Season Two, Episode One — “The Western Book of the Dead”
By Jarrod Jones. What can we make of the second season to True Detective? If we’re being honest with each other, it’s almost as if Rust Cohle’s id shattered into four separate, but wholly equal (and equally self-destructive) parts, all aware and alive and ready to make us fear for the future. And wouldn’t you know it? Vince Vaughn is the most put-together out of all of them.
And that’s not the only distressing thing at play here. Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective is back with that same oppressive feeling of dread, but not in the way it probably intended. Any attempt to not compare it to the immensely popular, if not ultimately underwhelming, first season is an impossible thing unto itself, but at least Pizzolatto begins confidently: Leonard Cohen’s scorched growl lulls us over a similarly foreboding title scroll, one that lumps together not one, not two, not three, but four leading characters. It seems that in True Detective‘s phenomenal success, Pizzolatto likely felt a mistaken urge to overcompensate.
And with Pizzolatto’s premiere episode jumping all over the place to (somewhat successfully) chart out its scope, there comes absolutely zero chance we’re going to be connecting to any of these characters any time soon. That charm and nuance between Matthew McConaughey’s Rust and Woody Harrelson’s Marty you once enjoyed so well is long gone. So strap in. It’s going to be a gloomy-ass ride.
WHAT WORKED: Well… it does feel like a Nic Pizzolatto story, now doesn’t it? And series director Justin Lin (who, by the way, made most of those Fast/Furious movies) makes a point of visually connecting those dots by establishing long, ponderous views of the serpentine Los Angeles County freeways and industrial parkways — meant to deliberately echo Cary Fukunaga’s aloof glossovers of the Louisiana landscape — frequently reminding the viewer that we are a far, far cry from the tightly-wound world found in Season One. The premiere works overtime to remind us what’s missing.
WHAT DIDN’T: During True Detective‘s first season, women were either treated as narrative dynamite or visual eye candy. Here, Pizzolatto, either out of guilt or obligation, provides a considerable presence for Rachel McAdams, but he squanders her first impression by introducing her in the most perplexing way imaginable: McAdams’ Ani Bezzerides spends her first moments darting through her kitchen in a state of undress while she quickly defuses an awkward sexual encounter (what occurred under the sheets is left open to our interpretation); the next time we see her she’s busting a legitimate pornography enterprise just so she can lecture her free-loving sister (Leven Rambin); and just so Pizzolatto can show how much thought he put into all of this, we’re introduced to her father (David Morse), a crunchy life-advice guru who postulates about the “last age of man” while navigating Ani’s guilt trips with infuriating ease. Whether Ani is going to be deliberately portrayed as “the emotionally taxing wretch” throughout this entire season or not seems to be the big question mark for True Detective. In the meantime, I’ll continue to root through all this absurd character structure in the hopes that I find a point.
The laughably inert Taylor Kitsch is presented to us as such a badass, he can scarcely walk into a room without bumping into an armada of women demanding his cock; a hardened man so masculine that he doesn’t even need water to swallow his pills. He’s Pizzolatto’s Wild Card, a haunted dude who cuts through the night with so much doomed machismo and thundering machinery that you’d swear HBO accidentally spliced David Lynch’s Lost Highway into the second half of the episode.
“Shit, I used to want to be an astronaut… but astronauts don’t even go to the moon anymore.” – Ray, to his son.
BEST MOMENT: Listening to Lera Lynn sing a song of dread while Lin’s cameras pour over the craggy faces of True Detective‘s leading men with nary a word said between them was the only moment where I actually thought to myself, “maybe? maybe this can go somewhere?” And then Colin Farrell opened his mouth.
EPISODE’S MVP: Frank Semyon. While we spend a lot more time watching Farrell’s Ray Velcoro terrorize families, McAdams’ Ani Bezzerides chastise her weirdo family, and Kitch’s Paul Woodrugh fill the Harrelson role as “the sausage”, it was Vince Vaughn’s tin-eared attempt to embrace Pizzolatto’s neo-noir that made the whole damn thing kinda worth watching. The fact that his performance didn’t drive me to run out of my living room screaming means that we just might find a glimmer of promise left in this Wedding Crasher yet.
– It’s amazing how far a shave and bit of hair dye can go to de-age Colin Farrell. Some people get all the genes.
– I dunno if Pizzolatto is afraid of using pronouns, or if he’s been too busy breaking open the Ellroy, but we get it. You’re working noir these days. Yoish.
– And Pizzolatto’s hammy approach to noir seems just as uneven as his approach to Southern Gothic: here we see a dead body keeping company with a foreboding, black bird. So we know he’s seen The Maltese Falcon.
– Just to put a finer point on all this modern existential dread, David Morse’s hippy commune (or whatever it is) is called Panticapaeum, named after an ancient Greek city prone to destruction (due to negligence, volcanoes, or those asshole Huns, that Crimean hub never could catch a break).
– I did enjoy Vaughn’s self-made criminal, a man whose neverending journey to assimilate into the higher echelon of society means we get to watch as he meanders around his hopelessly modern domicile while fumbling his cufflinks. If nuance is going to be found at all in this season of True Detective, it looks like Vince fucking Vaughn is going to be our guide. Huh.