True Detective S02E01 Recap: `The Western Book of the Dead [Season Premiere]

The morale that I took from the first season of True Detective was that this is supposed to be a show about characters and their journeys. The story, maybe to the dismay of some, came second. That's why, while I liked the unexpectedly positive message of the first season finale, which focused on what Rust Cohle and Marty Hart took out of their hunt for The King in Yellow, others weren't fans of how the resolution of their search wind up being so straightforward. Rust was looking for some deeper meaning, and wind up getting it. Viewers were looking for a satisfying conclusion to a story that had been built up on this impossibly high pedestal.

So what's creator and writer Nic Pizzolatto solution to what may have been construed as a problem last spring? Remove expectations entirely by almost ignoring any semblance of story. The second season premiere of True Detective, "The Western Book of the Dead", is almost entirely about its characters, probably to a fault. Outside of a missing city manager and the ride his corpse takes, eventually uniting three of our four protagonists by episode's end (more on that in a bit), there really isn't much plot to talk about. The premiere is hellbent on introducing those three characters and one other, and it kind of makes for mostly a lackluster episode, outside of a couple of moments that are pretty over the top and ridiculous.

In fact, the premiere sort of plays out like the first act of a novel, where Pizzolatto got his start, and which clearly influences his writing style. It's unapologetic about character development even though translating that visually in the format of a 60 minute episode of television can be difficult. We're first introduced to Colin Farrell's character, Ray, a brooding detective with a dark past and a fat ginger kid who may be his, or may be the spawn of his ex-wife being beaten and raped. He tries to prepare him for school where the kids are obviously mean, but they wind up cutting up his shoes. So he does what any rational, proud, protective father does, he goes to the kid's house, makes fun of him for being named Aspen, and then beats the shit of his father with brass knuckles while forcing the kid to watch, then threatens to rape the father with his mother's severed head.

It's kind of a stark contrast from anything we knew about Marty and Rust last year. There were always questions about their intentions, they were never the best people, but Ray is pretty much a bad person to his core. A single flashback to his first interaction with Vince Vaughn's character Frank implies that he might have once been good, before what happened to his then-wife introduced him to the evils of the world, but post-Crisis Ray beats people up, shames his kid in public, drinks during the day and works for criminals, making no excuses for who he is or what he does, other than in a message he sends to his son (that is, right before he goes and beats the shit out of his bully's father...).

Speaking of Frank, his story is about going from career criminal to legitimate businessman, as he sets up some sort of meeting tozzzzzz... Okay, that might be a little rough, but so far I'm not really feeling Frank's story. Vaughn's performance as a fidgety, nervous criminal is fine, if not the most Vince Vaughn performance of all time, but we know the good stuff is yet to come with his connection to the murder that we find out about at the end of the episode.

The other characters are Ani (Rachel McAdams) and Paul (Taylor Kitsch). Ani is a sheriff's detective who's sister is a porn star and dad is a hippie, and who isn't your normal kind of girl because she likes to get nasty in the bedroom (this is pretty much exactly how we're introduced to her). She's called onto the scene of the murder after Paul discovers it while pretty much trying to kill himself. He's a highway patrolman who was suspended after reporting that an actress violated her parole and tried to get out of a ticket by propositioning sex to him, for some reason, and also he's scarred (physically and emotionally) from military service. Both these characters are about as caricatured and ludicrous as Ray, so I'm looking forward to seeing more from them.

The episodes ends with, as mentioned, Paul discovering the eyeless corpse of Casper, the city manager who was supposed to show up to Frank's event. Ray gets called in because he was first investigating his disappearance, and we cut to credits with the three characters Justin Lin's camera spinning around them 360 degrees as they all look at each other, sad, angry and confused, before panning out to a dynamic shot of the California coast.

"The Western Book of the Dead" is sort of bipolar as an episode. It's either incredibly boring, like in the case of Frank's storyline (ironically, almost, since you'd expect Vaughn to be the most interesting part of the cast), or to a certain extent Ani, whose family drama I could care less about. Or it's Ray busting into people's houses and beating them up or Paul's weird and out of place expository lines about his military service. I have to say that I kind of like the version of this show that's ridiculous more than the one that's boring, but I'm still not sure where Pizzolatto is trying to go with it. That's because, well, the first episode doesn't actually seem to go anywhere. It's just a collection of character setups that sometimes take shots at the critics of season one, and other times try to veer into an entirely new direction.

You get the impression that True Detective season 2 isn't fully formed after the second episode. I'm not sure you can really blame it for that though, since not only are we being introduced to new characters, it's also a new plot, a new setting, a new directorial style, even a new writing format. It's an entirely new show, sharing nothing with season one other than a very basic neo-noir, atmosphere based genre and style and Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as executive producers. There are some weird, raw, kind of ludicrous things that I really liked about the premiere, others not so much and that were sort of boring, but that I'm willing to wait and see if they can find their way to being fully-fleshed. Plus for all that talk about this being a character-driven show, I'm sort of into the mystery they introduced, even though it took them 57 minutes to get to it.

"The Western Book of the Dead" is a rocky start to True detective season 2 after so much hype heading in, but one that I'm interested in following over the next 8 weeks, and it gets 7.5 loosened bolo ties out of 10.

Notes & Quotes:

  • Seriously pay attention to Colin Farrell's bolo tie throughout the episode. I want to make a drinking game out of how loose he's wearing it in every scene.
  • I think a sign that we probably shouldn't take this show too seriously (outside of literally everything about the scene where Ray goes to the bully's house) is the brooding look on Taylor Kitsch's face when he's getting a blowjob. It's incredible. It looks like he's thinking "I think I forgot to turn off the oven before I left home."
  • I kind of like the fact that Pizzolatto has the balls to introduce a flashback 3 minutes into the show and then never revisit the technique again.Personally I'm a big fan of flashbacks and we'll probably see more of them, but I like the idea of limiting them to just interspersed character development.
  • What do we all think about the show's new Leonard Cohen theme song and intro? I kind of like it.
  • What's up with the score for this new season? It sounds like someone tried to beat the Homeland theme song with a bass drum.
  • "You might have the wrong idea." "Why, you like paying taxes?"
  • "They took his shoes out of his gym locker." "And what? Shit in them?"
  • Seriously, Colin Farrell needs to win any Emmy for this scene: "I'll come back and buttfuck your father with your mom's headless corpse on this lawn."
  • Colin Farrell Emmy campaign part 2: "I used to want to be an astronaut. But astronauts don't even get to go to the moon anymore."