Whew. Three episodes into True Detective: The Western Book of the Dead, the show has somehow both confirmed the worse fears of many and proven praiseworthy in its own way. The last two episodes, in spite of all of this season’s criticisms about character complexity and a lack of the show’s (formerly) signature mysticism, have actually proven to be quite compelling.
Before beginning in earnest, a stipulation for the reading of this article: this piece is not a summary, nor is it explanatory, nor is it speculative. Yes—the show is confusing, and yes—I have a set of well-developed theories about its eventual trajectory. But in the interest of not ruining all the fun, I’ll be analyzing the show’s thematic tendencies without getting bogged down in the details—this way, all of us can retain our personal suspicions and I haven’t spoiled everything. That being said, spoiler alert.
Under the assumption that we’re all up to speed on the show, here’s what we have on our major characters through episodes 2 and 3:
Frank Seymon the businessman has been exposed as Frank Seymon the cleaned-up gangster with deep-seated parental problems. His money was made in operating clubs and an exclusive poker room for Ventura’s elite, which gave him access to influential members of the community, most notably Ventura mayor Austin Chessani. As viewers learn about his backstory in these episodes, we immediately get to witness the traits that are revealed—Frank’s current status in “the unenviable position of being owed money by a dead man” forces him to resort to his old tendencies. He’s a man who has fought hard to build a reputation for himself through reputable means, but has just lost everything playing the same game that got him here. When he falls a little short in a shady transaction (read: bribe) with Ventura Chessani, the debt is forgiven, but only after Frank invokes their history together, including a mention of Chessani’s son, whom we meet later.
The loss of his money causes Frank to unravel quickly—from here, he threatens a controversial author who could cause problems for Ventura’s sweatshops, his relationship takes a sharp downturn, one of his henchmen is killed (Did it look like he got the Caspere treatment?), and he mercilessly thrashes (and forcefully removes the gold teeth from) a former associate in club manager Danny Santos. It’s clear he has his back against the wall, both financially and professionally, and we see him revert to his original instincts. Look forward to seeing more of Frank’s criminal side as we watch him navigate bankruptcy and a long list of enemies.
Ray Velcoro has turned out to be, more or less, what the first episode implied he would be. His past in Vinci has been as miserable as the present—beginning his vaguely traumatic upbringing by a father as jaded as he is, and culminating with his wife’s rape, his son’s problems, and his own loneliness. What is pleasantly surprising, though, is that he is still somehow the show’s most relatable character. While everyone else seems to be waging a secret war, Detective Velcoro really just wants it all to stop. He has refused an eventual promotion, multiple offers of money, and even a paternity test for the child his wife bore nine months after her rape—who doesn’t look at all like him. No—convinced that he is living the life he deserves, Velcoro is content to keep his head down and wade through the bullshit of his everyday life so long as a stiff drink awaits him at the end of each day.
So, for the week between episodes two and three, I was extremely pleased with what I considered to be one of the best deaths in recent television history: A 12-gauge at close range from a shadowy figure wearing a haunting headdress for such a shitshow of a major character should have been (and was, for a week) one of the most delectable ways HBO has ever killed someone—a strong reminder of the first season’s supernatural vibes combined with a Game of Thrones-style execution of a leading character (“protagonist” seems like the wrong term). Not to mention that it would have solved our problem of keeping up with too many characters. Instead, Velcoro is alive, sober, angry, and hot on the trail once again—only this time around, he has gained the loyalty of viewers. Between his doctor’s exasperated effort to convince Velcoro to rest and heal (“Detective Velcoro, do you want to live?”) and his tacky renunciation of alcohol in order keep his anger from being numbed, Velcoro suddenly appears to be one of the only characters on the show who has a serious purpose, and while his eventual intentions might be messy, he has certainly earned the right to every bit of violent rage he can muster. He’s a poor-man’s Rustin Cohle, but combine that with saving the life of the only meaningful female character on the show, and suddenly viewers are rooting for him.
Ani Bezzerides remains one of the show’s central mysteries, but it’s safe to expect that her vices will be exposed in the coming episodes as the show digs deeper into the character’s backstory. For the most part, her exposure so far has been restricted to the context of actual police work—as the state’s appointed lead investigator on the case, she has been behind much of the groundwork of the case, finding discrepancies in tax documents and doing most of the investigative work into the affairs of the late Ben Caspere. As a result, much of her development thus far, while enriching, has not yet given us a glimpse into her internal motives, other than her especially hardcore take on feminism. That being said, the stage is definitely being set—we’ll be looking to get much more out of her as the season advances.
A couple of key points: 1) Bezzerides has so far done a remarkable job balancing the state’s pressure to expose the corrupt Ventura PD with her professional duty to solve the case. We have to wonder if she can keep those obligations as separate as they have been so far, and if her relationship with Velcoro will be able to withstand this eventual strain. 2) Her family’s involvement in the ambiguous commune run by her father is certainly going to play a major role in the coming episodes—that is when we can expect for Bezzerides’s character to come to dramatic fruition. Several references, direct and indirect, have been made thus far to that group, and I’m personally looking forward to watching the writers tug on that thread.
Paul Woodrugh, much like Detective Bezzerides, is so far a snowballing reservoir of future plot tension. He’s progressed perhaps the least of our four major characters over the progression of the season, and viewers only have more questions moving forward. He’s rebuffed references to an alleged professional indiscretion involving a young actress, torched his relationship with his girlfriend, and gotten into a brief, meaningless fight with an old war buddy, and that’s pretty much it, on top of some run-of-the-mill detective work. His character has had the least reason to open up—he’s clearly not lacking for existential turmoil, but he keeps to himself.
So, for lack of material, this is all I have on Paul so far. He’s my dark horse candidate for being the most sincerely emotive character in the show, but I’ll not indulge those theories until we know for sure. Something to notice, though: Paul sure seems to have a tumultuous sense of sexuality that weighs on his character. Between the controversy surrounding him and the actress, the Viagra he needed with his girlfriend, an unwarranted comment about punching a gay man he met, and his own mother’s level of personal closeness with her son, the writers are surely laying the groundwork for something significant in Detective Woodrugh’s future.
So, three-eighths into Western Book, what have we learned?
Thematically, the central takeaway from Season 2 has so far been the show’s exploration of personal and systemic brokenness. I’ll clarify. From its onset, the show’s creators have been lauded for the ability to expose the existentially challenging truths about humanity and its place in the universe. Season 1 accomplished this through crimes so thoroughly repulsive so as to force the show’s central characters to come to grips with the sheer depth of humanity’s evil. Season 2 accomplishes this—so far—by exposing the undeniable ugly underbelly that accompanies the everyday, and reminding us of human vice through our own failures (the brokenness I was referring to). In both cases, the show’s characters must look directly in the eye of a reality so harsh that it shatters any idealized misconception of humanity—reminding us just exactly how bleak life can be.
Cinematically and otherwise, it’s good, but fails to meet the admittedly unreasonable expectation of being as good as Season 1. I don’t retract many of my criticisms of the premiere. Without going overboard, the dialogue still falls flat, the characters still can’t compare to Rust and Marty, and it still fits way too easily into the box of being a cop show. That said, the show is way above par, and this will be a downright captivating season if it continues as such. I’m personally very excited for it to be turning out as well as it is. So, for the time being, we should be more than content to watch our characters navigate the new mysteries of this season and eventually teach us some deep truth about how fucked up the world really is.