True Detective – Season 2 Episode 1
“The Western Book of the Dead”
Nic Pizzolatto’s brooding crime drama True Detective returned on Sunday for its second season, with an entirely new cast and location. This time around we’re leaving behind the bayous of Louisiana for the industrial sprawl of California.
Season 1 was incredibly well received and much of this hinged on the central partnership of Rust Cohle and Marty Hart. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson lent the weight of their respective movie careers to the fledgling series, and True Detective profited on this back of this. The risk for season 2 lay in the anthological nature of the show; could it possibly repeat its initial success despite the complete overhaul? This season does not lack for star names; Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch and Vince Vaughn head up the cast list and creator Nic Pizzolatto returns to pen the first episode, ‘The Western Book of the Dead’.
Directed by Justin Lin (the Fast and Furious series), episode 1 begins with an atmospheric title sequence reminiscent of the first season, except here the backwoods and swamps have been replaced with icons of the Californian setting; the ocean, highways, palm trees and cities stretching to the horizon. The colour palette isn’t as muted as that of season 1, and the deep reds not only suggest a pacific sunset, but hint at the danger and bloodshed we should expect from the series.
We’re introduced first to detective Ray Velcoro (Farrell). He’s an alcoholic with a tragic family history. In a scene reminiscent of the signature interviews from season 1, we discover that Velcoro’s wife was raped, and that she had a child nine months later. Velcoro states that his wife was pregnant at the time of the assault, although his face reveals that he is aware that his son is potentially the product of the rape. Consequently Velcoro’s family has fallen apart, and he’s fighting to spend more time with his son. He’s working the case of a missing city official who we later discover may have ties to the criminal underworld. His willingness to go to any length is demonstrated when he ruthlessly beats the father of a boy who has been bullying his son. Throughout this episode Farrell embodies the washed-up Velcoro ably; the pain of a life full of regret is written all over his performance.
In a flashback we are introduced to gangster Frank Semyon (Vaughn), who has helped a younger, uniformed Velcoro deal with his wife’s attacker. Here the relationship between cop and criminal is established, as Semyon hints that he will be calling in favours from Velcoro in return for his assistance. Back in the present, Semyon is attempting to move into more legit business, in the form of a land deal that will benefit from a new high speed rail link being developed in the area. He’s troubled by a piece being written by a local journalist, who is attempting to uncover the corruption at the heart of the deal. The fact that his partner, a certain city official, is missing is doing nothing to help him push the deal forward. Other than the motivation to see a better life for his kids, Vaughn doesn’t have much to work with here, so the extent to which he is truly leaving behind his life of crime remains a mystery.
Rachel McAdams is up next. She’s tough cop Ani Bezzerides, who works for the Ventura County sheriff’s department. Her mother, a failed actress, is dead, her father is a new age spiritual leader and her sister makes a living doing webcam pornography. This is all spelled out rather heavy-handedly in a scene with her dad, where he basically explains to the audience that Bezzerides’ hard-ass character is a reaction against the influences of her family. The serene backdrop of the Pacific Ocean is a nice contrast to the father/daughter conflict, even if the dialogue leans a bit too far towards exposition. McAdams is believable enough as the self-reliant loner, and later we see her losing control after leaving work and drinking alone at a casino. Hopefully this side of her character will be developed further throughout the rest of the season, as we’ve only really been given a glimpse so far.
Rounding out the main cast is highway patrolman Paul Woodhugh (Kitsch), whom we first encounter soliciting sexual favours in exchange for leniency over a ticket. We learn little else about him, besides the fact that he is covered in scars, potentially a nod to his past in the military, or possibly the results of the self-destructive behaviour in which he indulges. Kitsch plays Woodhugh as very much the strong silent type; he’s the most mysterious of the main characters and has the potential to go in almost any direction from here.
After establishing the protagonists, the strings of the plot begin to intertwine. Shots of an unidentified man being driven in the back of a car are sprinkled throughout the episode.
Velcoro is called in to rough up the journalist who has been shedding a little too much light on Semyon’s shady dealings. There’s a nice scene at a dive bar between Vaughn and Farrell – Velcoro is handing over the files he stole from the journalist and here the traditional cop/crook roles are reversed, as Semyon appears to be the one holding all the cards. He’s level-headed and certainly in control of this situation, as Velcoro is indulging his vices, chain smoking and knocking back the bourbon. Semyon seems to show genuine concern for the burnt out Velcoro, placing a steadying hand on his shoulder as he leaves. It’s a nice human touch, and reinforces the differences between men who are only technically on opposite sides of the law. It’s a dramatic side of Vince Vaughn we haven’t seen in a while, and based on this scene alone we should hope that there’s more to come.
In the episode’s climax Woodhugh takes a late night ride on his motorcycle, dicing with death, turning off his headlight and roaring to over 100mph. When he snaps out of his suicidal trance, he pulls up at a rest stop and discovers the body of Ben Caspar, the same civil servant who has been involved with Semyon, and whom Velcoro is investigating. Bezzerides and Velcoro are called to scene and it is revealed that Caspar’s eyes have been burnt out with acid. Who could have done this? What did they have to gain from the failure of the rail deal? And why this gruesome method of disposing/displaying of the body? Velcoro and Bezzerides are on the case, and Woodhugh and Semyon are tangled up in the web.
In terms of sticking to the established True Detective aesthetic, this episode succeeds marvelously. The atmospheric music, often employing pounding, insistent drums, builds the tension throughout. The cinematography is beautiful, and the overhead shots of the industrial sprawl of greater LA are stylistically reminiscent of the previous season. The occult themes are also teased here, with the reveal of Caspar’s desecrated corpse. It remains to be seen if the rest of season 2 will live up to the high standards set by its forebear, but ‘The Western Book of the Dead’ has certainly established a new Californian noir to which we should be eager to return and unravel.
True Detective is back!
Our fresh set of protagonists is established, some with a little more on-the-nose exposition than others. Colin Farrell is the dirty cop with ties to the mob. Rachel McAdams and Taylor Kitsch have troubled backgrounds of their own, making it difficult for them to relate to those closest to them. Vince Vaughn is the career criminal looking to go legit. Once a body is discovered all four become interconnected. For now, Farrell’s Velcoro is the most developed, and thus the most intriguing character. Hopefully we’ll learn more about the others as the season progresses.
The atmosphere and tone is spot on. Pizzolatto has created another intriguing mystery in which he has entangled his broken characters. Episode 1 was always going to leave us with more questions than answers – now we can really begin the search for the truth.
In time we’ll discover if True Detective season 2 can live up to the legacy of Cohle and Hart.