True Detective 2×01 ‘The Western Book of the Dead’: Robbed of definition

True Detective 2x01-3

“I used to want to be an astronaut.  But astronauts don’t even go to the moon anymore.” –Ray Velcoro

It’s really easy to pick on the opening episode of True Detective’s second season.  Sure, it’s self-serious to a fault.  The first episode is called “The Western Book of the Dead” and I don’t think a single character smiles the entire hour.  Some of the dialogue is ridiculous.  Some of the scenes are overwrought.  Some of the storylines are vague and clichéd.  But nothing seems all that different from the first season’s opener, “The Long Bright Dark”, which also had a lot of the same issues.  The episode’s title is ridiculous.  Nobody really smiles the whole hour.  Some of the dialogue is ridiculous (“I don’t sleep.  I only dream.”), the characters are built around vague clichés (Marty neglects his family and Rust had a daughter who died), and the atmosphere is just as brutally dismal.  So why is this new season of True Detective bombarded with all of this negativity?

A lot of it has to do with expectations.  When Season 1 of True Detective reached its second act, which consisted of the outstanding “Who Goes There” and “The Secret Fate of All Life”, that is when the praise was heaped onto the show.  Everybody is expecting True Detective to be what it was during those two episodes at all times, and considering the way that Nic Pizzolatto structures his show in a novelistic format, it simply isn’t going to be like that.  We’re imposing our Breaking Bad-esque expectations on True Detective.  Because when we look at Breaking Bad, a show that was praised to death (but I will say that it is one of my favorite shows), its final season was basically insanity after insanity, eight episodes of adrenaline-infused hell.  It was a show that, like Game of Thrones, was known for its “moments”, namely action scenes, turning points, and character deaths.  True Detective is not like that.  We try to remember it like that (“Who Goes There” had the tracking shot and “The Secret Fate of All Life” had the showdown with Ledoux), but it’s basically an eight-part movie, not a television show.  And so, when we look for insanity in this extremely expository-heavy opener, we’re not going to find it.  And that pisses us off.  I’m not necessarily saying that this opening episode is a great one, but I wouldn’t say that it’s that much worse than the first season’s opener, “The Long Bright Dark”.

Okay.  Let’s review the episode now.

True Detective 2x01-7

Source: HBO

There is something about cops that intrigue us.  Part of it is the sense of power and authority they wield, as well as the damage that they have the capability to inflict.  Part of it is the change that they can affect in the world.  But part of it is how some of them really peer into the heart of darkness and are unable to turn away.  For cops in Detroit, Baltimore, Los Angeles, San Francisco, they’re undermanned and thrown into a world in chaos.  And it’s easy to become jaded and bitter when the job that you have, a job that is supposed to affect real change, is one where you’re simply the enemy, an expendable cog in a machine.

True Detective 2x01-5

Source: HBO

Vinci is a city bathed in darkness, the same way that the forgotten nooks and crannies of Louisiana held its darkness.  The big difference here is that Vinci is out in the open, its darkness out for all to see.  It’s a place void of life, filled with factories and industrial complexes.  And the first episode tries to show us how the people involved in a place like Vinci are completely robbed of themselves, how they lose all control and become sucked up in the destructive whirlwind that happens when America creates urban hellholes like Vinci.

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Source: HBO

I’m going to get out all of my irritation with “The Western Book of the Dead” in this paragraph, before I continue.  Yeah, some of the dialogue is really stupid.  Frank’s “Never do anything out of hunger.  Not even eating” line is pretty rough.  So is Ray’s “I’ll come back and butt-f*** your father with your mom’s headless corpse on this lawn” line.  And yeah, some of the scenes are needlessly bleak for the sake of being bleak.  The woman singing “this is my least favorite life” in the background of Frank and Ray’s conversation is downright ridiculous.  Paul’s motorcycle ride through the highways is also a little goofy.

Okay.  Complaining done.

True Detective 2x01-4

Source: HBO

Aside from these minor issues with the script, the episode plays out well.  Unlike “The Long Bright Dark”, it waits until its final moment to reveal the crime that fuels the season.  And that helps, to some degree, since we’re dealing with exposition for four different characters instead of exposition for two linked characters.  Frank’s character is probably the weakest of the four, at least at this moment, likely because he’s not a cop.  Frank is trying to get more legitimate by integrating himself in LA’s high-class circles, and he’s doing so by participating in the construction of a multi-million dollar railroad through Vinci.  Only, in his attempt to go legitimate, he’s forced to be criminal again, as he orders Ray to shut up a reporter from the L.A. Times who is writing an eight-part story on Vinci’s corruption.  And then when the city manager goes missing (and eventually ends up dead, found by Paul with his eyes burned out), Frank has to use his power to try to figure out what happened to him.  He wants so badly to climb even further, but it’s clear that Vinci is going to bring out the worst of him if he wants that.  It goes to show that Vinci controls Frank’s life more than he would like to admit, and that the more he tries to integrate himself with the Vinci elite, the more he’ll find himself ensnared in Vinci’s grasp.

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Source: HBO

Paul’s character is also fairly weak, if only because it’s vaguely drawn at the moment.  It’s clear that he had some trouble before his time as a patrol officer, as he was in the army and was horribly burned in whatever work he did before that.  He’s completely uninterested in women because of the PTSD that is driving him to be suicidal, and that makes it hard to connect to the woman he’s seeing during his time off.  His time off goes to show how loyal and decent he tries to be, as he is essentially framed by an actress for trying to solicit a blowjob from her, even though he was just trying to write her a ticket for speeding and breaking house arrest.  Aside from that, we don’t really know a whole lot about him, and it makes it tough to understand him, given that his personality is painted so broadly.  He’s likely a character that will become more interesting as the series goes on, but he’s certainly a man unable to find any control in his life, as hit PTSD has taken almost everything from him.

True Detective 2x01 Cover

Source: HBO

Ray’s character is focused on quite a bit, and it works to mixed effect.  He’s an enforcer for Frank and a lieutenant in Vinci’s police department.  He first came to Frank years ago when his wife was raped and he wanted retribution against the rapist, retribution he received when Frank gave him information on the rapist in exchange for work.  And ever since then, Ray has found his lack of control destroying him.  Years later, he’s still working for Frank, he doesn’t know if his son is actually his or the rapist’s, his wife left him, and his son is being beaten up by bullies at the school.  There isn’t any real way for him to escape from these, so he simply drinks himself half to death and lashes out in anger whenever he can.  When he finds out who bullied his son, he ends up beating the son’s father in front of him, caving his face in with brass knuckles.  Ray’s character is drawn in a way that, even though it’s clichéd, works fairly well to show us how his lack of control has already almost destroyed him.

True Detective 2x01-1

Source: HBO

However, Ani, or Antigone Bezzerides, is one of the series’ saving graces.  She is a highly interesting character, who, even though she is introduced through her sexual preferences, is fighting feverishly for some sort of definition amongst people who have either given theirs away or have taken Ani’s from her.  Ani’s sister does sex work and defines herself through conventional female standards: her body.  It’s a standard that Ani tries to subvert, even though she’s a female police officer and she can’t necessarily escape from her gender.  She also has to contend with her father, a man who runs a meditative religious retreat and believes that Ani’s life revolves around him and is reactionary to him.  He also had something to do with the death of Ani’s mother, who “walked into the river”.  Even though his part in her death can be mostly inferred as neglect, Ani still resents him for it, and responds to him in the way he believes she does: in a reactionary capacity.  He may be wrong, as Ani has a personality of her own outside of him, but part of Ani’s personality is reactionary to all around her.  And she needs to realize that in order to escape from the family and the city that controls her.

So “The Western Book of the Dead” isn’t as good as everyone had hoped, but it’s still a solid opening for what we can assume will continue to improve as the season goes on.  The characters are in place, the mystery has begun, and it’s a matter of time until the relationships between the characters take center stage and are allowed to blossom.  But right now, everybody is flailing and attempting to find direction in a city that has robbed them of their definition.  And maybe this case is the thing to redefine them.

So what did you think of the season premiere?  Was it as strong as I claim or as terrible as everybody else claims?  Let me know what you think in the comments!

Michael St. Charles

is just a Michigan State University grad who loves a good story. If he’s not off teaching the young ones how to solve quadratic functions or to write an expository essay, he’s watching old-school HBO shows, indie horror movies, or he’s playing Resident Evil 4.

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  • Eric Pharand

    I think it’s as good as the first episode of Season 1.

    • Michael St. Charles

      I’m glad somebody else liked this as well. The amount of vitriol leveled against this episode seemed oddly disproportionate to me, as it really wasn’t a bad episode of television.