HBO’s Brand New Sunday Night is doomed to suffer from comparisons. Ballers must answer to the crimes of Entourage; The Brink moves into territory, subject matter, and settings previously occupied by Veep, but doesn’t speak the same, tart language. True Detective season two, meanwhile, has the looming shadow of a big brother cast upon. How looming? After reading the words “looming shadow,” you already have the heralding cry of Detectives Rust Cohle and Marty Hart galloping through your head.
The unloading zone of a public school is the perfect place for “The Western Book Of The Dead” to begin, because “The Western Book Of The Dead” feels like a kid starting classes at a school where an older sibling’s reputation precedes them. Big brother was popular with the brains and the jocks alike, an effortless charmer who also had a bit of philosophical mystique to him. He left cryptic scribblings in his notebook margins and gave a stoned pronouncement about the human condition as his yearbook quote, yet he was still crowned prom king.
It’s a lot to live up to, and “The Western Book Of The Dead” would rather not talk about it. When Elvis Ilinca (Michael Irby) tries to engage his partner Ani Bezzerides in a bit of the old Rust-and-Marty back and forth, Ani shuts him down. “Don’t talk about my family, Elvis,” she says. This isn’t going to be that kind of partnership, and this isn’t going to be the type of show where flashbacks throw pebbles into the pond and we get to watch the ripples show up with stringy hair, a bad mustache, and Big Hug Mug full of cigarette ash. Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) does some Rust Cohle role play with a lawyer—he even drifts off into someone’s memory of a town where Ray’s an L.A. County sheriff’s deputy and aspiring developer Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) is a leather-jacketed hood working from a barstool, helping the deputy find the lowlife who raped his wife. But that’s all over pretty quickly.
Instead, this is True Detective back at square one. No green-eared spaghetti monster, no king in yellow, no flat circles beyond the game of Ring Around the Rosie that director Justin Lin plays with Ani, Elvis, Ray, and Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch). Just cops, crooks, crime, corruption, coercion, cloverleafs and other “c”s that aren’t “Cohle.” The sooner we accept this, the sooner we can get properly lost in season two’s tangle of highways and high speed rail.
It’ll also allow us to accept something that got squeezed out of the True Detective conversation rather quickly last winter: Despite the sheen of prestige provided by the A-list stars, the stylist behind the camera, and the former lit professor writing the scripts, True Detective has always had a heart of trash. “The Western Book Of The Dead” is flowery pulp, a lurid opening chapter in which everyone’s getting drunk, no one’s wearing pants, and our interest is piqued by the guy doing a Weekend At Bernie’s in the backseat of someone else’s luxury car. There’s sex and violence, outrageous erotica and prosthetci scars, all set against the backdrop of a paradise that’s been corrupted by asphalt and steel. True Detective’s default gear is vulgarity, and “The Western Book Of The Dead” stays in that gear for most of its running time.
Lin’s vehicular fetishism and a few eye-rolling turns of phrase aside (For example: “You ever bully or hurt anybody again, I’ll come back and butt-fuck your father with your mom’s headless corpse on this goddamn lawn”), this is a utilitarian piece of work. We meet our true detectives, and movie stars glower while poking at physical and emotional wounds, but getting the ball rolling is this episode’s prime directive. Which it does, once Paul’s motorcycle skids off the road and shines its headlamp on the eyeless corpse of Ben Caspere, former city manager of Vinci, California.
Keeping the investigators in separate corners puts an intense focus on the case, a missing person mystery with probable connections to Semyon’s big score and an investigative report on shady deadlings at city hall. Ray gets pulled in because he was already on the trail of the disappearing city manager; Paul discovered the body, so he’s attached even though he’s technically on leave for being pulled into the Hollywood tabloid circus that’s (wisely, so far) a peripheral concern in True Detective’s L.A. Of the leads, Ani has the most tangential connection to Caspere’s death: It’s just a crime she happens to have caught. Professionally and emotionally, she could use a win. We’re introduced to her straight-arrow, law-and-order ways during a failed prostitution sting that manages to bust up a perfectly legal webcam operation—a perfectly legal webcam operation that, conveniently, employs her sister. Family factors heavily into motivation here: Ani’s rebelling against a hippie-dippy upbringing (the kind her guru dad still offers to paying customers); Ray just wants his kid back, but he might not even be his kid—and he drinks a lot about it.
The season premiere runs on desperation, illuminating four characters in search of something else, something better, or something legitimate. But as with the roadways and the refineries that are True Detective’s visual signatures, there’s pollution coursing through these dreams. Even Semyon’s plan to break into big-time real-estate development depends on mob money and masked intimidation. There’s nothing profound to these intimations of unscrupulous dealings between the private and public sectors, and there’s not even anything that novel to the story of a mass-transit system that could make or break a California community. Those are the essential components of L.A. noir, from James Ellroy to Roger Rabbit, traditions that season two is trying on in the same way season one skipped merrily through Carcosa.
Whether True Detective brings anything new and exciting to these traditions will depend on the performances digging them back up. Around the time Vince Vaughn begins talking about “a codependency of interest” and Kelly Reilly spits out an “Everybody gets touched,” I wanted my ears go into soft focus—no one in the new cast picks up a fluency in Pizzolatto as quickly as Matthew McConaughey did. A larger cast means more variance in who manages to make True Detective look like a trashy masterwork, and who just kind of looks silly: Ani is such an over-the-top authority figure that she needs an actor of McAdams’ light touch to pull the character back from the armed-to-the-teeth, self-defense-obsessed brink of self-parody. Paul plays things close to the vest, which is good for an A-plus stoic like Taylor Kitsch. But then Paul races his motorcycle through the California night, and this happens:
But to follow True Detective down its rabbit hole of creepy bird masks and haunting diegetic musical performances, you must take Tim Riggins’ wind-tunnel face and Colin Farrell beating on the father of his son’s bully with brass knuckles (in full view of the bully and the family’s adorable Halloween decorations). The worst thing to happen to this show during its original stretch of episodes was its instantaneous anointment as an all-time-great. True Detective has personality to spare, but that doesn’t make it flawless—and “The Western Book Of The Dead” certainly isn’t without its flaws. There’s some tin-eared dialogue, the leads are unrelentingly grim, and Lin doesn’t cast the same kind of mood as the dear, departed Cary Fukunaga.
But the central mystery promises a greater deal of intrigue this season, if only for the promise of those frowning detectives and the brooding gangster interacting with each other. “The Western Book Of The Dead” excels at setting up a mystery but lacks for satisfying drama, if only because these characters aren’t so interesting on their own. Things perk up when Seymon and Velcoro—whose lives have taken opposite trajectories since Ray’s flashback—share a booth at the bar; the first meeting of the cops gets a justifiably heroic blocking because it’s the most exciting part of the episode. We’ve been waiting for these characters to come together, and once they do, there’s a nice bit of payoff. Uneasy alliances are being formed, and True Detective properly stokes the anticipation for this team-up. But heed the warning of the marketing campaign: “We get the world we deserve.” Let us not deserve a lesser True Detective because of the burden of expectation—or comparison.
- Welcome to The A.V. Club’s coverage of True Detective season two, a phrase that no longer needs to be rendered as a hashtag. I’m happy to be back on the beat, and I’m looking forward to watching the next seven episodes alongside y’all.
- The first internet meme I want to see produced by season two is Taylor Kitsch’s floppy motorcycle face mashed up with the CHiPs theme.
- One pronunciation of “Semyon” sounds a lot like “simian,” in case you were wondering about the primal nature of Frank’s personality.
- The reading list for “The Western Book Of The Dead” leans heavily on Greek mythology: The Bezzerides sisters are named Athena and Antigone, while dad’s retreat is named for the city of Panticapaeum. Here’s a sign of where the Panticapaeum Institute places its priorities.
- I don’t love the dialogue in “The Western Book Of The Dead,” but I do like this exchange about the pricy bottle of Scotch Frank shares with Ray: “You’re supposed to savor that.” “Let me try it again.”
- The song over the end credits is a cover of an old Gatlin Brothers tune. This rendition sounds just a smidge different from the original. Just a smidge.