HBO’s True Detective Western Book of the Dead TV Show Review. True Detective: Season 2, Episode 1: The Western Book of the Dead marks the second iteration of HBO’s hit anthology series. Last season, True Detective set a high standard for what a limited series could achieve. Season 2 returns looking to exceed expectations with a larger cast and even more pulpy intrigue.
True Detective season 1 wasn’t just a television series, it was a phenomenon. When True Detective was firing on all cylinders, it offered viewers a delectable taste of a rare television delicacy. The show hooked its ravenous fans with a one two punch of gripping mysteries and mesmerizing visuals, before the amazing performances levelled them with a knockout blow. As Rust Cohle, Matthew McConaughey delivered a character that will go down as one of TV’s all time greats. Viewer’s became so transfixed on Rust, that they weren’t noticing Woody Harrelson turning in some of the best work of his career (and on television), which is the equivalent of Kobe taking a back seat to Shaq in the early 2000’s. Back in 2014, on Sundays nights from January until March, HBO delivered the goods: True Detective was a top notch prestige drama, featured two movie stars at their apex, and slowly unraveled a mystery that sent the internet mad with speculation. During that golden 2 month span of television, HBO and series creator/writer Nick Pizzolatto were the pushers and the audience were their fiends. However, much like any addict will tell you, nothing is ever as sweet as that first hit.
One of the defining characteristics of Pizzolatto’s work on season one is that True Detective was a character study first, police story second. Season one’s narrative philosophy also holds true for season two’s first episode, The Western Book of the Dead. One of the main criticisms of season 1 was that outside of Marty and Rust, the show was littered with shallow characters (particularly the females). Season 2 addresses that critique, expanding the narrative by introducing the audience to 4 lead characters. Season 1 thrived because of the tight focus on the two leads, while season two sputters out of the gate as the series takes on a broader focus.
As Ray Velcoro, Colin Farrell slips right into the familiar groove of an unstable cop that’s teetering on the “edge”. Velcoro is nitroglycerin posing as a man. It’s a joy watching Farrell portray the twitchy Velcoro as he fizzles with the pent up kinetic energy of a soda bottle strapped to a jackhammer. We quickly learn that Velcoro is not a man toeing the line of right and wrong, instead he is one who regularly sets up camp on both sides. Velcoro is not a likable character — based on his grievous past he may become a sympathetic character. So far, Velcoro is the most interesting part of the series and I’m looking forward to seeing the show dig deeper into the reasons behind his dark turn. Vince Vaughn plays Frank Semyon, a very “un-Vince Vaughan like” departure from the happy-go-lucky fast talker he is known for. Vaughn delivers an understated performance and so far appears onscreen mostly to discuss the show’s convoluted real estate plot.
Critics blasted True Detective’s first season for the way that it reveled in its displays of hyper-masculinity as well as for lacking strong female characters. Season 2 addresses these criticisms in a manner so flagrant that the show may as well be throwing up both middle fingers at all of its haters. The episode wastes no time in informing us that Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) is a strong female character. We learn that Ani is a strong woman not because she is clever, physically tough or excels at her job, instead the show reveals that she has adventurous sexual proclivities and is the alpha in her sexual relationship. On the other end of the spectrum, by the book highway patrolman, Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), is emasculated through sexual dysfunction. We don’t need any chain-smoking, beer drinking, Rust Cohe style monologues for this episode to inform us where any of these people fall on the Myers-Briggs personality test. The Western Book of the Dead repeatedly drives home how broken down and world weary each characters is.
The mystery of season 2 is less comprehensible than that of season 1. Marty and Rust were on the hunt for a killer; their mystery spanned 17 years and encompassed everything from politicians to meth-cookers, but ultimately their tale was a pulpy, who-done-it. The Western Book of the Dead dangles several narrative threads out for viewer’s to latch onto: there is the disappearance of a local politician, the happenings of a “not quite right” small Californian town with a population under 100, and a gangster’s real estate scheme gone sideways. In the process of unspooling its mystery, the show weaves the audience through a prostitution racket, middle school bullying, the citation of a do-gooder cop, and the story of a gangster trying to go legit. With 7 episodes still to go, there is plenty of time for the show to settle down and contextualize each plot thread.
Although season 2 isn’t visually on par with season 1, it does have its moments. The episode’s director, Justin Lin (Fast & Furious 6), makes Los Angeles his cinematic playground by using his unique visual flare to depict the city’s intimidating scale. By day, we see Los Angeles as a sprawling metropolis, a never-ending expanse of brick and cement that grinds up the dreams of the unsuspecting and uses them to pave the way for the elite. Towards the end of the episode, Paul’s motorcycle rockets down the freeway engulfed by darkness, standing out like a firefly zipping across a moonless sky. In another scene, Ray and Frank sit across a table from each other, the camera gazes over them, slowing down time and soaking up their every movement with the reverence of an artistic savant. Although Lin clearly makes an attempt to use the camera in dynamic ways, my biggest disappointment with the episode is that the cinematography never comes close to matching the visual mastery that Cary Fukunaga established during season 1. The Western Book of the Dead is beautiful by television standards, but lacking by True detective standards.
Summertime is usually a dumping ground for the worst garbage that television networks have to offer. A summer time debut of a prestige drama like True Detective is as welcome as stumbling across an oasis in the Sahara. Season 1 of True Detective set the bar high, and it is unrealistic to expect the series to capture lightning in a bottle for a second time. If viewers put on a pair of goggles that allow them to look at the show from the perspective of someone that had no prior knowledge of True Detective, they would observe a fundamentally sound show: the performances are solid, the visuals are superior to most of what’s on TV and the story shows the potential to go off into some interesting places.
For those who want more of what they got last year, what transpires in this episode isn’t so far removed from the style of the first season. Between the bird mask in the front seat of the Cadillac and lines of dialogue like, “This place is built upon a codependency of interests”, Western Book of the Dead feels like an episode of True Detective. Each scene transpires through a melancholic lens, one that informs the audience that something terrible is always present, lurking just outside the edge of the frame. No matter what tragic events befall Frank, Paul, Ani and Ray over the next 7 weeks, True Detective’s viewers are guaranteed a fun summer television respite.
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