‘True Detective’ 2×01: ‘The Western Book of the Dead’

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From the red-streaked, eerie opening, it was apparent that although the characters may have changed, much remained the same in the Season 2 premiere of “True Detective,” HBO’s often ominous, always brooding detective series.

Season 2 has relocated to sunny Southern California from Louisiana’s muggy bayous, but the feeling of a grungy, run-down town remains constant — just with added elements of the Old West.

“True Detective’s” storytelling has never been particularly straightforward, but the lack of plot in the Season 2 premiere is particularly hard to follow. Episode one touches on corruption in the city of Vinci (this season’s new locale), a missing-persons case, a dead city manager and the personal turmoil plaguing detectives Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams) and Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell).

As far as sprawling plotlines are concerned, our narrative introduction to Ray is probably the most immersive of all. While dropping off his bullied son at school, Ray tries to offer him comforting words, but their relationship seems strained and uncomfortable. When Ray, who is trying to gain more custody, speaks to a lawyer, we learn of the grizzly inner workings of his broken family, including the fact that while pregnant, Ray’s wife was raped and beaten.

A drunken Ray further reveals his instability by showing up on the doorstep of his son’s bully and beating and threatening his father. We can’t help but wonder: Does Ray love his son fiercely, or is he merely an unstable drunk asserting his macho prowess?

A flashback to a younger Ray and his friend Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) hints at the depths of Ray’s dark past. Frank, who has ties to the mob, gives Ray the name of Ray’s wife’s attacker in exchange for Ray’s cooperation in the future. Later in the episode, we see that the alliance between the two men has held strong, as Ray, in a move that protects Frank’s interests, uses brute strength to persuade a journalist to stop writing exposés on Vinci’s corruption.

As Frank, Vaughn portrays a perfectly charming mobster. With a devoted woman on his arm and a corrupt city in his pocket, he attempts to make his family one of what he calls those “old California families, who don’t even know where the money comes from.” Interestingly, among a thoroughly corrupt cast, the mobster is the most likeable character of the bunch.

McAdams’ Ani will be a role to watch. Critiques of sexism have plagued the show in the past, and although having a female role is a massive improvement on Season 1 (in which female characters existed either to have sexual relationships with the male leads or to be brutally tortured and murdered), some gender trouble persists. Our introduction to Ani consists primarily of learning about her sexual habits and “daddy issues.” As the season progresses, viewers would do well to observe whether Ani is characterized more fully as a strong, independent, sexually assertive woman or as the girl who’s trying so hard to defy her hippie father that she becomes a tough-as-nails cop.

Overall, the most substantial problem in Season 1 is the lack of plot. We can trace the abundance of backstory to the show’s style of writing, which has been compared with the modern mystery novel and owes much of its storytelling technique to books such as Robert W. Chambers’ “The King in Yellow.” Though we can’t say anything with certainty quite yet, it’s likely that the rest of the season won’t work without this sort of nitty-gritty and sometimes overly wrought background information.

In the past, “True Detective” has been critiqued for its sprawling style, which isn’t aligned with the conventions of traditional television programming. But “True Detective” isn’t a traditional show. The series unfolds like a movie or visual novel, brimming with symbolism, lines you can’t miss and characters who live in shades of gray — on “True Detective,” neither the characters nor the plot are ever black and white.

You can’t watch “True Detective” lazily. You have to pay attention. The season premiere reminds us of that.

 

Contact Pressly Pratt at [email protected].