True Detective's season two premiere, "The Western Book of the Dead," is a ridiculous, ridiculous episode of television.
It's so in love with its own self-seriousness that it forgets to tell a story, and by the midpoint of the episode, it had me rolling with its frequently glowering performances and pointlessly weighty dialogue. I've seen two more episodes that are both better than this one (if only marginally so), but this episode marks a new low point for the franchise. It's dumb, dumb, dumb.
But I could tell you that, over and over, for thousands of words, or I could just list the 31 most ridiculous moments of the premiere. I think I'll do the latter.
1) The theme song feels like self-parody.
You had the whole of the Leonard Cohen catalog to work with, and you picked this? An old man growling dark thoughts at length is precisely what people who make fun of True Detective make fun of the show for being, so I guess we're doubling down.
2) IS THE BOY COLIN FARRELL'S?!
Right away, this episode disabuses you of any notions that this is going to be a season about anything other than a plunge into the heart of darkness. The (redheaded) son Colin Farrell (his character's name is Ray, but it is impossible to refer to him as anything other than "Colin Farrell") drops off at school is revealed to be ... possibly the product of a rape his ex-wife endured. Heavy sigh.
3) Colin Farrell descends into hell when he goes to visit professional criminal Vince Vaughn.
4) "Never do anything out of hunger. Not even eating."
This is actual would-be clever advice Vince Vaughn gives to one of his associates.
5) The score consists of your mom throwing your shoes in the dryer with jazz trumpet playing over it.
Bweee deee dee deeble dee. THUMP THUMP THUMP.
6) BIRD HEAD!
Already my favorite character.
7) Rachel McAdams's character, Ani, is introduced entirely via her sexual preferences.
Whatever she wants to do in the bedroom, it's way too hardcore for her gentleman caller. Get used to this method of characterization for her.
8) "When you walk, it's like erasers clapping."
Ani's sister says this to her after Ani busts her sister working for some sort of online porn hub. What does it even mean?
9) An actress tries to get out of a ticket by sexually propositioning Taylor Kitsch's character.
That's the second woman initially defined via her sexual prowess. For those of you keeping track at home.
10) "WE WERE WORKING FOR AMERICA, SIR."
The episode clearly intends this clunky bit of dialogue to be a way to show how Kitsch's character (Paul, for the record) has been damaged by his military service. But it's so melodramatic and dumb that it made me laugh.
11) "Sure it is. We're the police."
As delivered by the always-slightly-menacing W. Earl Brown, with Justin Lin's camera leering up at the man, this line might as well be accompanied by a giant flashing neon sign reading "AUTHORITY FIGURES MAY NOT BE AS HONEST AS THEY APPEAR."
12) The missing city manager's apartment is full of weirdo symbolism.
The closest thing the episode has to a story is the hunt for the missing city manager, Ben Casper. However, this story doesn't really proceed with any urgency, so writer Nic Pizzolatto throws a bunch of symbolism at the problem. Bound women! Naked, limbless women! A skeleton wearing a crown!
13) "This is how we must live now, in the final age of man."
You do you, aging hippie David Morse.
14) Ani is named Antigone; her sister is Athena.
Really, everything about Ani (sorry, Antigone) going to the Panticapaeum Institute to talk with her aging hippie father is just the worst, but something about these two Greek mythology-referencing names right next to each other is a special class of worstness.
15) "I am not comfortable imposing my will on anyone, and I haven't been since 1978."
16) "If your mother's flair for drama had been more present in her acting, she might have gone on to great things."
17) "You're angry at the entire world, and men in particular, out of a false sense of entitlement for something you've never received."
Pizzolatto's greatest weakness as a writer has always been just having characters state, outright, what's going on in their heads, even when there's no real reason for them to be doing so. The Panticapaeum scene does ... not suggest that problem has been alleviated.
(Also, there are many lines of this episode that sound like the writer addressing the critics of season one. The above definitely qualifies.)
18) "Talk to your daughter, prick. Help her." "I just did."
This exchange between Antigone and her father closes out the scene. She means he needs to talk to Athena, but he refuses to judge her for being an online porn star, since that's an outlet of creative expression. Instead, he judges Antigone for being a tool of the man. I mean, I get it, but Jesus.
19) "They took his shoes out of his gym locker!" "And what? What? Shit in 'em?!"
Much of the back half of the episode is taken up with Farrell trying to figure out why kids are picking on his son, to the point of taking his fancy shoes out of his locker and cutting them up. Farrell jumps immediately to the other kids defecating in his son's shoes. Like you do.
His behavior is meant to indicate that he's lost all grip on his own self-control, but it mostly comes off as a parody of the series' overriding macho aesthetic.
20) Colin Farrell's son's chief tormenter's name is Aspen?!
To the episode's credit, Farrell at least notes how ridiculous this name is.
21) "I used to wanna be an astronaut. But astronauts don't even go to the moon anymore."
Farrell weeps this into a digital recorder as a way of explaining to his son why he's such an unchecked asshole. I'd call it unnecessary exposition, but I don't even know what it is.
22) Does Taylor Kitsch have greyscale?
It's later revealed to be part of the scars that cover his body from his time in the military, but the first time you see it, it looks exactly like Jorah Mormont's greyscale scar from this season of Game of Thrones, right down to its placement on his body.
23) Taylor Kitsch's blow job face.
He looks like he's trying to remember the plot of a particularly good NCIS.
24) Vince Vaughn is trying to go legitimate.
This is literally the most boring thing you can do with a professional criminal. This is a story that was boring to our grandparents.
25) "You're 12 years old, and you're already evil as fuck."
The scene where Farrell tracks down "Ass-pen" and beats the shit out of his dad is another one where I could have just listed everything that happens in it.
26) "I'll come back and butt-fuck your father with your mom's headless corpse on this lawn."
Case in point.
27) "This is my least favorite life."
The gloomiest singer-songwriter ever accompanies Farrell and Vaughn's big scene near the episode's end, as they talk about how Farrell has squandered his chances. Then again, should I be surprised the gloomiest singer-songwriter ever exists in the True Detective universe?
28) Farrell shuts down a multi-part newspaper story that's probably already completed.
Nobody likes somebody nitpicking a fictional portrayal of their profession, but there is no way the Vinci exposé that gets everybody's dander up isn't already completed, vetted, and fully edited. Thus, there's no way Farrell can pull the plug on it by menacing the reporter. At the very least, everybody in the city would have known something was coming and tried to stop it at the reporting stage.
29) "A good woman mitigates our baser tendencies. You got time. Have more kids."
Whatever you say, Vince Vaughn.
30) The story starts at 58 minutes in.
Essentially every flaw of the episode stems from this. The episode doesn't have story. It has backstory. The scene that finally unites Farrell, Kitsch, and McAdams occurs only at the very end, after Kitsch stumbles upon the body of the city manager when he goes out for a self-destructive spiral of a moonlit motorcycle ride. Without a story propelling the characters, the episode turns into a miserable wallow, and that makes everything take on the ridiculous sheen it has.
Yes, starting a novel with a lengthy section that just delves into the pasts of the characters could work, because you'd be in their heads, remembering it from their points of view. And you could maybe even start a Netflix series like this, because viewers could just jump to episode two right away.
But a traditionally structured HBO show? Nah.
31) The last shot is actually really beautiful.
Credit where it's due.
Join me at noon Eastern on Monday, June 22, to talk about this episode or any other cultural topics you like in comments.
Please join me. I'd love for all of us to make sense out of this. Comments will open at 9 am Eastern time Monday morning for you to leave questions, and I will join at noon Eastern to answer!