TRUE DETECTIVE: “The Western Book of the Dead”

True Detective returns with a new case. Less philosophical truth, more detective.

I welcome judgement.

–Detective Ray Velcoro

True Detective returned Sunday night with a whole new cast and creative team. Only showrunner/writer Nic Pizzolatto returns, having again written the entire season and now with the creative freedom from HBO to handpick his entire team for the second installment of his anthology detective series. That freedom stems from Season 1’s success, built largely on the backs of Emmy-nominated performances from Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, and the vision of full-season director Cary Joji Fukunaga. But Season 2 begins fresh, moving the story cross-country from the bayous of New Orleans to the sprawling labyrinths of Los Angeles, and leaving the philosophical musings of Rust Cohle behind for something more closely resembling the classic hard-boiled noir of the West Coast.

“The Western Book of the Dead” feels, in many ways, like Pizzolatto and team are working to craft a similar dish as Season 1, but with a new batch of ingredients. There are many hallmarks here that you’ll recognize: darkness, sexual deviancy, and cops with crimes haunting their pasts. But perhaps the best place to start is with Frank Semyon, the racketeer casino man played by Vince Vaughn who is apparently going to go straight via a real estate deal. Our story begins on the day of his big meeting with…investors? Officials? Planners? It’s hard to say just exactly what’s on the line for Semyon and his operation, but the stakes are seemingly huge because he claims he’s been up all night. I’d guess we should think Chinatown, but with real estate up for grabs instead of water. Indeed, Semyon stalks every room with a thousand-yard stare of exhaustion and stress.

Whatever’s on the line in Semyon’s day, the publication of the first article in a series exposing corruption between crime figures and the greater Los Angeles police force throws a wrench into the machine. Semyon’s past is still largely unknown; he’s startled by the newspaper exposé despite the assurances of his men. “Don’t worry, it won’t touch you,” one man says. Semyon, the type of man who still unconsciously makes tight fists while having his shirt sleeves cuffed, obviously thinks differently. “Everybody gets touched,” his wife (Kelly Reilly) warns. More immediately troubling is the absence of Ben Caspere, the city manager and Semyon associate who’s suddenly disappeared. What’s the connection between the corrupt city manager, the article, and Seymon? Only time will tell.

Perhaps Semyon does have reason to worry, because he obviously does have connections with law enforcement, specifically Detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell with a fabulous mustache and bolo tie). The show’s early minutes show a meeting between the two men years before. Velcoro, still a deputy at the time, meets Semyon at a bar where he offers Velcoro the name and picture of a man who Semyon asserts was responsible for the rape and beating of his wife. What does he ask for this information? “Nothing,” Semyon claims. “Maybe we’ll talk sometime. Maybe not.” Later talking obviously ensued, as Velcoro is now Semyon’s personal fixer, and he’s tasked by his boss with investigating Caspere’s disappearance. A visit to the missing man’s house reveals a ransacked residence and a slew of disturbing sexual art and toys. Not there on official business, Velcoro leaves and reports it.

The present day finds Velcoro, now a seasoned detective with a drinking problem, split up from his wife and fending off questions about his son’s parentage from his divorce lawyer. Whether the redheaded boy is truly his son remains unknown, and Velcoro refuses to submit to a paternity test, trying instead to mold the boy in his own image over the little time they spend together every week.

There’s an interesting disparity between the two men and the classic labels of good guys and bad guys. Semyon, the crime boss, seems desperate to go straight and provide his family with a future where they don’t have to wonder about the source of their family’s income. Is he safe? Probably not, based on his past, but he certainly doesn’t carry the overt darkness of the police officer in his employ. Velcoro is prone to anger and drunkenness, savagely beating the writer responsible for the exposé, and then the father of the teen who stole his son’s shoes for good measure. Despite the dialogue he’s often forced to deliver, Farrell is excellent. Vaughn is obviously cast against type, but it’s too early to know if there’s anything else waiting behind his early one-note performance.

Also along for the ride is Rachel McAdams as True Detective’s first female protagonist, Detective Antigone “Ani” Bezzarides. The show’s first season received its share of complaints about its lack of women with any purpose except for their sexual attachments to men. So is Ani’s inclusion a move in the right direction? Yes, but it’s not without some big bumps in the road. Named after a tragic Greek character with daddy issues, we see Bezzarides fight with her hippie commune-leading father, and use a police sting as an attempt to stop her sister from starring in pornography. Add in a relationship that’s both romantically and sexually questionable, and a lone wolf attitude, and it’s easy to see the clunky hand plotting Ani’s every move.

Finally, Taylor Kitsch play Paul Woodrugh, an army vet and highway patrolman who’s on leave while being investigated for soliciting a sexual act in exchange for letting an attractive woman out of a ticket. Woodrugh is actually innocent, protesting that the highway suits him and he’s no good on the sidelines. It makes no difference; he’s off work for the time being. Maybe the time off will give him a chance to investigate his need for sexual assistance drugs, and the scars that cover his body? Nah, he’d rather ride his motorcycle in total darkness for some reason. Is it a death wish or just boredom?

Having traded the rural beauty of Louisiana for the urban sprawl of Los Angeles, we get multiple looks at the tarantula-like arms of California’s highway system. The road is a familiar place for director Justin Lin (The Fast and the Furious 3 through 6), who does a serviceable job in the director’s chair, and you can feel his skills in the episode’s highway scenes. Missing, however, is the firm hand of Season 1 director Cary Joji Fukunaga, who guided his episodes around the potholes of Pizzolatto’s occasionally tin-eared dialogue.

It’s fair to ask if Pizzolatto is a one-trick pony. Sure, Season 1 was a pretty incredible trick, and the show took the world by surprise. But now, with Fukunaga gone, Pizzolatto is left to stand on his own. The man is obviously an egoist in bad need of an editor, who will tell him that “You ever bully or hurt anybody again, I’ll come back and butt f— your father with your mom’s headless corpse on this goddamn lawn” is not sterling dialogue. He’s also chosen to jettison the college dorm philosophizing that was a key component of the first season in favor of a more traditional noir storyline. “I welcome judement,” Ray Velcoro tells his lawyer, an appropriate line for a character that will always be judged against his predecessor. Season 2 is less philosophical truth, more detective, and how you feel about that may largely make or break this run of episodes for you.

But I’m not wholly here to damn the show. With the wave of incredibly mixed reviews leading up to the premiere, I honestly expected much worse. What “The Western Book of the Dead” offers us is the seed of a story, and the episode finally hits its stride in the closing minutes when Velcoro, Bezzarides, and Woodruff all find themselves at a single crime scene. The missing Ben Caspere, found at a roadside picnic table dead, his eyes burned out with acid, seemingly represents the central crime that these three detectives will face as they battle their own demons –- all while Frank Semyon waits on the sidelines trying to avoid the prying eyes of a police investigation. At the moment he’s not involved with the crime at all, but just wait. I’m sure he will be.

“Wait and see” is never the verdict that anyone wants to hear, but it’s often the smartest course of action. Now that our characters have a crime to solve, they’ll hopefully find some focus through the investigation. It’s much easier to tell four intertwined stories than four completely separate ones. Will it ever be possible to recapture the lightning in a bottle vibrancy of Season One? Probably not, but the smartest thing to do might be to just forget it. That story has been told, and Rust Cohle isn’t coming back. It’s on to new things. When a case is finally solved, detectives have to move on to the next case, and it’s time we do the same.

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