True Detective returns with a completely new setting, cast, and case, as well as a grittier, bleaker tone. In episode one, “The Western Book of the Dead,” we miss the loopy Rust Cohle, as well as the first season’s instantly compelling murder mystery. But we’re intrigued by its neo-noir sprawl so far.
First up, fresh opening credits dominated by a blood-red motif, and a brand-new theme song. It’s “Nevermind” by Leonard Cohen, replacing last season’s spooky alt-country ditty, and it’s got an ominous groove: “I dug some graves you’ll never find.” The credits end with a reminder that this episode is written by series creator Nic Pizzolatto, as all True Detective entries are, but that there’s a new director now — Justin Lin, who brings an action-movie background to the proceedings.
We open with a shot of a field so dotted with stakes and surveyor’s tape it resembles a cemetery, and a swell of music that lets us know we’re beholding a sinister sight. Then we meet our first new character: Colin Farrell’s Det. Ray Volcaro, rocking a classic cop mustache and a bolo tie. Ray is tasked with dropping his son, whom he sees infrequently, off at school; though he’s doing his best with the pep talk, the boy is shy and awkward, and we see other kids tease him as soon as he gets out of the car.
Though, as we’ll see, Ray is too volatile to be much of a father, he’s trying to get more visitation rights — we witness him grimly telling his lawyer that the boy’s mother was beaten and raped by an unknown assailant before giving birth — and he’s at the end of his rope, sliding a huge wad of cash across the table. She calmly asks if he’s certain the kid is his (he insists yes, but it’s not clear), and if there’s anything in his police background, be it his LAPD years or his current posting in fictional LA suburb Vinci, Calif., will be brought up in front of the court. No, he says. “I welcome judgment.”
Right into a flashback, where a clean-shaven, uniform-wearing Ray enters an empty nightclub during the day to meet Vince Vaughn’s underworld heavy Frank Semyon. “Sometimes, everybody’s not always on the same side,” Frank tells Ray. But in this case, Frank says, what happened to Ray’s wife was beyond the pale. And Frank knows the speed freak who did it (he even has a photo of the guy). Though he insists he’s just doing Ray a solid, he knows exactly what he’s doing.
We jump ahead in time, and contemporary Frank is no longer hanging out in seedy bars. He’s got a sleek house in the SoCal hills and a beautiful wife, Jordan (Kelly Reilly), and he wears crisp shirts with cufflinks. He’s not entirely comfortable in his new persona, though Jordan, the kind of woman who rocks a full smoky eye with her bathrobe, reassures him that it suits him better than he thinks. We get some quick shots of un-glamorous Vinci’s factory-dotted landscape, then we see how Frank has gone legit, sorta, not really, running the Vinci Gardens Casino and barking out hardboiled lines like “Never do anything out of hunger. Not even eating.” The casino, we learn, is built on “a codependency of interests,” and doesn’t need any undue attention ... like the kind that’ll come when the local paper is launches its investigative series on corruption. Frank ain’t happy, and tells his underling to get Volcaro on the reporter. “Everybody gets touched,” Jordan tells the underling when he doesn’t seem concerned enough about the matter. Nobody is safe, not here or in any aspect of this story.
Next, a man in the back of a sedan, with ... is that the Maltese Falcon? ... sitting on the passenger’s seat. The car heads out into a network of highways, viewed from far above, destination as yet unknown. The jazzy trumpet on the soundtrack telegraphs that we are deep in noir territory now.
The third major True Detective character appears: Rachel McAdams’ Ani Bezzerides. She has a no-nonsense choppy bob haircut and all manner of weaponry in her house, as well as a suitor whose performance in the bedroom isn’t measuring up. He also wants to talk to Ani about taking their relationship to the next level. Though we first see her wearing just a T-shirt and underwear, it’s clear Ani wears the pants. “Steve, you’re a nice guy, but now is not the time for this conversation,” she crisply tells him. She’s late for work, and work is a sheriff’s department raid on a man running a makeshift porn operation that might actually be on the level, though her reaction to this is to tell the guy to shut the fuck up.
Then Ani spots a familiar face under a mass of blue-green hair. It’s her sister, Athena (Leven Rambin). Neither woman is happy to see the other. Athena insists she’s not a hooker, she’s a web-cam “performer,” and no she is not on her meds or any drugs for that matter, and she has some cutting words for Ani: “What you say are MY problems, are really YOUR fuckin’ problems.” It’s an argument they’ve clearly had many times before; the brittle, disapproving Ani isn’t going to see eye-to-eye with her sister anytime soon.
Meanwhile, the Vinci police are worrying over the same newspaper article (“everybody gets touched,” after all, especially when everybody is apparently dirty), and we learn that the city manager, Ben Casper, has gone missing. Ray’s boss is assigning him to the case, and he’ll have assistance in the form of an unwanted partner, grizzled detective “Dix” (W. Earl Brown).
We finally meet True Detective’s fourth major character, Taylor Kitsch’s Paul Woodrugh, a highway patrol officer in full CHiPs regalia. He pulls over an obviously drunk young woman (an actress, we learn) wearing an ankle monitor. She offers a “trade” if only he’ll let her mishap go unreported. He sets his jaw. Will Paul be tempted? No. In fact, he’ll report the blow-job solicitation to his unamused boss, who suggests Paul take some vacation time. “The highway. It suits me. I am no good on the sidelines,” Paul tells him. But Paul’s going to take his administrative leave whether he likes it or not.
Back in Frank’s sleazy-classy world, he’s hosting a reception to unveil his pitch for a land-scheme development alongside California’s new high-speed railroad, but everyone in attendance, including the mayor, is on edge. “Casper hasn’t been to work in two days,” Frank’s underling tells him. Casper is Frank’s partner in this deal, and as his secretary tells the investigating Ray, “He holds the purse strings for a lot of things. A lot of people have to go through him.” His house is palatial, but it’s trashed, and filled with sex toys and luridly suggestive artwork. Surveying the scene, Ray’s thinking Casper may have been kidnapped. “We don’t belong on this,” he tells Dix.
But Casper’s not just been kidnapped. He’s the man in the back of the sedan, and is very much dead, though he’s been propped upright for the ride. Very Weekend at Bernie’s. Not knowing that his partner is a corpse on a joyride, Frank presses on with his presentation as Jordan looks on approvingly. Millions and millions of dollars are at stake, after all.
Ray heads to his second job, as it were, sucking on bourbon in his car and tailing the reporter that’s writing the corruption series. Oh wait, he’s not tailing the guy. He’s putting on a ski mask and breaking into the guy’s house to make Frank’s wishes known with his fists.
While this is going on, Ani and her partner are dropping off a foreclosure notice. The woman, understandably pissed, tells them they should make better use of their time by tracking down her missing sister, Vera. Ani’s dismissive until she hears that one of Vera’s jobs was working at a religious institute. Something about that catches her interest, and we soon learn it’s the upscale New Age center run by a beatific man we soon learn is Ani’s father. Her relationship with her father is just as contentious as her relationship with her sister (we learn the girls’ mother committed suicide some years prior). “Your entire personality is an extended criticism of my values,” he tells her. She calls him a prick and storms off. Fun family!
More family drama unfolds when Ray stumbles, drunk and having just beat up a reporter, to his son’s school. Neither his son nor his son’s stepdad are stoked to see this shambling mess of a man. It gets ugly, fast, when Ray finds out that his son’s been bullied, and turns into a pretty horrifying bully himself. He records an apologetic message for his son on the digital recorder they share. “I used to want to be an astronaut, but astronauts aren’t going to the moon anymore.” Huh? He smokes a joint before heading off to show his son’s bully — or rather, the kid’s unsuspecting, Sherman Oaks-dwelling father — who’s got the biggest balls. Or the biggest brass knuckles. He warns the kid that if he doesn’t stop bullying (irony alert) he’ll come back and do terrible things involving butt-fucking and headless corpses. The kid believes him, and you know ... we kinda do, too.
Back to Paul. How is Paul a part of anything here? It’s not apparent yet. But we do know that he has a lovely, eager girlfriend, who’s waiting to pounce on him as soon as he walks into her apartment. It’s not enough for Paul, though ... he has prominent scars that are “from before” his time in the Army, he tells her. And though he’s on leave, he gets out of bed to ride his motorcycle into the night. For a “side job,” he assures her, but we see it’s just him needing to burn out his anger by pushing his bike to nearly 100 miles per hour. No helmet. What could possibly go wrong?
Speaking of side jobs, both Ray and Frank — whose big pitch was a bust, since the mobbed-up investor he thought he had in his pocket wouldn’t pull the trigger without Casper — meet so that Ray can deliver all of the reporter’s files. It’s an age-progressed retracing of that first nightclub scene; we now know, of course, that initial favor Frank did for Ray has been called in over and over again over the years. (And really, it seems Ray enjoys doing dirty work.) “He won’t be writing that story tomorrow,” he chuckles as he ingests yea more booze and takes a toot of coke for good measure. Frank advises him he needs to find a good woman, but Ray’s not interested in any kind of companionship. Ray is not really interested in the human race, as a whole.
When Paul finally screeches to a halt, his headlight illuminates the body of Ben Casper, creepily sitting upright on a park bench. The discovery activates the True Detective phone tree, as both Ray and Ani are summoned from their respective drunken binges to the scene. Casper’s eyes have been creepily burned out, and he’s suffered a “severe pelvic wound.” (It’s no girl with antlers tied to a tree, but it’ll do, season two.)
“This the guy we’ve been waiting on?” Ani mutters as Ray pulls up. The trio of troubled cops are finally together, and they lock eyes as the shot swoops up, up, and away, showing the crime scene’s flickering lights on the cliff edge as the sun rises on the coast. Now that we’ve gotten everyone on the same page, and put out everyone’s respective demons on display ... the real story can begin.