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Review: ‘True Detective’ Season 2 Episode 1 ‘The Western Book of the Dead’ Overwhelms and Underwhelms With Equal Measure

Review: 'True Detective' Season 2 Episode 1 'The Western Book of the Dead' Overwhelms and Underwhelms With Equal Measure

Immediate Reaction

Well, that was…different. With as many resounding highs as troubling lows, the second season premiere of “True Detective” delivered a tantalizing first hour of entertainment. Characters were introduced (if a little too thoroughly). Storylines were enacted (if a bit too heavily). Style was established (if a little too lightly). Undoubtedly unique while also less fresh, Nic Pizzolatto’s much-hyped return left us feeling a bit overwhelmed. What started out at least with the pretension of artful direction quickly transitioned into run-of-the-mill, scene-to-scene cuts with little attempt to string them together. Season 1 director Cary Fukunaga’s work was sorely missed, as Justin Lin just couldn’t replicate the established techniques or create a notable style all his own. 

READ MORE: Watch: Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn Hone Their ‘True Detective’ Skills on ‘The Tonight Show’

But what of the characters? Clearly, Pizzolatto hasn’t lost his touch for creating deeply troubled detectives, and now he’s added a possible villain — or at least an unlicensed instigator — to the mix. Each of the four new leads introduced was given a quest of some sorts to fulfill, making it all the more fitting to bring the three cops together to end the episode. Of course, what brought them to that fateful picnic table off the Pacific Coast Highway was the body of our fourth lead’s business partner. The pieces fell into place, but did they connect too quickly, comparatively?

While Season 1 shouldn’t be a factor in determining the quality of this new entry, pairing old and new is a natural action for TV fans (who doesn’t compare seasons of “The Wire”?) and a necessary discussion for this series. Season 1 changed television for the foreseeable future. How Season 2 follows it up — both in quality and in reception — may alter that course. It’s off to a decent start, but we’ll need more action and less exposition for Season 2 to carry the crown.

Season 1 Callbacks

Let’s start with those credits. A respected if not outright beloved aspect of “True Detective” was its haunting and hypnotic opening. After just a few viewings of the new Season 2 cut, dare I say they’re the sole element better than last year’s version? Leonard Cohen’s “Nevermind” provides the perfect backdrop to an even more impressively layered and colorful introduction. If the rest of the hour lived up to that high artistic standard, Season 2 would have viewers drooling for more.

Still, there were a few conscious nods to Season 1 that stood out. Ray’s (Colin Farrell) meeting with the attorney and its ensuing flashback felt like an homage to Season 1’s interrogation room tales. More pointedly, our first cop car contemplation, with Ani and her partner driving side-by-side, was as brief and curt as Rust and Marty’s musings were drawn-out and engaging. “Your pop — he’s a piece of work, huh?” “Don’t talk about my family, Elvis.” I guess Marty’s desire for the car as “a place of silent reflection” came true for these two.

Season 2 Standouts

Last year, we were tossed into Marty and Rust’s lives from the word “go.” We got to know them as individuals through flashbacks and interrogation room banter, but the curtain was only pulled back via one of them choosing to expose those facts. It was an alluring and addictive format, and one that Pizzolatto completely threw out this year.

There’s something to be said for the boldness of his decision. Rather than rely on the same format as before, he’s determined to make these people matter to the audience with the story surrounding them and with a near-immediate understanding of their backstory. More details are bound to come out, but the amount of information we got on each character was vastly superior, compared to what we knew about our leads at this time last year.

READ MORE: Nic Pizzolatto Talks ‘True Detective’ Season 2 Rumors, and Rachel McAdams Gets Hard in New Character Posters

Velcoro’s connection to Semyon was laid out with a brutal bluntness that also explained how the former fell from his clean cop perch to the alcoholic, masochistic mess he is now. Ani’s past was laid out in a similarly straightforward fashion, as the raid on her sister’s “business” lead us to meet her father, as well. He proceeded to walk us through her psychological torment while looking a lot like a cleaned up version of Rust Cohle. Taylor Kitsch’s Woodrugh was given the least history, thankfully, and we learned the most about Paul on his blind bike ride that eventually brought everyone together. Like it or not, at least it’s something new — which is what’s been promised to us all along.

The Truest Detective (Episode MVP)

While Colin Farrell arguably lived up to his already high standards — everyone remembers “In Bruges,” I presume? — I was most taken by his partner in crime (literally). In Vaughn’s scenes with Farrell, the “Wedding Crashers” veteran showed considerable restraint that paired nicely with an innate understanding of his character. Frank seemed more like a legitimate businessman than a tyrannical mob boss, and that’s exactly the fine line Vaughn needs to be walking. It’s easy to see how Semyon could simmer over when given a push, but he’s been a cool, calm customer for this long and not enough has gone wrong to merit going over the edge.

Similarly, Frank himself was more straight-laced than I anticipated. He showed genuine concern for Ray’s well-being in their back room dealings — more concern than Ray had for himself. Is this drunken cop an investment for Frank? Sure, but he can’t be the only dirty officer in the precinct. Frank’s compassion — be it motivated by greed or humanity — was a subtle touch of class for Season 2. Either way, I like him.

Comedic Relief

“You’re supposed to savor that.” – Frank Semyon

“Well, let me try it again.” – Ray Velcoro

“The Western Book of the Dead” was largely devoid of humor throughout its first episode, but when it finally hit a mark the laughter came out like a shotgun blast. Not that Velcoro’s joke about shooting fine whiskey was all that funny, it was just that we needed to hear a joke so badly. It was fitting, really: Pizzolatto used humor in Season 1 to suck us into its world slowly and smoothly, while his tactic in Season 2 feels more like a stiff shot of hard liquor.

The New Philosophy

“Never do anything out of hunger. Not even eating.” – Frank Semyon

Whether you dismissed Rust Cohle’s musings as Philosophy 101 or dove head first into his larger-than-life expounding, no one will ever forget the instantly-iconic lines from Season 1 of “True Detective.” “It’s all one ghetto, man; a giant gutter in outer space.” “I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution.” “This place is like somebody’s memory of a town, and the memory is fading.” And, of course, “Time is a flat circle.”

Of course, Rust Cohle is gone. Now we have Ray Velcoro, Frank Semyon, Ani Bezzerides and Paul Woodrugh. None seem to be on quite the same wavelength as Cohle (though who ever could be?), but that doesn’t mean we don’t and won’t have more big questions to ponder every week. The Season 2 premiere brought us Frank’s advice to one of his underlings in regards to not appearing overeager. The emphasis, of course, is to always act deliberately and precisely. Don’t tip your hand. Don’t show your need — AKA weakness. As the end of “The Western Book of the Dead” indicates, it’s likely Frank will be pushed closer to that desire. We’ll see soon enough if he can follow his own advice.

Putting the Heart in Marty Hart

“I’ll come back and butt-fuck your father with your
mother’s headless corpse on this goddamn lawn.” – Ray Velcoro

Remember when Marty Hart got mad? I mean, he would never be considered an ideal for fathers or husbands to strive for, but when he got mad — like, “I will skull fuck you” mad — hot damn was he scary. Ray Velcoro seems to be sliding into those familiar and unwanted boots, and never was it more evident than when he beat the hell out of a kids’ father for bullying his own son at school. Lesson learned: do not cross the Velcoro family. 

Murder Mystery or Character Study?

Depending on the viewer, “True Detective” Season 1 was either a deeply engrossing murder mystery carried along by two extraordinary actors, or a profound character study using a murder mystery as its motivation for change. Either way, it worked because the line was so thin that viewers could be happy with either interpretation. 

Season 2 seems to be leaning more heavily into its plot machinations, despite introducing some seriously messed up leading lads and ladies (okay, just one lady). After one episode, it’s relying on both with equal weight, though the brunt of intrigue is carried by expectations after Season 1. “The Western Book of the Dead” is far from a perfect episode of television, but it also shouldn’t scare off any viewers who didn’t expect lightning to strike twice. I’ll be here for Episode 2 — will you?

Grade: B-

READ MORE: Review: ‘True Detective’ Season 2 Elevates McAdams as the New McConaughey, But Gets Lost in the Darkness

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