True Detective “The Western Book of the Dead” Review (2×01)

21 Jun


“We must recognize that the world is meaningless and understand that God did not create a meaningless world.”

The season two premiere of True Detective is a meandering affair, an exposition dump for the show’s expanded new cast as it struggles to get its story legs underneath it. However, for all its flaws, it’s still an intriguing episode, one that snaps the story into focus when it brings all of its characters together at the end. The problem, though, lies in the execution of the backstories beforehand, as the episode jumps all over the place in order to establish a plethora of people and places and motivations; it remains to be seen where it’s all heading, but there are certainly some growing pains we have to get through here.

That’s not to say that backstories aren’t intriguing. It’s just that the episode can’t quite grasp ahold of any character with a firm hand, and it instead relies heavily on on-the-nose dialogue and stilted character interactions in order to give us a vague view of who these people are. It’s certainly not a very subtle way to throw us into this world, and there are some unintentionally hilarious moments that pop up throughout as a result. Most of them come from the mouth of Vince Vaughn, who doesn’t really seem comfortable in the new role he has (which requires him to stare off into the abyss and spout off pretentious lines at every turn). Nevertheless, we get some semblance of intrigue surrounding his character–Frank Semyon–near the end of the episode when he has a conversation in the bar with Farrell’s Ray Velcoro. As “This Is My Least Favorite Life” is playing off to the side, the camera gives us closeups of both faces, highlighting the dark past these two share and the undoubtedly dark future that will be in store.

And that darkness is definitely essential when it comes to crafting the world around these characters, which is something that the show became known for in its first season. The California mood here is built on an undercurrent of uncertainty, of pessimism and melancholy, of death lurking around every corner. These characters are connected by way of hard liquor and hard pasts, and they all utilize their work to simply keep moving on this difficult path we call life. “I need to do something,” Paul Woodrugh says after the saddest blowjob ever. “I need to work.” And what results–Paul nearly killing himself while riding his motorcycle–is yet another one of those unintentionally hilarious moments in the episode, but it also gets the job done in terms of crafting mood. This is a man affected by deep scars from his past, and he even has real scars on his body to underscore that point further.


Ray Velcoro is also a man scarred by a dark past, and it all explodes when he takes out his anger on the father of the boy who bullied his son. The rape of his wife is the dark cloud still looming over him and his relationship with Frank, and he’s a man who swallows himself in liquor and recognizes the world of disappointment around him. “I used to want to be an astronaut, but they don’t even go to the moon anymore,” he laments.

In similar fashion, Rachel McAdams’s Ani Bezzerides is someone who’s drowning in problems oftentimes created on her own, as explained by hippie father David Morse in a conversation that pretty much dumps Ani’s character on the table for us to see. Aside from groan-worthy Greek names and bland exposition, though, McAdams plays the character fairly well, doing a good job of highlighting both the defiance and the desperation that drives her.

Plus, “desperation” is a fairly good descriptor that can be applied to all these characters. They’re all looking for something better, something else, and maybe this Ben Casper case is exactly what’s going to help. There’s one ring of police lights that can be seen in the heavy darkness, flashing around the disturbing corpse of the Vinci City Manager as the cops standing around him introduce themselves. It’s just the beginning of a new journey, but perhaps it can turn on a few more lights in the darkness.



-I feel like the name “Aspen” was only used so that “Ass-pen” could also be used.

– “Never do anything out of hunger…not even eating.” Really, some of this dialogue is so, so awful.

-I know a lot of people hate the new opening song, but I’m fine with it. It’s nowhere near as good as season one’s opener, but it fits the show.

– “If you bully again, I’ll come back and buttfuck your father with your mother’s headless corpse right here on this goddamn lawn.” And some of it is pretty awesome.

-Nice to see W. Earl Brown in this.

-Justin Lin does a fine job with this premiere–especially with that final shot–but I still miss Fukunaga. It’s a shame that Pizzolatto and Fukunaga couldn’t work out their differences.

-I’m looking forward to this season. Even if the first few episodes are weak–as the critics suggest–there’s no telling what can happen in the back half of the story.

Photo credit: HBO, True Detective

4 Responses to “True Detective “The Western Book of the Dead” Review (2×01)”

  1. Matthew Thompson June 22, 2015 at 9:40 pm #

    It was okay. It feels like a lot of typical pilots (I know it isn’t a pilot per se, but it kind of has the same burdens) trying to get all the pieces into place which is especially troubling with more leads this time around. I also think some of this overly serious dialogue that McConaughey made work last year isn’t coming off as well from the people here. And there is no Marty to play against who added a bit levity and helped give a nice back and forth and contrast between the leads. Of course maybe things will change now with the cops meeting up at the end, but they all seemed like such bummers, I’m not as optimistic.

    That seems like a lot of complaining, but I think I just instantly liked the first season and am having a hard time not comparing this one to it. I am still intrigued by the setup and interested in some of the characters, so I’m looking forward to seeing how things unfold.

  2. Khalid at The Blazing Reel June 23, 2015 at 2:41 pm #

    I wanted to read your review after I saw the episode and I agree with what you have to say. I like the dark mood, love Colin Farrell’s character and the story seems quite intriguing as well.

    I guess what I hated most about this episode was the pretentious dialogue at some points, I thought they were trying too hard. The Taylor Kitsch shot was pretty funny.

  3. sarah9461 June 30, 2015 at 11:03 am #

    My husband can’t stand Vince Vaughn, so it’s all he can do to sit thru an episode this season. When they were carting that dead body around, we kept giggling about it being “Weekend at Bernie’s.” Trying to get into it. Very edgy character for Rachel McAdams.


  1. True Detective: More Than What Meets the Eye? | Polar Bears Watch TV - July 13, 2015

    […] The second season has already shown the same affinity for symbolism. During Semyon’s monologue at the beginning of the second episode, a shot of his eyes is cut with a pair of water stains on the ceiling, which is then cut with a shot of Caspere’s burned-out eye sockets in the morgue. The visual transition explicitly links the two men, as Caspere’s death has contributed to the sense of despair conveyed by Semyon’s monologue about his childhood trauma. Cohle’s poetic musings may be absent from season two, but the themes of psychosphere and sprawl are still very much intact. Frequent overhead shots of the LA highways snaking under and around each other in all directions (is there a city better described by “sprawl”?) are used for transitions, and as in season one, characters are introduced at a furious pace, forcing us to identify with the detectives’ job of cataloging and sorting through facts and faces to determine who is connected and who is not. Once again, there is a sense that a dirtiness pervades the atmosphere, a grime that coats everything it touches, and our protagonists will have to wade waist deep in it to uncover the truth. […]

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