There’s no talk of Egypt in True Detective’s season-two premiere, “The Western Book of the Dead.” Beyond a little bit of New Age sentimentality during a brief visit to a religious institute, there’s nothing even close to a discussion about gods. There’s also only one actual dead man, Ben Caspere, and because he’s wearing sunglasses and being chauffeured around the first few times viewers catch sight of him, it’s easy to mistake him for one of the living. The only difference, implies writer and series creator Nic Pizzolatto, is in an outsider’s perceptions and expectations; the living have obligations, whereas the dead are free.
That’s an admittedly bleak viewpoint, but such is the somber tone of True Detective—realism, or in philosophical terms, pessimism. It’s no accident that the first episode ends by panning out from a roadside crime scene shrouded in darkness, only to show that the sun’s already up just a few twisty miles down the road: This is how close (or cyclical) life and death are. Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn) might do his best to stay upbeat as he attempts to use his mob roots to buy up a bunch of the territory needed by the Californian government for their high-speed rail system, but the slightest hint of disapproval from his boss, Osip (Timothy V. Murphy), threatens to crush his dreams and kill him, at least on the inside. His wife, Jordan (Kelly Reilly), means to be supportive when she tells him that he doesn’t need to fake anything (he’s struggling to don an unfamiliarly fancy set of cufflinks), but it also speaks to the way in which our true selves are fluid, almost entirely dependent on an outsider’s gaze. Think of Schrodinger’s cat.
It’s interesting, too, that all three of the other central characters have moments in the episodes in which they, for all intents and purposes, might well be dead. This is most apparent, perhaps, with California Highway Patrolman Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch), a former military contractor in Iraq—though his scars apparently predate the war—who leads an unhappily dispassionate life. He’s unable to be intimate with his girlfriend without first secretly popping a Viagra, and sneaks off in the middle of the night not to spend time with another woman, but because he can’t comfortably share a bed with anyone. Instead, he rides his motorcycle at reckless speeds down dark, empty highways, seeking the comfort of adrenaline—or oblivion. That’s why his suspension from duty is so ironic: As if he’d ever risk losing his job over a stoned starlet’s desperate request to find some other way to settle a ticket. It’s also why he’s the one to stumble over Caspere’s body, posed at a scenic set of picnic tables. If the blind follow the blind, so, too, do the dead instinctively follow the dead. (Incidentally, Caspere was chemically blinded before death.)
All the central characters have moments here in which they, for all intents and purposes, might well be dead.
Similar themes can be found in the life of Ani Bezzerides (Rachel McAdams), who’s first introduced as she’s simultaneously dressing for work, pushing aside the nervous questions of her most recent fling, Steve (Riley Smith). Her job doesn’t just come before pleasure: It distracts her from the fact that she doesn’t actually derive pleasure from all that much. This point is actually made twice in the episode. First, Ani orchestrates a raid on what she believes to be a den of hookers, and even after learning it’s just a legally operated web-cam business, is still horrified to find her sexually liberated “actress” of a sister is a participant. The nose-ringed and blue-haired Athena (Leven Rambin) is the polar opposite of Ani, and isn’t afraid to call her sister out on her narrow-minded and under-liberated views, especially when Ani suggests if this is the sort of thing she does when sober, then perhaps she needs to “get back on something.” Later in the episode, Ani has a similarly on-the-nose conversation with her father (David Morse), a pacifistic philosophizer who’s “not comfortable imposing [his] will on anyone.” Siding with Athena, he suggests Ani’s problems are self-made, and that her moral decisions, especially within law enforcement, are “a reflective urge for authority out of defiance.” She’s got a great partner in the similar by-the-books Elvis Ilinca (Michael Irby), and yet she spends her evenings drinking so heavily that she’s not even welcome in a casino.
Finally, there’s the most initially complex of the cast: Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell). Unlike the others characters, Ray at least recognizes he’s drowning—a slow descent that began almost nine years ago when his then-wife was raped, and he made a deal with Frank to find the rapist, not trusting his own L.A. sheriff’s department to do what needed to be done. He continues to do odd, thuggish jobs for Frank, but it’s all so that he can earn extra money and attempt to buy his son’s love—or, barring that, slip enough cash to the lawyer in his custody battle. He genuinely loves his son, but that doesn’t stop him from using him as a human plank of wood, something he can grab onto to keep himself afloat in a world of constant disappointment. (“I used to want to be an astronaut. But astronauts don’t even go to the moon anymore.”)
Ray’s a blunt instrument, then, which makes his love a dangerous and explosive thing. When his son refuses to give up the name of the kid who’s been bullying him, Ray calls him a fat pussy: “I’ll pull down your pants and spank you in front of the whole cheerleading squad.” Later that evening, he brutalizes the bully’s father, forcing the kid to watch: “If you ever bully again, I’ll buttfuck your father with your mom’s headless corpse right here on this goddamn lawn.” It’s a peculiar sort of code, the sort that forces you to give up a bit of your humanity to save someone else’s, and the toll this has taken on him is readily apparent when he later shares a drink with Frank. “You’re supposed to savor that,” remarks the gangster, but the detective only knows how to gulp down life; it burns less that way. So it’s no surprise he’s literally the closest to death by the end of the episode: His unconscious, drunken pose in a bar booth is one crime scene away from Caspere’s.
True Detective offers a slim bit of hope for these characters. As Ani’s father states, one must “recognize the world as meaningless and understand that God did not create a meaningless world.” To that end, something greater than man must provide that purpose and allows humanity to be distinct from the billions of dead that have preceded it. A change in perception, then: for Frank, the entrée into a “legitimate legacy,” or for Ray, the chance to be a good father, whether it’s genetically his son or not. As the camera zooms out at the close of “The Western Book of the Dead,” the three officers—Ani, Ray, and Paul—stand triangularly around the body and look at one another. It feels like an opportunity not just to be seen, but to change the way they’re seen. It is, pretentious as it may seem, a chance to live anew.
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