This True Detective review contains spoilers.
True Detective Season 2 Episode 1
True Detective season 2, episode 1 “The Western Book of the Dead,” is a backgrounder and there is a lot of ground to preamble. By the time we know what the main mystery of the season is going to be, we are fully invested in the characters. Nic Pizzolatto, who created and writes True Detective, is a novelist and lays out each episode like a chapter and each season as a book. He takes his time, he allows the directors to take their time and the actors really have the luxury of oozing into roles they can truly enjoy.
True Detective is art. Sure, this season is going to be a police procedural devoid of the mystical mayhem that made the debut an instant classic. But we are going to see procedures we don’t get on other shows. It’s just deeper. It’s a novel onscreen. You can almost hear the click of a keyboard as the camera fades take the place of commas and periods.
The episode opens on a graveyard of sticks with measurements under red cop tape in a contaminated site. We don’t find out during the night what the significance is, but it leaves an uneasy feeling of sorrow.
Colin Farrell plays Ray Velcoro, a sad cop. He’s sending his son to a new school and they are both nervous. He looks like a good dad. He was trying to be a father again, we learn in the next scene, until his IVF treatments were nullified. His wife was beaten and raped and whoever did it got away with it, he confirms at a custody hearing meeting with his lawyer. Velcoro is looking for a mouthpiece and his attorney’s teeth are too straight.
All the hype leading up to True Detective hinted that Vince Vaughn was playing the villain. This isn’t entirely accurate. He’s playing a villain, but he’s just as much a victim. Frank Semyon is a gangster going legit. Semyon and Velcoro are the first pairing the audience sees, so we know Velcoro is in Vaughn’s pocket for more than just money. Velcoro made a deal with the devil and has been paying his dues.
Semyon is the soldier who rose up through the ranks and is on the eve of becoming Godfather with a deal of the lifetime. The architect of the deal, his partner Casper, hasn’t been to work in two days. But if this deal works out, he will leave a true legacy. He and his wife Jordan (Kelly Reilly), a former D-list actress, are trying to have kids. He wants his offspring to grow into one of those old California families who don’t remember where the money came from. Every fortune begins with a crime.
The mayor also takes his problems to Semyon. The city of Vinci is its own character. It is a fictional city, so it doesn’t have a mythos to draw on, but it has a dark past. There is newspaper editor doing a five part series on corruption in the city and it has the potential to disrupt the local codependency of interests. In a city like Vinci, everybody gets touched. Luckily, the mayor and Semyon have the same enforcer on their payrolls. Velcoro used to work at the sheriff’s office and he welcomes judgement. He’s got a lot to be judged for, working both sides of the law with a strong arm and brass knuckles.
Velcoro is working through some anger issues. He is mucho macho and the kid he loves so much is a “fat pussy.” When he finds out that some kid named Aspen Conroy cut up his kid’s LeBron kicks, he not only beats the pubescent bully’s old man to a pulp, he promises the kid “I’ll buttfuck your father with your mother’s headless corpse on the lawn.”
Velcoro’s son isn’t the only character with daddy issues. Rachel McAdams, who plays Ani Bezzerides, a tough woman state cop, is the dark sheep in an off-white flock. Her father’s preaching the final age of man and the domestic staff is dwindling. He runs the Panticapeaum Institute which teaches that we are in the final age of man. Their followers are encouraged to spend their last days being fulfilled and soliciting donations to perpetuate their dogma.
Ani Bezzerides is no bullshit. She has more testosterone than her trooper lover. Bezzerides takes her job seriously and uses it personally. She busts an online jerkoff site that her sister Athena Bezzerides (Leven Rambin) freelances at. Their father, played by David Morse, says his cop daughter has a false sense of entitlement for something she never received.
Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) is a California Highway Patrol motorcycle officer and war veteran. He gets himself paid leave when he’s accused of soliciting a blow job from a young actress in a really gaudy ankle bracelet to avoid reckless driving ticket. It is left ambiguous whether he did it or not, but is superiors are convinced he’s not the kind of guy who does that sort of thing. We’re convinced by his scarred shoulders and the blue erection pills he’s popping to get himself in the mood for his hot girlfriend.
Kitsch is bringing a lot of angst to his part. Sure, he’s facing desk duty and is an action guy. “I like the bike, the highway it suits me I’m no good on the sidelines,” he tells his superior. But he brings such intensity to his anxiety that people get contact stress for blocks around him. His constant agitation comes partly from his soldier past. “Black mountain, we were working for America,” he explains. What is this Black Mountain?
HBO series always have great secondary characters. Velcoro’s partner is going to be this show’s Bronn from Game of Thrones or Veep’s Ben Caffrey, the gruff older character who is jaded, but kept his sense of humor. W. Earl Brown brings a certain Lewis Black quality to Teague Dixon. When fucking Casper’s secretary asks whether it’s okay to give business and personal documents to the cops, Dixon good-naturedly tell her “Sure it is, we’re the police.” It’s like Harry Mudd warning people that he’s lying.
Nails (Chris Kerson) is a henchman in the true classic gangster tradition. He is a potential Luca Brasi with a subtle streetwise patter. When Semyon grouses that he’s going to put his “size 13 shoes so far up Casper’s ass,” Nails speculates the tardy partner will “spit shoe laces.” The line reminded me of the lockup scene in Barry Levinson’s classic film Diner, when Billy tells his cell-mate he’ll hit him so hard he’ll kill his whole family. I’m just a sucker for that, I guess.
Velcoro’s stakeout takeout of choice appears to be bourbon, but he runs through the full gamut of intoxicants. He smokes, he drinks, and we see him sniffing back something into his nose while he’s having drinks with Semyon. The best comic moment of the night is when Velcoro tosses back a double of Johnny Walker Black and Semyon tells him he should savor it. Velcoro says he should give it another try, leisurely pours himself a luxurious glass of amber and downs it like a shot. The sad angry cop needs a good woman to mitigate his baser tendencies.
Never do anything out of hunger, not even eating, Semyon says, but he’s ready to eat crow. He leaves that for fucking Casper, who spends the first episode of True Detective on a kind of Weekend at Bernie’s road trip. His chauffer, apparently, usually doffs a crow’s mask. What’s up with all these masks on TV lately? Eyes Wide Shut references appear to be everywhere.
Vince Vaughn brings gravitas and barely repressed rage to Vinci Gardens Casino. He sizes everyone up as he sees them, looking for an excuse to bust a chop. When he finally spits “fucking Casper” and throws a tumbler against a wall, it’s a relief, but you can tell it’s not enough. It is Semyon’s business partner’s murder that brings the three cops together.
The CHIPs cop finds the body when he’s spiraling out of control off duty. The body, which is sitting at a picnic table, of fucking Casper has had his eyes burned out with acid and his pelvis was somehow mutilated. This is a man who’s seen too much and got fucked. It follows from the sex den he disappeared from. The first crime scene is so sleazy, Velcoro’s partner remind him “I got instructions. Anything happens to me, you burn my shit quick.” Nobody wants their private lusts exposed as their legacy. They call it in as a kidnapping, a 207.
Last year, HBO sent True Detective reviewers a devil’s trap to ponder while they appraised the going on. This year I hope they send the lady in milk. What an image. It is an establishing shot that pulls the rug out of the viewer. It is a forced perception that skewers the entire room. The initial crime scene puzzle piece is housed in a room that’s been ripped apart. It looks like someone was looking for something, but as a colleague at Den of Geek recently cried, why didn’t they spill the milk? Maybe whatever they were looking for is at the bottom of the bowl.
Want to go more in-depth on the episode? Listen to Den of Geek Presents: The World We Deserve, our True Detective podcast:
Tonight’s songs: The opening theme is “Nevermind” performed by Leonard Cohen.
When Vercoro and Semyon are drinking at their tables in the bar, “My Least Favorite Life” by Lera Lynn is being intimately performed.
Music to find a body by: “All The Gold” Nick Cave and Warren Ellis.
“The Western Book of the Dead” was written by Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Justin Lin.