True Detective: The Western Book of the Dead

“I welcome judgment.”

True Detective's first season was, for me, the stand-out of 2014. Leaving aside the clue-hunting madness that was the internet’s response to Carcosa, True Detective luxuriated in existential despair against a verdigris background of swampland and oil refineries in southern Louisiana. It was beautiful.

But it was also a slow burn. It wasn’t until the one-two punch of the fourth episode (which contained a six-minute tracking shot that went over a fence!) and the fan-generated excitement surrounding the discovery of the allusions to The King in Yellow that I began to understand the show’s strongest features: Cary Fukunaga’s exemplary direction, the dense literary allusions, the excellent lead actors, and strong writing.

Out of those four strengths, two are gone. Cary Fukunaga has gone on to other projects; creator Nic Pizzolatto has indicated that the second season, set in present-day Los Angeles, will not contain elements of the occult. So what does that leave us?

Excellent lead actors, decent writing. Direction that gets the job done, but doesn’t begin to reach Fukunaga’s heights. (Read this for a great dissection of the bar scene, which was very awkward.) A beige Los Angeles setting. A jazz score that sounds like a watered-down version of the Lost Highway soundtrack. And a handful of characters that I can’t even call “damaged”—a better word might be broken or even agonized.

“The Western Book of the Dead” functions as a pilot episode, introducing us to new people in a new place, but it also relies on our faith in Pizzolatto: the main characters do not come together until the end of the episode, and the core mystery plot—the death of a corrupt city manager from the fictional town of Vinci in the northwest Valley—is rather ambiguous. It seems to have something to do with land-development deals pertaining to a high-speed rail project up the coast.

As that sounds quite dull, I can only imagine/hope that soon bodies will start piling up. There are problems with city corruption in Southern California (see here and here), and the high-speed rail project is a real thing that nobody wants, but nobody can get rid of, due to the complex interplay of democracy, propositions, and the recession. That leaves us, so far, with the characters:

Colin Farrell’s drug-addled and short-fused detective Ray Velcoro intimidates his son and beats people up in an attempt to be a good father. A former LA Sheriff’s deputy, Velcoro is the closest approximation to Matthew McConaughey’s washed-up Rust Cohle, but without the thoughtful nihilism. He does have a killer moustache, though.

Tu bigote te da fuerza y dignidad.

Vince Vaughn plays Frank Semyon, a casino owner who wants to make it big—and make it respectable—with developments around the rail project, but has to rely on the mob to do so. Vaughn brings an interesting energy to the role; he reads some of the cheesiest lines (“Never do anything out of hunger. Not even eating.”) with a sort of ironic confusion that left me wondering if his character knew how stupid he sounded, or if he really thought that was a profound statement.

Taylor Kitsch’s Highway Patrol officer Paul Woodrugh has, so far, been saddled with a storyline that is almost laughable in its transparent symbolism: falsely accused of soliciting a blowjob from a woman he pulled over, he turns out to—OMG!—have erectile dysfunction. It’s hard for me to find the words to express just how much I hope that a medical condition is not being used as a metaphor for character here. That’s just silly. And probably really offensive to men who have ED.

Rachel McAdams’s LA Sheriff’s deputy detective Ani Bezzerides, on the other hand, was the highlight of the episode for me. She’s loaded with backstory, including a father who leads a so-very-California New Age retreat, a sister who does webcam porn, and a boyfriend who wants more emotional intimacy that she’s willing to provide. “Ani” is even short for “Antigone.” (Wow.) But McAdams communicates reserve, anger, and a strong sense of self even while everyone she encounters in the episode tells her about herself.

There’s a lot to interest me here. I love sunshine noir. I love detective stories and broodiness. Even after 10 years in LA, I get a thrill out of seeing familiar places on my TV screen. And a few scenes—like the opening shot of little wooden sticks marking a field for development as though it were a cemetery—seem to approximate some of the landscape porn that the first season gave us. Sure, there's cheesiness and perhaps too much reliance on sad-detective cliches, but those tropes can be fun. (Or funny, especially if you read Todd VanDerWerff's take on them here.)

But I’m not quite sure where this season is going. Will it be a murder mystery? A story of financial corruption? A character study set in a brutal “psychosphere” of present-day LA shot to look like it’s still the 1970s? It's hard not to read Velcoro's quote--"I welcome judgement"--as Pizzolatto's statement to the world: he knows we will judge present circumstances in light of past actions, and he defends those actions. Season One of True Detective withstands judgement. I hope this season will, too.

Josie Kafka reviews The Vampire Diaries, True Detective, Game of Thrones, and various other things that take her fancy. She is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

7 comments:

Paul Kelly said...

As someone who doesn't find Vince Vaughn or Colin (I want to punch him in the pancreas) Farrell particularly compelling actors, I was pleasantly surprised by this inaugural offering. Nobody's really likeable, but that's kind of the point. It's not a show where we find characters like ourselves, it's a show where we marvel at the shitty lives of others, gorge on the atmosphere, and wonder what the fuck is going on. So far it's ticked all those boxes. And you're reviewing it. This makes me very happy.

Miguel said...

Yay! I'm so glad you're reviewing it Jessie!

This premiere was slow and dreary, but I'm willing to see where the season takes us. I wasn't enthralled with the first season right off the bat either. I'm not sure why so many critics are panning this season so quickly (yes that bar scene was silly). I absolutely love the cast and have high hopes for where they take the story.

Heather said...

Josie,
Love the review. I'm really glad you're back reviewing TD, too. For me, I think the main actors are all compelling enough to watch. I think the writing is, at times, quite brilliant and certainly was last season. There were moments I was pretty mesmerized, in a kind of Mulholland Drive sort of way.. Sidenote: I was surprised at how much I liked Rachel McAdams in this role. I've not been a fan of hers so much. I don't want to punch her in the pancreas or anything though,

Josie Kafka said...

Heather, there seem to be a lot of allusions to David Lynch here.

In one of the many freeway shots, there was a large sign visible with directions to Mullholland Drive. At the risk of making too much of that connection...well, who am I kidding? I'll risk it:

The real Mulholland Drive traverses the top of the Hollywood Hills. It traces the apex of the hills, with the Valley to one side and LA proper to the other side.

In Mulholland Drive, the street has the same function: the world switches from dream to reality after a collision on that precipice. Naomi Watts's character is balanced on a metaphorical see-saw balanced on that apex, with reality on one side and the dream world on the other.

In MD, the dream world is old Hollywood glamor, which is sort of the opposite of the Valley in LA-snobbery terms. In True Detective, on the other hand, the far reaches of the Valley are the "psychosphere" that our characters inhabit.

Thinking about TD in light of Mulholland Drive's symbolic, geographic language makes me wonder if Pizzolatto is emphasizing that this is an LA story that has nothing to do with glamor or style or beauty. It's starkly realistic in its banality.

sunbunny said...

"Tu bigote te da fuerza y dignidad."

I understood that reference.

Josie Kafka said...

That makes me very happy.

Heather said...

Josie,
I love your analysis of TD by way of MD. I hope Nic P is borrowing from that concept of banality trapped inside surreal LA going forward because, imo, it's a good one!