Intimate Observations: True Detective ‘The Western Book of the Dead’ (Recap)


To be thoroughly un-entertained now seems to be thoroughly en vogue — at least according to my Twitter feed. It will be another week or two until the deep think pieces emerge on HBO’s True Detective, but viewers have already become restless with Nic Pizzolatto’s character building and Justin Lin’s neo-noir direction in the Season 2 premiere. The entirety of “The Western Book of the Dead” was filled with intimate observations that established an overall sense of loneliness and deep sorrow for the collective cast. This is Los Angeles pulp fiction — not a mystical world of sky monsters and poetic speeches.

For example, look at Colin Farrell’s Detective Ray Velcoro. One of his first lines was eerily reminiscent of David Fincher’s Detective David Mills (Brad Pitt) from the 1995 neo-noir Se7en: “I’ll see you in two weeks, yeah?” Years ago, I was enamored with Mills’ style of speech, and I heard it again last night from another no-nonsense detective. Yes, the human train wreck known as Velcoro may suffer from deep psychological problems like Matthew McConaughey’s Detective Rust Cohle, but he’s a Dashiell Hammett type of detective and unafraid to beat up a father on his own lawn in front of his own son (and threaten to figuratively sodomize him with the lifeless body of his wife’s headless corpse). Velcoro likes the idea of being methodical, but he knows that “astronauts don’t go to the moon anymore.” He’s a reactive character. Cohle was truly methodic; a true detective.

While I wasn’t completely thrilled by Vince Vaughn’s Frank Semyon in “The Western Book of the Dead,” it seems that he could be someone that takes a serious emotional journey in Season 2. We know what to expect from an alcoholic detective like Velcoro — he’s going to make some horrible decisions and rough people up — however Semyon’s arc should prove to be a hotly-debated topic weeks from now as the details of the California high-speed rail mystery unfold.

Pizzolatto’s characters have no problem with physical intimacy, but they don’t want to sit around and discuss their problems. The first appearance of Rachel McAdams’ Ani Bezzerides comes after some rough sex, but she’s less concerned with pillow talk and more interested about her morning Ventura County Police operation. Incidentally, Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh was quick to bust loose on the freeway after busting one at home. Velcoro, Bezzerides and Woodrugh are trapped inside their own heads, and their release comes through physical acts. The final seconds of “The Western Book of the Dead” brought these dark forces together, and if you’re someone who was expecting a definitive water cooler moment, then you’re missing the point. In fact, you should probably rewatch the entire episode.

Aesthetically, I was pleased with the contrast of realism and noir formalism. One moment, Velcoro is framed naturally within a confined office, and the next, he’s meeting with Semyon in a classic neo-noir environment — a neon-lit nightclub. By the end of “The Western Book of the Dead,” the physically and emotionally scarred Officer Woodrugh hightails it down the freeway at 100 miles per hour ala “The Driver” from Nicholas Winding Refn’s 2011 neo-noir, Drive. Who’s the femme fatale of Season 2, you ask? Well, it’s undoubtedly Jordan Semyon (Kelly Reilly), the smirking wife of Vaughn’s criminal entrepreneur.

In classic noir fashion, we’re being set up — or at least those who aren’t taking True Detective as seriously.

Q.V. Hough (@qvhough) is a freelance writer and founder of Vague Visages. He lived in Hollywood, California from 2006 to 2012 and has bachelor degrees in Communication-Mass Media and History. He now resides in Fargo, North Dakota.