TV Recap: True Detective, ‘Western Book of the Dead’


True Detective, ‘Western Book of the Dead’ Plot Summary

The second series of HBO’s True Detective is set in the ‘scorched landscape’ of California. We meet our four lead characters. The first is Ray Velcoro (Colin Farrell) a detective in the industrial city of Vinci in L.A. County. He’s divorced from his wife, and in a bitter custody battle – he is also a compromised cop, on the payroll of Frank Semyon (Vince Vaughn). Semyon is a criminal ‘turned’ entrepreneur looking to finalize a big money deal in the city involving a rail system. There’s Antigone ‘Ani’ Bezzerides, a Ventura County Sheriff’s detective who has major issues with her family including her religious guru father (David Morse), but most importantly she seems to hate everything about herself. Finally we have California Highway Partolman Paul Woodrush (Taylor Kitsch) who gets suspended from his job after an actress falsely accuses him of soliciting sex from her in order to escape a traffic ticket (and being busted for violating house arrest).

Photo Credit: Lacey Terrell/HBO
Photo Credit: Lacey Terrell/HBO

The first season of True Detective was pure art. Possibly the best single season of television from start to finish this writer has ever bared witness to. When the second season was announced, the expectations were ridiculous and the bar was set about as high as it could possibly go. There was no way a new cast, a new setting, and a new direction could even remotely be on par with the first mind-blowing installment of this series. No way, no how.

If you go in expecting a sequel or a continuation or basically the same thing you saw last year, then you’re right there’s no way, no how this season will be on par with Season 1.

However, if you want to enjoy this season of True Detective, you need to view True Detective as an anthology — a series of different, non-connected stories under one general theme. If you see this season as a brand new entity, an entirely different show, then you are going to truly embrace the brilliance of this episode, ‘Western Book of the Dead.’

While this is an a new entity, there is a common theme that bonds Season 1 and Season 2 under the True Detective name — inherently and tragically flawed law enforcement agents investigating a brutal crime that has implications far bigger than the actual crime. The purpose this premiere is to give us the initial introduction to the quartet of characters we’ll be focusing on, and the crime that is going to be the big mystery of this season.

All four actors are equal in their excellence, as it’s established almost from jump street that they’re all playing characters wildly different from anyone you’ve seen them play before. Of the four, it’s Vince Vaughn and Rachel McAdams leave the biggest impression.

Vaughn plays Frank Semyon like the classic ‘criminal looking to go legit’ we’ve seen in a million film noirs — a sense of cool and collectedness undermined by an air of desperation. However, there’s nothing cliche here about the character or Vaughn’s performance. Gone is the trademark Vaughn snark and sarcasm. In its place is a calculating man, who has so much bubbling under the surface. He’s a man who is a wheeler and dealer, desperately trying to hide his desperation to close a legitimate business in order to secure his legacy’s well being. It’s the kind of performance you forgot Vaughn could give. His relationship with his wife (a perfectly subtle Kelly Reilly) is a little too neat for this series, so that means there is a whole treasure trove of drama coming between these two.

Photo Credit: Lacey Terrell/HBO
Photo Credit: Lacey Terrell/HBO

As for McAdams, gone are the girl next door looks, and the rom com smiles. She plays Ani as a burnt out without life cop that is shifting into her death drive into high gear. To see this normally glamorous and bubbly actress play such a hard-edged character so well, hits you just as hard as when McConaughey blew our minds in the first installment of True Detective. Her scene with her guru father (played by the always awesome David Morse) was a vicious, and bitter game of chess that saw no winners, just losers.

Going back to the McConaughey reference for a moment, my gut feeling is Taylor Kitsch’s former military man will end up being the closest thing to Rust Cohle in this installment of the series. We have yet to even scratch the surface with this guy.

Yet, it’s Colin Farrell who has the best lines, and the best scenes of the episode. First, comes his confrontation with his son. Hot off the heels of brutally assaulting a reporter who might damage Semyon’s business deal, Farrell’s Ray sees his son is no longer wearing the expensive sneakers he purchased for him. Instead of showing sympathy for his overweight and socially awkward son, he verbally assaults his son and then threatens to spank him in front of the cheerleading squad unless his admits who stole his shoes. The scene is agonizing to watch. It’s obvious Farrell’s character Ray is focusing his misplaced rage on an innocent person. What’s also tragic about the scene (outside of a horrified young boy) is the fact Ray actually does care about his son, he just has no clue how to express it properly. Happy Father’s Day.

Photo Credit: Lacey Terrell/HBO
Photo Credit: Lacey Terrell/HBO

Then comes the line/scene of the night. Ray finds the home of the boy who stole his son’s sneakers. He confronts the boy and his father about the incident. Then out of nowhere, he decks the father with a pair of brass knuckles with all his might. As he pummels the boy’s father he turns to the boy and says, ‘If you ever bully another kid I will come back here and butt fuck your father with your mother’s headless corpse.’ That might be the most graphic, disturbing and bad ass threat on television ever. Farrell pulls this off perfectly. Is it surprising? Absolutely not. Colin Farrell has proven he act (see: In Bruges, Seven Psychopaths, Crazy Heart), but unfortunately he’s recently picked a bunch of terrible movies to prove this.

While the performances reigned supreme here, the cinematography and direction must be commended here. Justin Lin, known best for the Fast & Furious franchise, hits a home run with the visual wonders he works throughout the episode. Intriguing camera angles, breathtakingly epic landscape shots, and brilliant usage of color throughout the episode ratchet the excellence of this premiere up huge, and are definitely on par with some of last season’s most visually striking episodes.

‘Western Book of the Dead’ was exactly how the second series/season of True Detective needed to be executed. We are introduced to the dumpster fire of a personal life these characters have, and we see how that impacts their professional lives. We are given a tantalizing taste of the plot which seems to be rife with a plethora of twists and turns. And finally, we’re reassured that the dramatic tone, the unbridled violence, the emphasis of character, and striking visuals that made True Detective’s first installment so awe-inspiring are still here.

In short – a brilliant beginning.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Bill Bodkin is the Owner, Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Pop-Break. Most importantly, however, he is the proud father of a beautiful daughter, Sophie. He is beyond excited that Pop-Break will be six years old in 2015 as this site has come a long, long way from the day he launched in it in his bachelor pad at the Jersey Shore. He can be read every Monday for the Happy Mondays Interview Series as well as his weekly reviews on Law & Order: SVU, Mad Men and Hannibal. His goal, once again, is to write 500 stories this year (a goal he accomplished in 2014). He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @PopBreakDotCom

Bill Bodkin is the gray bearded owner, editor-in-chief and co-founder of Pop Break. Most importantly, he is lucky husband, and proud father to a beautiful daughter named Sophie. He can be seen regularly on the site reviewing The Walking Dead, Doctor Who, and is the host of the site’s podcast, The BreakCast. He is a graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in Journalism & English. Follow him on Twitter: @BodkinWrites


  1. Yeah, the fact people can’t see that this is two radically different shows perplexes me. I can see people’s complaints – it did move a bit slow, it was really dark, but this is playing out like a California noir – slow and steady. I think the performances are going to take a lot of people by surprise — particularly from Vaughn and Kitsch.

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