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‘True Detective’s ‘Western Book of the Dead’ Drives Into a Ditch

'True Detective' Season 2 Episode 1 Reviews: 'The Western Book of the Dead'

Who knew #TrueDetectiveSeason2 would turn out to be so much more satisfying than “True Detective,” Season 2? Turns out coming up with unlikely pairs for the second season of the HBO series was both more creative and more interesting than anything Nic Pizzolatto could come up with. The much-anticipated first episode of the post-McConnaissance True D was close to an unmitigated disaster, with all the ponderous moodiness of the show’s previous incarnation and none of its unpredictable spin. Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff posted a list of “The 31 Most Ridiculous Moments of the ‘True Detective’ Premiere,'” and that was only after whittling them down from more than 70. Having seen three episodes of the eight-episode season, I can confirm that “True Detective’s” second season gets better, or maybe it’s just a matter of lowering your expectations to what the season is rather than what it could have been. But if they were three hours of any other show, I doubt I’d be watching more.

Let’s stick with “The Western Book of the Dead,” the premiere. Pizzolatto and director Justin Lin plunge us head-first into the cesspool of corruption and sexual dysfunction that is their Southern California. Where the first season drew heavily on the inspirations of Thomas Ligotti and H.P. Lovecraft, Pizzolatto here plunders James Ellroy novels and “Chinatown,” with a hefty helping of Greek mythology on the side. And as before, Pizzolatto is sophomorically eager to flaunt his reference points: Rachel McAdams’ detective is named Antigone Bezzerides (the surname comes from the writer of “Kiss Me Deadly”), her sister, who performs live Internet sex shows for money, Athena (wrongly billing herself as “the goddess of love”), and her dad, a long-haired guru played by David Morse, runs a shady retreat called called the Panticapaeum Institute. Lest that not be enough Greek for you, the show’s first victim, a kinky city manager named Robert Caspere, turns up dead with his eyes burned out and his genitals hacked off — vengeance of a truly Euripidean bent. 

Caspere’s castration won’t be officially confirmed (and how!) until next week, but there’s plenty of metaphorical dick-slicing to go around: Colin Farrell’s detective Ray Velcoro is still unmanned by the rape of his wife and the uncertain paternity of their child; Taylor Kitsch’s highway patrolman Paul Woodrugh is falsely accused of asking an actress to suck him off to get out of a traffic citation, then glumly submits to oral sex from his randy girlfriend; corrupt developer Vince Vaughn’s Frank Seymon is going to be forced to jerk off into a cup as he and his wife (Kelly Reilly) start IVF treatments. (Guess whose biology turns out to be at fault.) The only person who seems to want sex is McAdams’ Antigone, and she can’t get her boyfriend to perform whatever rough sex act it is turns her on. Basically, the women are sluts, and the men are, as Velcoro says, “not interested in anything like that any more.” You can’t blame them, really: The late Mr. Caspere was, to judge the pornographic décor in his house, an avid sexual experimenter, and look how that turned out for him.

“The Western Book of the Dead,” from its leaden title and the on-the-nose dourness of Leonard Cohen’s theme song on down, never forgets it’s about something important: At times, Pizzolatto’s script plays like he got a $5 bonus every time he worked the word “America” into the script. While “True Detective’s” first season was filtered through the uniquely skewed consciousness of Rustin Cohle, the second never grounds its eccentricities in any particular POV. When Velcoro and his partner walk into Caspere’s apartment, they do a double-take at what appears to be a tiny naked women floating in a bowl of milk. Is it real? Does it matter? And, more importantly, does David Lynch get royalties for this?

In some ways, “True Detective’s” second season isn’t that far off from its first, but it’s as if for every time Pizzolatto and Cary Joji Fukunaga made a good decision in the first season, they make a bad one here. (Start with hiring a roundtable of directors rather than using one for the whole shebang, which gave the first season its uniquely cogent visual style.) Again, future episodes are not as much of a 10-car pileup on the 405 as the season premiere is. But much as Pizzolatto insists that seasons should only be judged as a whole, three-eights of the one leave little hope this season will scale the first one’s heights, or fix any of its flaws.

Reviews of “True Detective,” Season 2, Episode 1: “The Western Book of the Dead”

Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times

Season 2 of “True Detective” appears to have abandoned abandon; it is careful and controlled in a way that seems highly self-conscious. That may be intentional or even satiric; one hopes it is something other than reactionary. Television is increasingly willing to concede patience as a virtue, but only if there’s a payoff.

It’s a dangerous game playing to audience obsession. Reference Chandler and Steinbeck and David Lynch and you beg comparison. And all the Easter eggs in the world can’t conceal a ragged story. Highly engaged viewers may be the new gold standard, but the masses can easily tip from paying tribute to calling for your head.

Erik Adams, A.V. Club

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.

Kenny Herzog, Vulture

Even more so than last season, there’s very little to laugh about 60 minutes
into this several-hour journey. Unless, like me, you’re the kind of viewer who
can’t help but admire the audacity of having Velcoro caution his son’s bully
that he’ll “come back and butt-fuck your father with your mom’s headless
corpse” as the kid’s dad lay bloody and nearly unconscious on their
suburban front steps. This “True
Detective” introduces us to ostensible protagonists even
further removed from their humanity than Rust Cohle or Marty Hart, with that
much more work to do if there’s a chance at redemption. It’s a lot like
casework. It’s about starting with what we know — Paul’s scars, Ray’s temper
and addictions, Frank’s melancholy, and Ani’s contradictory self-preserving and
self-destructive impulses — peeling it back to see what’s underneath, and
figuring out how much meaning can be salvaged from this mess.

Allison Keene, Collider

There’s no tang in the environs or the language, just a handsomely lensed melange of the worlds of “Chinatown” and Michael Mann’s “Thief.” Justin Lin directs the episode with forceful competence, the best example of which is the sequence when Velcoro beats up the journalist, but the problem here is primarily Pizzolatto’s characterizations and the jungle of bland sexual hang-ups he’s devised here.

Rodrigo Perez, The Playlist

The grim sensibilities and self-serious spiritual connections of its predecessors are still very much in the air, often wafting in a languorous haze of cigarettes and the dank atmospheres that hang over its weary characters. But the nihilism and self-denigration of almost every character is far more pronounced this season. Still written by showrunner/creator Nic Pizzolatto, if season one seared with an enigmatic intensity thanks to Rust Cohle’s existential babble about the psychosphere and the semi-mystical and satanic qualities that floated around in its humid ether, season two smolders with a different and downhearted spiritual weight: a betwitched stench of disillusion, the wear and tear on the soul from compromise, troubled pasts and dubious ethical choices that is delivered with slightly less ponderous dialogue, but unwieldy verbiage that still has its own issues.

Alyssa Rosenberg, Washington Post

Pizzolatto has groused about judging his shows before watching them all the way to the end, a complaint that misses the point that, even in the age of Netflix and other services, most episodic television airs in weekly installments on networks, rather than being released ready-to-binge, and thus still has the obligation to be amusing on a week-by-week basis. But even if I were to indulge him, and to judge only the writing and performances in the three episodes made available to critics before the premiere, rather than speculating about the plot, there are some truly embarrassing things happening in the second season of “True Detective” that I doubt will be redeemed by a fourth-quarter revelation that the whole enterprise is actually a parody.

Sean T. Collins, Rolling Stone

The plot is admirably dense, but you wouldn’t call it compelling. And absent
Fukunaga’s touch, the imagery, courtesy of “Fast
& Furious” franchise
veteran Justin Lin, lacks the first season’s immersive quality. Only a handful
of shots linger in the brain at all: the sight of Farrell’s character in a ski
mask turning to the camera and shushing a witness; a couple of arterial
overhead shots of the freeway system; a recurring sequence of a corpse in
wraparound shades being driven around in the back of a car. Given that the
first showed up in the trailer, the second is a no-brainer for any L.A.
story, and the third is pretty much an homage to David Lynch’s underexplored “Lost Highway”/”Mulholland Drive” California-noir
period, it’s a weak showing.

Sonia Saraiya, Salon

Lest we have any doubts about Pizzolatto’s feelings towards the press, drunk and unstable Ray puts on a ski mask and beats the shit out of a senior staff writer that is too critical of a major business deal headed by Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon, a criminal boss trying to go legitimate. That’s a stance reflected in how all of our characters respond to criticism in just the first hour: Rachel McAdams’ tough cop Ani barely restrains murderous rage towards her “prick” father; Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh responds to a formal reprimand by asking sharp questions about the hierarchy above him (when not getting dangerously self-destructive); and Ray, in the first few minutes, says with unearned swagger to a family lawyer: “I welcome judgment.” There are parts of this show that could be subtle, but this isn’t one of them.

Scott Meslow, The Week

“True Detective”‘s second season is a colossal misfire. The overarching plot is needlessly convoluted, and the dialogue is often ludicrously overwritten. (“Some people can’t handle the deep trip. I fear he is a destroyer,” is just one of many, many examples.) By and large, the actors seem to be drowning in this morass, but the material is so boggy that it’s hard to put most of the blame on them.

Jeremy Egner, New York Times

Mr. Vaughn, who hasn’t looked this svelte in a while, had mostly washed out as
a dramatic actor before he found a second career playing motormouthed cads in
comedies. But he was always a solid performer hampered more by odd film choices
(“Psycho,” “The Cell”) than by acting
limitations…. But unlike with Matthew McConaughey, who turned out to be
the perfect conduit for Rust Cohle’s highfalutin philosospeak, Mr. Pizzolatto’s
lines sounded very much like a second language in Frank’s mouth on Sunday. Mr.
Vaughn’s live-wire intelligence, potent enough to enliven even dumb comedies,
simply doesn’t mesh with self-consciously hard-boiled lines like “worries
me, you talkin’ so stupid.”

Jeff Jensen, Entertainment

The other thing we immediately learn about Ani is how she likes her sex.
Because this is really, really important when it comes to introducing female
characters: Their position on sexual positions with men. It goes unspecified,
but whatever it is, it’s enough to shock her most recent sexual partner to
non-performance. He’s embarrassed and wants to try again. She’s done with him
and needs to get to work. So we are presented with a woman who enforces rules
for a living and breaks the rules in bed… Oh, God. Did I just write that?

Aaron Riccio, Slant

“True Detective” offers a slim bit of hope for these characters. As Ani’s father states, one must “recognize the world as meaningless and understand that God did not create a meaningless world.” To that end, something greater than man must provide that purpose and allows humanity to be distinct from the billions of dead that have preceded it. A change in perception, then: for Frank, the entrée into a “legitimate legacy,” or for Ray, the chance to be a good father, whether it’s genetically his son or not. As the camera zooms out at the close of “The Western Book of the Dead,” the three officers — Ani, Ray, and Paul — stand triangularly around the body and look at one another. It feels like an opportunity not just to be seen, but to change the way they’re seen. It is, pretentious as it may seem, a chance to live anew.

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