“True Detective” Recap & Review: Season 2 Premiere, “The Western Book of the Dead”

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The Western Book of the Dead
Colin Farrell in “True Detective”
Photo: HBO

The second season of “True Detective” will inevitably be compared to the first. Whether that’s fair or not is irrelevant — it’s simply a fact given the success the series enjoyed. That said, this season promises to up the ante in every way possible — more characters, more connections, more hidden motivations, and a more complicated mystery to solve. The first episode, “The Western Book of the Dead“, does no favors for its audience and unapologetically demands complete attention to keep track of the various set ups.

From the start, series creator, Nic Pizzolatto, sets out to tell a story more than a bit murky. Basically, Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn), in an effort to turn from his mobster past and go legit, participates in a land deal set to bring a high speed rail system to California. His plan involves state and federal money and the cooperation of some legitimately powerful men. When Ben Caspere, the city manager in charge of the money for this deal goes missing, Semyon finds himself in an increasingly precarious position.

Enter Detective Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell), Semyon’s muscle and a man with a deep darkness within. He’s reluctantly set on Caspere’s trail, finds a ransacked house but no city manager. The disappearance of Caspere is set up to be this season’s version of the murder of Dora Lange but far less straight forward.

The Western Book of the Dead
Rachel McAdams in “True Detective”
Photo: HBO

Elsewhere, we are introduced to two additional main characters. We meet another detective, Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams). She’s the definition of the no-nonsense cop. She busts up what she thinks is a prostitution ring and even after she’s proven wrong, tenaciously holds to her convictions. She is the type who thinks she can solve problems for those around her but doesn’t even recognize her own.

Lastly, we get to know highway patrolman Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), a military man who needs to be constantly busy and has what could, generously, be described as intimacy issues.

Ironically, having four main characters allows less time to be spent on each individual, but so much context and back-story is laid out for each, it’s nearly information overload. What we’re given over the course of the fractured first hour is all set up and history with only Semyon and Velcoro sharing screen time. That is until the final few moments of the episode when Woodrugh discovers the body of Caspere staged in a strange manner. Jurisdictional issues result in Bezzerides and Velcoro being called to the scene and finding what remains of the city manager, forcing all three cops together.

As far as Caspere is concerned, his eyes have been burned out (his body was staged wearing sunglasses), and has a “severe pelvic wound”. The vaguely ritualistic nature of the murder is bound to become a point of interest in the investigation — whether it turns out to be an important detail remains to be seen (but the little details like this are what helped make the first season so fascinating). With so much going on in just the first episode, it’s hard to predict where the season will go and how events will play out. This is probably an episode that could benefit from a repeat viewing to get the full picture of how the characters relate to each other and the baggage they will carry with them into the case.

One thing not requiring a rewatch to confirm is the caliber of the performance given by Rachel McAdams. Her’s is the standout of the episode and, despite having to deliver some painfully expositional dialog, she shines bright. She has to balance her femininity and still perform well in the male dominated profession she has chosen. It’s a small scene, but when she gears up and hides blades all over her body in the women’s locker room, it is no coincidence she is completely alone. Her physical isolation from her co-workers is an obstacle she’s probably had to work hard to overcome and I’m interested to see how she will play off of the hyper-masculine Velcoro and Woodrugh.

This episode is incredibly dense and begs to be discussed.

Will any of the occult/ritualistic details of Caspere’s murder become important? Which character’s past will come back to haunt them most? Has anyone ever threatened a child in a more disturbing way then Velcoro in this episode? Let’s talk about it in the comments below!