Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): True Detective season 2 episode 1 - "The Western Book of the Dead" (episode 2 appears tomorrow)

Monday, June 29, 2015

True Detective season 2 episode 1 - "The Western Book of the Dead" (episode 2 appears tomorrow)


This True Detective viewing diary is being written while the new series airs. As such, future readers need not worry: there are no spoilers for upcoming episodes.

True Detective's second season finds itself in a unique position. On the one hand, it has nothing to do with season one: different characters, different location, with the freedom to engage in an entirely different visual style and mode of storytelling. Even the director of season one, Cary Jo Fukunaga, is gone, to be replaced by a series of other directors (unlike that memorable first season, one filmmaker will not be overseeing the entire narrative). This could almost be seen as writer Nic Pizzolatto's "follow-up project" to the acclaimed miniseries that aired a year and a half ago on HBO. On the other hand, the title alone brings certain expectations with it, and if the new season abandons too many of True Detective's touchstones - the ongoing central mystery spread over eight episodes, the dual cop protagonists, the hints of corruption, conspiracy, and occultism haunting the show's psychosphere - many viewers will be disappointed. Is True Detective simply Pizzolatto's canny method to package his separate stories for a built-in audience? Or will there be a singular sensibility, style, and even story structure linking these disparate seasons?

The season two premiere answers some of these questions affirmatively, others negatively, many ambiguously, and some not at all. When the episode begins there is a feeling of continuity, fostered by the familiar-yet-different opening credits which seem very much like a reincarnation of the previous year's opening theme. Almost everything else in the episode works against this sense. The big surprise for me was that the season's marquee names, Colin Farrell and Vince Vaugh, are not playing partners. In fact, they aren't even both police officers: Vaughn is Frank Semyon, a criminal whose new (semi-)legitimate business hits a couple slight snags - first when a crusading journalist publishes a story about citywide corruption that may implicate his partners, second when one of those associates - City Manager Ben Caspere - disappears and, in the very least scene of the episode, turns up dead. Perhaps the particulars of Vaughn's role were publicized ahead of time but I would have to imagine it was a shock then if not now, given how feverishly everyone embraced the partners-in-crimebusting standard of season one. After all, the Twitter-trending #TrueDetectiveSeason2 hashtag last year was entirely devoted to hypothesizing - sometimes quite playfully - which two actors could replace Matthew McConaughey & Woody Harrelson as the next "true detectives."

Farrell appears, more conventionally, as washed-up cop Detective Ray Velcoro, formerly of LAPD and now working for the police force of corrupt, miniscule L.A. satellite city Vinci. Unlike season one, which began with the crime and an intriguing 17-years-later frame story focused on that crime, season two begins with Det. Velcoro's personal problems, showing us his attempts to bond with his semi-estranged son, expand his visitation rights, and (in a flashback) avenge the rape of his wife which occurred 9 months before his son was born (there are hints that, biologically, Velcoro's boy may not be his boy at all). Velcoro achieves this revenge, offscreen, with the help of Semyon, so it isn't as if they are completely disconnected. We see them together twice through the episode, first when Semyon hands a younger, uniformed Velcoro the picture and details on the alleged rapist, and later, in the present, after Velcoro has returned the favor by beating up the reporter who threatens Semyon's livelihood. If season one flirted with casting its two stars as unsympathetic brutes before essentially confirming their heroism, season two offers two largely unysympathetic characters as its central figures right off the bat.

Semyon is a criminal who can't even engage our affection as an underdog outlaw. And Velcoro, on the "right" side of the law, is even less likable: when he isn't doing his masked part to ensure the lack of a free press in Vinci, he is beating the father of a bully to a pulp while forcing the boy to watch - a gesture that might render him a tad more sympathetic if he hadn't already called his own son a "fat pussy" in an effort to get information. Like both Hart and Cohle, Velcoro is an alcoholic, and like Hart (but not Cohle) he seems to be in denial about its effect on his family. As if aware of how offputting these characters might be, Pizzolatto introduces two more central characters who seem to be filling out a four-lead ensemble: Detective Antigone Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) of the Ventura County Sherrif's Office and Officer Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) of the California State Highway Patrol. Both are troubled. Bezzerides, whose mother killed herself, angrily confronts her estranged sister (working as an online porn actress) and father (leader of a vaguely cultish New Age religious group), while Woodrugh is apparently haunted by war experiences (he makes cryptic references to "Black Mountain" - a Blackwater-inspired mercenary group?) and sexual performance issues he is concealing from his girlfriend.

Both Bezzerides and Woodrugh appear to be on the level, though, apparently too much so. After they are connected to the flagrantly corrupt Velcoro at episode's end, sparks are sure to fly. Indeed, it looks like True Detective's partnership-of-opposites will be a trio rather than a duo, with Semyon sitting on the sidelines as an ambiguous ally/opponent to their investigation. This is potentially a pretty interesting combination of characters, but the episode takes its sweet time arriving at their union: only when Caspare is found dead near a beach do all (or any) of them appear in the same scene. It's worth noting that as the camera cranes up from this apparent nighttime, we see the sky lit up in the background: it's actually dawn, even if the light hasn't reached the crime site yet. This slyly underlines that the entire episode has been a prologue, establishing the characters and their milieu before launching us into the central investigation. As already noted, this is the opposite of the previous season, which began with a bang. Will the slow pace of the central thread, the byzantine web of relations, and the less visually impactful crime scene alienate an audience primed to expect something as iconic and punchy as that pilot?

For about half the episode, I didn't find myself especially engaged. The stories felt too fragmented, and none of them was particularly compelling on its own. I expect one of the criticisms of season two, at least of this episode, will be that it feels too diluted, both watered down and spread too thin: four characters instead of two, a scattered sense of location lacking the palpable atmosphere of Louisiana, and a murder that isn't nearly as compelling as Dora Lange's (a mutilated old politician in a park does not have the graphic power of a naked woman in a burnt-out field with deer antlers attached to her head). But I'm willing to be patient and wait to see what Pizzolatto has up his sleeve. There are promising threads that could go either way. I like the idea of seeing these strands before they come together (now that we know they will come together), and of joining three characters who seem very different from one another (instead of the usual buddy-cop routine of two opposite guys in their thirties or forties). Semyon's role intrigues me but it hasn't been played to much effect yet. The idea of Velcoro having one foot in the world of law and the other in the world of crime (not to mention the extent to which these two worlds bleed together) is an intriguing concept and it will be interesting to see him navigate between these two realms.

Aside from the opening credits, there are other signs that this True Detective will be cut from similar cloth as the first. Bezzerides' dad (David Morse, playing the potentially parodic part with as much sympathy and nuance as Shea Whigham brought to season one's tent revivalist) introduces a note of spiritual ambiguity, suggesting that Bezzerides will play the spiritual-skeptic role Cohle performed so memorably before. The father's religious group is also connected with a young woman's disappearance, so it's possible this element will be incorporated into the investigation too, leading to some compelling complications for Bezzerides. Caspare's home is a veritible den of sin (one tabletop prop had me temporarily convinced we were witnessing a dream or hallucination), evoking the lustful, abusive Tuttle family of season one. And Velcoro's shady past and broken home offer fuel for side stories and investigative routes, as did Cohle's undercover history in season one.

Still, at this point it all feels like potential. Had this been the premiere episode of season one, rather than season two, the show probably would not have caught on. It doesn't grab and hold your interest as that initial episode did and lacks any essential hook until the final scene. The result largely feels like a well-produced episode of a very standard network procedural but - for now at least - I'll take it on faith Pizzolatto has something more ambitious in mind. One of my frustrations with season one was that it was so intent on resolving its opening mystery that it allowed many other storylines to scatter away and remain (to my mind anyway) largely unresolved. Maybe season two will do the opposite, beginning with a scattered sense of disparate threads and then wind them together into a central mystery and revelation, so that the sum ends up greater than the parts. That certainly won't be a bad thing. Here's hoping.


7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great! Thanks for finding the time to do these... The constant harassing in the comments sections did actually pay off! Looking forward to reading the rest.

Don't know about you. But what disappoints me the most so far is the choice of director. The directions feels like it's trying too hard to emulate that of season one without understanding why it works in he particular case of season 1 (i.e the overuse of overhead, high altitude highway shots to link every other scene...).
A bit like David O. Russel using every Scorsese trick in the book in American Hustle but having exactly zero grasp of how it could actually serve the story (as opposed to how if worked in Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, Wolf of Wall Street...).

TS MacDonald said...

Glad your watching this season as episodes premiere. My initial impression of the first episode was the same, too slow. I actually fell asleep during my first viewing. After rewatching episode 1, and not yet viewing episode 2, I am excited for this season. It served to introduce the characters instead of the crime that will drive the season.
What was the statue in the front seat of Caspare's "hearse?" A Maltese Owl?

Joel Bocko said...

Anon,

Yes, good point. I didn't get into it much in this particular recap, but And I think that quality is emphasized even more by the fact that each director knows they won't be supervising the whole series (Justin Lin is directing the first two, but other directors will be coming on board for many of the other episodes). Obviously they're all pros, and this is True Detective so they want to do their best even more but still...there's bound to be less investment, less overall vision than Cary Fukunaga exercised in season 1. I've heard that him and Pizzolatto didn't get along, and that Pizzolatto wants more control this time. That makes me nervous, because many of my favorite elements of season 1 were down to direction as much/more than writing.

Tyler,

It's funny, I didn't notice that at first! I mean I saw it, but I thought it was an actual dead bird (the screen I was watching on was not that great)! Later someone pointed out it might be a mask, and made the Maltese Falcon connection. If that's what they were going for, they are definitely wearing their influences on their sleeve. Which may not be a bad thing. As for introducing the characters, you're right - that, and setting up the convoluted world they operate in, seems to have been the primary purpose of episode 1 rather than reeling us in with another spooky mystery right off the bat. I'll say this for Pizzolatto - even if he fails this time around, it doesn't look like he is going for the easy "repeat your first success" tactic. This is going to be a very different series, with a very different approach - and a fairly ambitious scope as well. If he's going to fall flat I'd rather he do so by trying too hard rather than not trying enough, but of course I hope he DOESN'T fall flat.

I'll be watching episode 2 this afternoon. Looking forward to it!

Joel Bocko said...

*that second sentence should read "but I agree about the direction."

Anonymous said...

Hi again,

Just watched episode two: more of those silly overhead highway shots, this is just getting really annoying now (or I'm just obsessing over these!).

Acting wise, Kitsch doesn't get a lot of love on the forums, but I kinda like what he's doing. He's working with very little so far and he certainly doesn't need to try too hard to send off a massive sadistic vibe...

Direction: Lin is unfortunately definitely not on par with Fukunaga (watch out for a very on the nose, very unnecessary cut between two ceiling moisture stains and a dead body's empty eye cavities. Even purely technically speaking the cut is clumsily done.

Writing: so far, definitely a notch or two below season 1 but I can’t get myself to blame Pizzolatto just yet. I mean how crazy is it to ask any show runner to write and put together another masterpiece after just one year? We don’t expect the likes of Scorsese, Mann, Lynch [insert favourite genius director here] etc. to work that fast (and they’re not writing/directing 8 hours films either)!

I think writers/showrunners should be given the time to write the whole (or most of) the series before they start producing them.

Anonymous said...

About the ceiling stains/empty eye socket cut: of course that could just be Lin telegraphing the fact that Semyon had the guy killed and possibly feels guilty about it, tell-tale heart style (though that wouldn't be in character so far...)

Joel Bocko said...

*spoilers for episode 2*

Yeah, I have considered the idea that Semyon killed Caspare, as a twist since they are pushing really hard the notion that his life has basically been ruined by Caspare's death and that he didn't see it coming a mile awhile. It would definitely be a bold bait-and-switch but, at least based on season 1, that really doesn't seem to be how Pizzolatto works. I think, as before, we'll get a killer who is not a major character and the show will be more about the character development & .

Funny you mention the water stain/eye socket thing - that didn't work for me either, though it's a good idea in theory. Maybe if the images had been separated by one shot so that it was a little more subtle. Really liked the way Lin handled Birdman though, so there's that. Favorite moment of the series so far! I have to admit I laughed a bit as this bizarre figure silently pumped another one into Farrell. But I don't feel too bad; I think it was more for show and we haven't seen the last of Velcoro yet. More on that tomorrow.

I have nothing against Kitsch's performance (there really aren't many other ways he could play the guy) but the character hasn't quite grabbed me yet. All 3 of the other leads became more intriguing for me in ep. 2 but he's still a bit stuck in neutral. Though we got some good details - the mom situation, the red-flag homophobia - that could pay off later.

I'm hoping next episode is anchored around McAdams. I think ep. 2 opened up Vaughn & Farrel's characters effectively and it feels like they've been building her up but haven't given her too much to do storywise yet.