lawyer: “I welcome judgment.” There are parts of this show that could be subtle, but this isn’t one of them.

So perhaps it’s an indication of the power of admittedly toxic expressions of masculinity that this first episode back, while confusing, is reliably captivating; the landscape of bombed-out industrial suburbia is a concrete playground of corruption, the betrayal of the promise of the American frontier. “True Detective”’s roots are in pulp, in noir; each scene in “The Western Book Of The Dead” would fit into a grim, darkly inked comic book, complete with men in suits, mostly naked women, and the graven lines on the faces of the protagonists, who we are unsubtly informed have Seen Too Much. And this has always been “True Detective”’s strength: The ability to make romance out of the mundane stuff of everyday life, the power to enact man’s struggle for meaning onto the landscape of suburbia.

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