The Western Book of the Dead: True Detective Season 2 Premiere Analysis

The wait is finally over! Last night, HBO’s gritty police drama True Detective returned with another season of damaged goods. Last year, we were treated to brilliant acting, beautiful art direction and cinematography, and a gripping story. Now, I’m going to discuss whether this new tale can hold a candle to it’s predecessor’s.

WARNING: This analysis will include some light spoilers. Scroll to the bottom for the “final thoughts” section to avoid them, or go watch the episode and return.

It may be a little premature to say, but I’m not really that sucked in quite yet to these new characters. It’s a little worrisome, as there are only seven episodes left of this season. I just didn’t really feel all that invested in these people.

On the surface, it seems that the major cast are common detective drama clichés. You have your overly aggressive, corrupt, but mostly well meaning cop that drinks too much (Colin Farrell, as Ray Velcoro). There’s the younger cop that was former military, who is still reeling from his troubled past (Taylor Kitsch, as Paul Woodrugh). Then we have the rebellious female cop who has daddy issues and a criminal sister to boot (Rachel McAdams, as Antigone Bezzerides). Rounding out the central cast is the small-time criminal looking to make it big in business development (Vince Vaughn, as Frank Semyon). I don’t want to be too harsh, but it feels like we’ve seen these characters already in nearly every other syndicated police drama.

Not to say that season one of True Detective was wholly original. It wasn’t, actually. They relied on heavily used tropes as well. What made the first season so interesting was that the actors that were cast were seemingly cast in their opposing roles, like they should have swapped places and got the incorrect parts. Much to the fans’ delight, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are excellent in their respective roles, and offered great dynamic performances and played off each other deftly. This made for an engrossing story.

We’ve barely seen these new characters, but they don’t seem as dynamic. I don’t think it’s the fault of their acting ability. Save for Vince Vaughn’s slightly cheesy glass throwing, the actors are performing well. I think it is mostly just a writing issue. It’s almost as if the writers were hanging out and wondering “okay, how can we make this even MORE gritty.” It wasn’t the grittiness that sold me on the first season, it was the complex characterization that unfolded in those eight episodes.

Each and every character seems damaged and overly depressed. Antigone is aggressive to her father because he has different ideals, and is angered by her sister’s webcam job because of objectification, maybe? Which comes off a little contradictory, considering her own lifestyle choices. She just seems like a teenager in a woman’s body. Paul is scarred and troubled by his past demons, and likes to ride motorcycles at night without his light on to tempt fate. He can’t even stay the night with his girlfriend because of how damaged he is. Frank is your standard aspiring crime boss, who seems willing to explode at the drop of the hat. Finally, there is Ray, who is by far the grittiest guy on the show. You can tell by his somber face and broody mustache. This guy clearly the grittiest guy that has ever grit.

Ray’s story so far is the most interesting, and maybe that’s because it received the most attention. We learn that when he was younger, his wife was raped and beaten by some ne’er-do-well. Frank Semyon makes an appearance, and tells Ray he knows who did it. Frank proceeds to give him the information he knows and subtly tries to make it clear that one day, he will want some sort of payment in return. We’re not totally sure what happens in the time gap, suffice to say that Ray is at least occasionally doing odd jobs for Semyon, like beating a journalist up to prevent them from write an image-tarnishing story in the paper. He appears to feel guilty all the time for whatever it was he has done in the past. We also know that his wife decided to divorce him, and his attorney is speculative on whether or not Ray’s son is actually biologically his. Ray is no-nonsense when it comes to his son, and too obsessed with the little guy to grow a pair and be a man.

Ray is also super extreme when it comes to defending his son. He beats up a bully’s father write in front of the kid’s eyes with a pair of brass knuckles, promising that if he ever bullies again, the Ray is going to “fuck his father in the ass with the corpse of his decapitated mother’s corpse…” I’m pretty sure that was the line. Holy moly! While I doubt that kid is going to bully anyone ever again, it was clear this was an over-reaction.

The other characters got some attention, but none really worth noting. I’m not really interested in Antigone’s family squabbles, and my curiosity is only a tad piqued when it comes to just what it was that has traumatized him so much. When his lady was tracing her hands over Paul’s scars, he mentioned that he got some of them before the war. I wonder what that is. I’ll have my scoff button ready if it is revealed that he had an abusive father who used to beat on him or something. There is only so much you can do with dramas like this while not coming off as cliché. I don’t envy those writers.

Mainly, I’ll keep watching for the potential of exploring Ray and Frank’s colored past, and to see how their dynamic begins to shift as Frank acquires more power, while Ray sinks further and further into his cups. I also want to know what who was transporting that body, and where he ties into the overarching plot. It isn’t all bad. The show is still entertaining, and the actors are still great. It just has a lot to live up to to completely win me over.

Final thoughts…
The season premiere stumbles a little bit compared to it’s preceding season, as it relies to heavily on overly done character tropes. Still, the show definitely has its tone nailed down, and it feels very much like the True Detective we know and love. I’ll reserve judgment completely until I’ve had more time to spend with these new characters. It’s good to see all of these actors getting some serious work, as many of them have had recent dips in their career success. Overall, it was an adequate entry point back into this universe. You have my attention so far, HBO…

Check out our review of Episode 2 here.

3 thoughts on “The Western Book of the Dead: True Detective Season 2 Premiere Analysis

  1. Agree with all of the above. I think “adequate” is fair descriptor. It’s unfortunate they’re using so many cliches because they really could have taken bigger risks, just riding the success of the first season. And Farrell’s mustache is VERY broody. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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