“The Western Book of the Dead” isn’t the most exciting season premiere (though, if I recall correctly, it took a few weeks for the first True Detective season to hook me and that’s only because I watched the first-half in one sitting), but it is a fine introduction, and better than I thought it would be.
The episode largely concerns itself with slowly setting up the season-long mystery while also providing some backstory and basic character building blocks for our big four. There are plenty of differences between this season and last, but more on display are the similarities: The fun but winding, not-saying-much-of-anything dialogue, the overwhelming darkness (both literally and figuratively), and a group of tortured anti-heroes who seem hellbent on torturing themselves even more — self-destruction is, unsurprisingly, a key theme here; impotence is another, if you want to make a joke about a limp season premiere.
But no, “Western” is fine. The episode begins with Ray Velcoro dropping off his son, a pudgy redheaded kid (who we immediately know is getting bullied at school because, well, he’s a pudgy redheaded kid), before jumping to an interview wherein we quickly learn more about Ray. A few years prior, his wife was beaten and raped. When asked if she was pregnant at the time, Ray responds “We think so,” in a way that doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. They had been trying for a child for a while with no luck (the show gets right into the impotency/not “man enough” concerns) and neither parent agreed to do a paternity test but — as Ray almost angrily emphasizes — his son is his son.
In a flashback (short hair Colin Farrell!), we find out that Ray, when he was still a sheriff with the Los Angeles department, met up with a big crime lord Frank who reveals that he knows the man who targeted Ray’s wife, effectively leading Ray to become the corrupt cop that he is now. And what does Frank want in return? “Not a thing.” Which is obvious a lie and Ray knows it from the beginning. Now he’s basically Frank’s lackey, choosing to do Frank’s duty more than the duty of his job.
Soon we meet Ani, another no-nonsense detective (but this time, a no-nonsense woman detective!), who is characterized as cool and tough based mostly on her first interaction: with a boyfriend/hook-up who she waves away when he wants to talk. Ani later uses her job to raid a porn set just because her sister — clad in fishnets and a brightly colored wig — is working there and Ani disapproves of this career choice (she even basically tells her sister to stop doing porn and start taking drugs again). We even meet their father in this episode, a long-haired hippie and perhaps the only calm person in the second season so far (he also gives us tidbits about Ani: failed marriage, few relationships, lots of anger). It’s all welcome (character development is always welcome) but it’s a little much here; the episode seems desperate to let us know that Ani isn’t your cuddly, heels-wearing, victimized woman. And that’s fine, but it’s so trying: There is nothing subtle about her shooting down her partner trying to talk, or that shot of her alone in a woman’s locker room, arming herself with a knife. (Though I can’t wait until True Detective introduces a knife fight into the series.)
Finally, there is our last untruthful true detective: Paul (Taylor Kitsch), an emotionally and physically scarred highway patrolman — “The highway, it suits me,” he says, in one of the premiere episode’s many ridiculous lines — who loves motorcycles, his performance-enhancing blue pills, and being full of angst. He spots a woman speeding and driving recklessly, pulls her over, and is possibly seduced by her (“Maybe you can just escort me home.” “We can talk or … do something”). It backfires; the woman accuses Paul of soliciting a blowjob — it’s ambigious whether or not he actually got one and I have to say, I’m more intrigued by that mystery than anything else in this season — and Paul is put on leave, where he goes home to, well, get a blowjob from his girlfriend. All is well! Sort of.
The most compelling character — well, detective; Frank is plenty compelling but crime lords generally are — is Ray, though it could be because of how great Colin Farrell is. After all, he’s basically just playing a sad, drunk father. He shows up at his son’s school (with alcohol on his breath and blood on his sleeve) with a sleeping bag for a camping trip that his son already went on. Upon noticing that his son is missing the new sneakers he got, his temper flares as he repeatedly asks/yells what the bullies did (“Shit in them?!”) and interrogates until he gets a name (“Aspen? That’s a boy’s name?”). For a second, Ray seems to have calmed down a bit as he pulls out his recorder — he and his son leave “letters” for each other — and rambles an apology for something that was “totally, totally my fault” and goes on to explain that he “used to want to be an astronaut but astronauts don’t even go to the moon anymore.” Uh, sure, Ray. Oh, and then he goes to Aspen’s house, beats the living shit out of Aspen’s father, and threatens Aspen: “I’ll come back and butt-fuck your father with your mother’s headless corpse.” Nic Pizzolatto sure does have a knack for subtle dialogue!
But anyway, toward the end we get some actual detective stuff. Paul, who I guess grows more angsty as the minutes tick away in this episode, speeds down the highway on his motorcycle and nearly wipes out, only to shine a light on a dead man with his eyes burned out: Caspere, Vinci city manager, whose disappearance Ray was half-heartedly investigating in the episode. It brings our three detectives together — Ray because he was already involved, Paul because he discovered the body even though he’s leave, and Ani because she was … I don’t know, investigating something related. But either way, it’s good to finally have the three together, even if it’s at the end of the hour.