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True Detective S02E01: The Western Book of the Dead

You ever watch something and know it’s absolutely awful thematically, tonally and morally but you still enjoy it?

I’m not talking to the extent of Birth of a Nation, a horrible film with horrible themes that should still be respected for what it did in evolving film as an art. I’m talking more at the level of, well, Game of Thrones. For the first few seasons of Game of Thrones, you knew in the back of your mind you’re watching something very problematic but it’s beautifully shot, sometimes well acted and the characters engaging. While some are still gung-ho for the show, I never finished the last episode of the recent season because it just became too much. Just an overdose of nihilism.

The opening episode of the second season of True Detective had a lot of problems in terms of the decision of the characters, the depiction of Los Angeles life, expectations for Taylor Kitsch to perform acting and being just gloomy and dark for the sake of it. Yet I still enjoyed it. I enjoyed it a heck of a lot more than the first episode of the first season of True Detective. I’m far more engaged in Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams than I was of Harrelson and McConaughey.

As most reviewers have said, the show is almost parody to how hard it tries to tell you that is a program of dark themes. The music, the colours, the shots, everything is about muting the bright sun of California and twisting it into a depressing melancholy. Farrell plays Ray Velcoro, whose wife was devastatingly raped. Instead of processing this into support he spontaneously combusts and sets everything around him to ash and bolo ties. It’s not that he’s lacking empathy but he’s a broken empathy meter. He pep talks his son before school, mentioning a camping trip. He returns way too late for the camping trip to offer a quality sleeping bag, only to find out the shoes he gave the kid were destroyed by a bully. He proceeds to bully his son to find out who did it and then goes to the house of the bully. I was half expecting him to assault the kid but instead he puts on brass knuckles and beats the father so hard he resembles a discarded condom on the walk way of a suburban home. He holds the bully accountable, covering his mouth during the assault. It’s one extreme to the next. Whatever good intentions he had to talk to a mobster in finding out who raped his wife is out of the window by this point and replaced by a funny mustache.

Does this all sound forced and exceptionally dreary? It is, but I buy it all through Farrell’s eyes. He’s a human weapon. He’s a gun that screams, “Yes, I kill people.” I want to see him do good badly and do bad badly. When he shushed the homeless person before beating up a reporter (I know television needs to be a visual device but really? Stacks of folders is his research? You couldn’t have Farrell passing to Vince Vaughn the guys laptop? I know this scene is less Swiss cheese and more cutting a big hole in a Swiss cheese of logic but it’s supposed to be 2015. Act like it!) I got chills. Every look says so much. I don’t care so much about Ray Velcoro but Colin Farrell playing Ray Velcoro. He isn’t a character like Rust Cohle was. He isn’t even human. He’s nature.

Rachel McAdams has a troubling upbringing as Ani Bezzerides. Her introduction is lazy hack work (post sex with a wimpy guy to tell us how tough she is) and her first work involves trying to disrupt a sex cam house her sister is involved in. She uses a loose end from a missing person report to confront her father, who is a hippy and extremely critical of her “hating men”. If the whole point of this is to soften her up by episode eight into a loving woman I’m going to personally find Nic Pizzolatto and force him to Ouroboros himself. That said, this is one of the best performances from McAdams I’ve seen. She’s elevating herself over the material as a believable police officer with a troublesome family trying to be the straight and narrow while everyone around her is content with their broken world. She’s proof you don’t need to kiss babies and hug the elderly to be a protagonist.

The less said about Taylor Kitsch the better. Looking like the son of Rust Cohle, the character of Paul Woodrugh is embarrassing. I have a feeling the more scenes he gets, the less I’m going to enjoy this season. I don’t care about anything he’s involved in. Any of it. I don’t care if he found the body. There’s no reason for him to be there. He’s an empty shell I don’t care to see filled.

Vince Vaughn has got a lot of criticism as a criminal trying to go straight in Frank Semyon but I liked it. I’ve heard that seeing criminals try to be on the straight and narrow makes boring television but Semyon reminded me of Donald Breedan in Heat. You’re just slowly watching cracks develop in the façade he’s trying to create for himself as legitimate and out of the crime game. Eventually you can only be pushed so much before you go back to what you are best at. The relationship between Velcoro and Semyon looks to be what will be in the heart of the show and I’m good with that. When Vaughn comes off his leash it’ll be worth it.

While director Justin Lin is no Cary Fukunaga from season one, he’s already done some amazing shots for the show, especially the final shot on the beach upon finding the city manager. The episode has been criticised for being nothing but exposition and backstory before getting to the heart of things at the end, a complaint I don’t understand at all. This was an introduction to the characters. The end puts them together (everyone except Semyon) and asks you if you want to see the next episode involving these characters trying to be “true detectives”. Saying yes or no is up to you.

I’m not making any excuses on how True Detective is handling women again. I’m not excusing the bad decisions from characters or the overdose in tone. I’m not saying it’s great. But I did enjoy this more than the first episode of season one of True Detective (I felt the show was a slog until we got to “Who Goes There”, the fourth episode) and feel that with a few tweaks in different directions, it won’t feel like a parody of itself. I also think the complaints about it being about a simple story of a missing city manager is misplaced, premature and just whining. Season one was a simple story turned into something substantial due to red herrings, supernatural distractions, Cohleisms and flashbacks focusing on the toxic nature of Cohle and Hart. Take out the biker scene in episode four and I have my doubts on it being such a monumental television event that it was. In the end it was really just about detectives. Season two could be the same or something more. I don’t love it, but I’m interested to see where it goes. No Yellow Kings necessary.

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