Photo: Lacey Terrell, HBO, and Sky Atlantic

True Detective Season 2: The Western Book of the Dead

[dropcap]“C[/dropcap]hange will come to those who have no fear”: these were the words that echoed throughout the teaser trailer for True Detective‘s second season, and they were words chosen most aptly.

In early 2014, True Detective was the hottest show on the schedule, thanks to its tripartite talent: newcomer and writer Nic Pizzolatto; esteemed director Cary Joji Fukunaga; and, of course, a gargantuan performance from Matthew McConaughey as Rust Cohle, who seemed to reach out of the television set and growl Nietzschean proverbs, while still maintaining the overpowering charisma of a genuine, one-of-a-kind movie star.

It was quite an act to live up to

For True Detective‘s second season, as part of an anthology series (which means it ditched the original cast and went for an entirely new, self-contained story), the show had to exhibit fearlessness, and confidence in its ability to move on to something new while still retaining its core appeal.

Vince Vaughn as Frank Semyon. Photo: Photo: Lacey Terrell, HBO, and Sky Atlantic

Vince Vaughn as Frank Semyon. Photo: Photo: Lacey Terrell, HBO, and Sky Atlantic

The early production signs were a bit discouraging. Art house director Fukunaga was replaced by Justin Lin (of the Fast and Furious franchise), and while the new acting talent included Colin Farrell and Rachel McAdams, it also included Taylor Kitsch and, well, Vince Vaughn.

Not exactly Dallas Buyers Club material. But I went into the series premiere, ‘The Western Book of the Dead’, with an open mind, and I can safely say it was better than I thought it would be, though it’s still to hit its stride.

The new series is attempting to be bigger, broader, and with no ambition to spare

The action has been relocated to California, to a fictional city that exists in the shadow of Los Angeles, all winding intersections and impersonal, dimly lit spaces. The key players have been doubled in number, of course, yet we don’t immediately see how the drama will connect them.

Colin Farrell as Ray Velcoro. Photo: Lacey Terrell, HBO, and Sky Atlantic

Colin Farrell as Ray Velcoro. Photo: Lacey Terrell, HBO, and Sky Atlantic

Farrell plays Ray Velcro (sorry, Velcoro), who we first see trying to bond with his son. It’s later revealed he was a product of rape, which connects him to corrupt local businessman Frank Semyon (Vaughn), who sold out the rapist in return for the odd enforcement.

Ray may be burnt out and unhinged – even beating up the family of his son’s bully – but Frank’s got his own problems, as his business partner Ben Casper has disappeared on the day of an important pitch. More on that later…

Meanwhile, detective Antigone Bezzerides (yes, that is her real name) carries out an unsuccessful raid on a suspected prostitution ring, only to discover her sister doing camgirl work.

While chasing up leads, she visits their spiritual guru of a father, Eliot (played by the brilliant David Morse) who urges her to take up a more chilled-out view of things. Maybe that’s why she’s called Antigone.

Finally, traffic cop Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) pulls over an attractive movie starlet, whose offer to “pay” for her speeding ticket backfires when he’s suspended and forced to return to his randy Filipino girlfriend. Ain’t life a bitch, Paul.

It’s a bizarre hour of television, and for the first half an hour or so I wasn’t convinced it would work, partly because the plot and dialogue are so overwhelmingly dense

But then, I started to see the connections between the characters. I saw a recurrent thread of masculinity in crisis: Ray has turned to drink in the wake of another man asserting sexual dominance over his family, and his relationship with his son is dangling by a thread; Frank’s trying to conceive with his wife (Kelly Reilly, in full Lady Macbeth mode) but is infertile, and has turned to IVF; and, if you pay close attention, you’ll realise that Paul, ironically, has erectile dysfunction.

Rachel McAdams as Antigone 'Ani' Bezzerides. Photo: Lacey Terrell, HBO, and Sky Atlantic

Rachel McAdams as Antigone ‘Ani’ Bezzerides. Photo: Lacey Terrell, HBO, and Sky Atlantic

The only thread I struggled with was that of Antigone; though, interestingly, she holds a bubbling undercurrent of hostility towards the men in her life, including a hapless one night stand who tries – and fails – to get her to talk about her feelings.

Again, Pizzolatto has managed to weave an engaging story about the complexities of those who work inside (and outside) the law, with a real focus on the psychological toll of their work.

It is undeniably more challenging than his previous work, which may be in part due to dropping the self-reflexive interview structure to guide us through the more complex philosophical issues. We’ll have to wait and see how this slow-burning series plays out, of course – yet when Ray, Paul and Antigone were united by the body of Ben Casper propped-up on a park bench, I knew I was hooked.


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