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True Detective Season 2 Premiere ‘The Western Book of the Dead’ Review: Solid Foundations

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Murky swamps, religious cults, philosophical monologues, mystical undertones, and sun belted fields were the hallmarks of True Detective’s first season’s setting, but that’s all gone now – why? because True Detective (which we’ll call T.D. from now on) is an anthology series, meaning it gets new characters, a new setting and new plot each season. Look at it as if it were a different show entirely. So what do I think of the entirely different show? Showrunner, Nic Pizzolatto and director, Justin Lin have delivered a solid, character driven premiere that played a risky card with a more formulaic structure, but it fully paid off once the final scene came around.

Although this second season premiere – entitled The Western Book of the Dead – was entirely different from the first season, it did carry over one trait: it was character driven. Most run-of-the-mill cop shows would have started their first episode with the final scene where Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), and Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) surrounded the dead body of Ben Caspar, knowing they were about to embark on a long, tough investigation, but T.D puts characters first and their development and attachment to the viewer is more important than the actual crime.

This is where a more formulaic structure worked well for T.D.  We have four characters here, or five if you include Frank Semyon’s (Vince Vaughn) wife, Jordan (Kelly Reilly) as a main character.  It was necessary and effective to introduce them slowly, not starting with the crime. You want to feel attachment to them all, or feel like you know them before the crime starts to impact their lives and I know what you’re thinking, ‘season 1 started with the crime’ well, yes, but it was easier to achieve that because the sole focus of that season was a contained and personal look at two men; this is more of a sweeping tale. It was no doubt a risk not including much plot into the premiere, but it paid off because these characters are certainly intriguing.

By far the best story thread in this episode was that of Velcoro – a drunkard, bully-hating detective with a Brillo Pad for a mustache, and Semyon – a former mobster looking to go straight. When Velcoro and Semyon got together was when the episode was at its strongest, not only because it was the closest the episode had to a main plot, but because of their uneasy friendship. Velcoro and Semyon seem to want to be friends but because of Semyon’s strangle-hold on Velcoro’s life it gives the impression of Velcoro just going along with the friendship, like a cool kid at school making friends with the weirdo. Their storyline also provided the episode’s only bit of real tension when Semyon was nervously waiting on Velcoro to find his business partner, Ben Caspar. Those cutaway shots to the car which Caspar lay in was trademark T.D surrealism with the rumbling drum music and sinister close ups. It echoed David Lynch – which could have been on purpose as the car Caspar was in went past a sign for Mulholland Drive!

Anyway, back to the Velcoro/Semyon story: as I said, I found it to be the strongest part of the episode, but also the weakest once it delved into Velcoro’s family life. Now I’m not talking about the parts about his wife’s tragic history as I’m sure that will play a bigger part down the line, but the thing that got to me was that we could clearly see Velcoro was a damaged man – a man who would go that little too far, so I felt it almost became self parody when he started beating up his son’s school bully, a kind of over-the-top characterization to show us ‘yeah, this guy takes things too far all the time.’ However, it was paved over by Colin Farrell’s vulnerability in the role; he made Velcoro feel like a once-good man doing bad things because of the world around him. I haven’t quite made my mind up about Vaughn though, his scenes were short and not meaty enough to present judgement on his performance although he did seem to bring an awkward intensity to the role; nevertheless, for now I will reserve judgement.

The four leads all impress and have all seemed to fully inhabit their roles.

Now let’s take a look at the other two story threads involving Ani Bezzerides and Paul Woodrugh, which were entirely disjointed from the main one. Both were full on character exposition, but still managed to shroud their characters in enough mystery to make them interesting. Ani feels like a darker, little drunker Ellen Ripley – she’s vulnerable at heart, she cares about her family – a dysfunctional one at that, but is tough when push comes to shove. McAdams is not even recognizable from her days in seemingly endless rom-coms, she fully inhabits Ani as she makes her simultaneously tough and soft centered, which makes her not come off like a hardboiled, heavy handed cliché.

Next up is Paul Woodrugh played by Taylor Kitsch, who is on the surface, the most generic looking character; a typical masculine, strong, but silent type. However, there’s something about Woodrugh that just seems off. Kitsch produces a brooding presence wherever he goes; it couples with his character’s strange pills and scars, which suggest deep turmoil (like most T.D characters). It just gives the sense that there is more than meets the eye with his character and the same could be said for the whole episode.

After the credits rolled to the sinister echoes of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, I was left with many nagging questions: who’s the missing girl?  What was that strange bird mask in the back seat with Caspar? Will Velcoro beating up that writer come back to haunt him? Is Jordan Semyon the one pulling the strings? All these questions will undoubtedly come together and because of these questions and the interest in these characters and their portrayals by the lead actors, I consider this premiere to be a solid start.

Special mention must go to T Bone Burnett (last season’s composer) who has again produced eerie, menacing tones that fitted perfectly with the concrete jungle of the city of Vinci.

The score was capped off perfectly by the crisp direction of Justin Lin who almost overplayed his hand with the shots of highways which almost became monotonous, but did a fine job keeping the tone in check from Cary Fukunaga’s unique vision from last season.

Pizzolatto could have easily tried to be clever here, but that could have made matters worse and contrived. There were too many characters to introduce to be too clever, he’s a novelist at heart and he knows how to build things one block at a time, not just throwing in pointless red herrings and action scenes to ramp viewer interest, and like any great novel, you can’t judge Pizzolatto’s work from its first chapter.