‘True Detective’ Season 2 Premiere Opens ‘The Western Book of the Dead’
As our own Kevin Fitzpatrick noted in his early review of True Detective Season 2, impotence and masculine ideals play a huge part — both literally and thematically — in the new season, which opens a new case in California. “The Western Book of the Dead” is mostly introductory, establishing our central characters and their various troubles, as well as reinforcing the series’ gruff and grim tone.
Thematically speaking, “The Western Book of the Dead” is fairly overt: We first meet Colin Farrell’s officer Ray Velcoro, who would likely find himself right at home in the first season. He exemplifies the sort of dueling masculine inner conflict heavily present in Season 1, a man who strives to do the right thing but always seems to do the wrong thing. That’s a basic character type, but Farrell plays Velcoro with alarming intensity — his scenes of heavy-drinking and startling violence are unnerving, to say the least. The first scene with his son, however, may be the most telling about his character; here is a man who should feel his heart breaking as he watches his heavyset son get out of the car and head into a school filled with bullies, and he knows it. Velcoro’s emotional temperature is varying degrees of rage.
The sexual assault his wife endured (which may or may not — but likely did — result in his son’s existence) puts him in the orbit of Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon, a career criminal attempting to legitimize his business with a new California rail system. Vaughn has carved out a grating comedic career playing the same arrogant, fast-talking types, but here he dials it way, way down, using his natural ability to schmooze to his advantage.
Velcoro is emasculated by his wife’s absence, their subsequent divorce and custody dispute, and the stand-up guy now serving as his son’s stepfather. Semyon is an inversion of Velcoro — a smooth man who can handle his liquor, whose only masculine obstacle is trying to impregnate his wife, but a little money and IVF can solve that problem. Money is power and power is masculine, therefore if A equals B and B equals C, then A equals C.
While Velcoro deals with thematic impotence, Taylor Kitsch’s officer Paul Woodrugh is struggling with literal impotence that both exemplifies and exacerbates his inner turmoil. Woodrugh’s introduction is also rather overt — he’s a former soldier using his gig as a motorcycle cop to literally outrun his past, but he can’t run away from what he’s already experienced. When he pulls a beautiful woman who’s broken her parole (and a few laws in the process) over for speeding and she offers to exchange sexual services if he’ll look the other way this once, Woodrugh finds himself under scrutiny from the police force even though he (presumably) turned her down. But that traffic stop, along with the Viagra and the gnarly scars, tell us all we need to know about Woodrugh. We hardly need his sexed-up and scantily clad lady friend to explain.
Rachel McAdams’ detective Ani Bezzerides feels like a reaction to complaints about Season 1's “woman problem” (an opinion I did not personally share) — but even Bezzerides is conforming to masculine ideals. It’s not that she appears and behaves as a man thinks a woman should; it’s quite the opposite. She takes on masculine behaviors as a reaction to the world around her and a rejection of her father’s ideals. If I’ve one complaint about Bezzerides it’s that she has stereotypical daddy issues, which are used far too often to explain away a woman’s struggles.
But what makes her daddy issues slightly interesting is that her father (David Morse) is a religious figure — he’s a peaceful, long-haired hippie type who runs a religious organization, preaching concepts like: if you were God, you would see how meaningless everything truly is. By establishing Bezzerides’ father as a religious leader, True Detective draws a thematic line between his place in the organization and his place in his daughter’s mind. His congregants may revere him and place him on a pedestal, but Bezzerides does not.
There’s a sort of messy nature to the premiere and its editing, which ambles (as if it’s as intoxicated as Velcoro or Bezzerides) from character to character and situation to situation. Justin Lin’s direction and cinematography are as cinematic — if not slightly more so — than Cary Fukunaga’s Season 1, but the editing is not nearly as tight.
“The Western Book of the Dead” works deliberately to draw thematic connections before establishing the literal connection: what brings these three cops (and Semyon, soon, I imagine) together is the disappearance and subsequent murder of city manager Ben Casper, whose body turns up situated Weekend at Bernie’s-style on a park bench, sunglasses and all.
Three officers from three different agencies are now forced together: the self-loathing Velcoro, who resists but ultimately gives in to corruption; the relentlessly unyielding Bezzerides; and the haunted but seemingly rather moral Woodrugh, who runs so hard and fast from himself that he stumbles across a crime scene. It’s almost like a set-up for a law enforcement reality show: find out what happens when we put these disastrous human beings under the same roof of the law.
“The Western Book of the Dead” isn’t an incredibly strong episode, but it is a rather solid introduction to the dark and grimy world of Season 2 — and it firmly establishes itself as independent from its predecessor in the process. To its credit, the premiere (and especially the last few moments) leave me wanting to know and see more.
- True Detective Season 2 power rankings: Rachel McAdams’ hair > David Morse’s hair > Taylor Kitsch’s motorcycle-riding face > Colin Farrell’s bolo tie.
- Is it weird that I find Rachel McAdams’ hair to be the most inspired part of Season 2 so far? It is seriously aspirational.
- Here’s hoping for fewer overt metaphors and more focus on crafting moments of extreme intensity, like pretty much every scene involving Velcoro. His outburst at his son’s school and the subsequent attack on the father of the son who stole his kid’s shoes were terrifying and repulsive.
- Is David Morse’s church/refuge/hippie circle the place where Don Draper went in the Mad Men series finale? Maybe Ani just needs a Coke.
- More W. Earl Brown, please. Clean-shaven W. Earl Brown might actually be the most unsettling part of the premiere.
- Special shout-out to Kelly Reilly, who plays Semyon’s wife — she is my favorite character already.
- Bonus shout-out to career TV supporting player James Frain, whose presence delights me always. Good to know I’ll have my weekly dose of him now that Orphan Black Season 3 is over.