Last year’s “The Long Bright Dark” was a special hour of television. It continued the rosy path of the McConaissance into its zenith era (not instigate it, as some mistakenly believe) and introduced the world to Nic Pizzolatto and Cary Joji Fukunaga. We saw the breadth and desolation of Louisiana – one of crime fiction’s more underrated locales – alongside the potent lore of the Yellow King.
The pilot began immediately with the disturbing image of a murdered young woman, her corpse adorned with pagan paraphernalia. This enigmatic rite hooks the viewer instantly. By the pilot’s end, the viewer is completely immersed in the mystery after spending time with Rust’s nihilistic fascinations regarding the universe’s cruelty and the symbology of the murder.
This season’s pilot, titled “Western Book of the Dead”, however, is the reverse in three ways. First, there is the narrative structure. Season 1 started with the core mystery of the plot and, using the protagonists, moved outwards through the radius by examining the world in which they operate and their personal lives. Season 2 begins with our protagonists scattered throughout the universe trying to navigate their meandering lives without a common purpose. This set of vignettes is only broken when Paul Woodrugh (Taylor Kitsch) discovers a missing person, thus getting our protagonists together for the first time at a crime scene. I can understand why writer Nic Pizzolatto would use this style to avoid becoming stale. Ideally, by developing the characters first and then giving the mystery later, the impact will have greater heft. It would allow us to have a better context into the two with the reveal serving as a culmination. And yet, the impact wasn’t there simply because whatever was written into the pilot wasn’t enough for it.
Another thing to consider is the way it utilizes the setting’s image in media for atmosphere. Season 1 used the popular images of Louisiana’s swamps and towns. Season 2, on the other hand, attempted to avoid the three main stereotypes (aka Hollywood glamour, South Central/Compton ghettos, and Sherman Oaks-style suburbs) in its portrayal of Southern California. We are, instead, treated to a series of decaying industrial towns, some agricultural areas, and only parts of the famous coastline. This creates a generic American coastal area noir atmosphere that makes me wonder why Pizzolatto and co would even bother to use California if they were going to try so hard to “not be California”. Perhaps Pizzolatto wanted to evoke the way Season 1 avoided the typical imagery of New Orleans by focusing on rural Louisiana for that “authentic” feel by transplanting that approach to rural/suburban California.
On a final note, there is the direction. Cary Joji Fukunaga unleashed his full potential and unnoticed gifts in Season 1. To make this a fair comparison, even his pilot work alone is stellar. As for Justin Lin, I didn’t have much hope but was still disappointed. I was hoping for a mix of Better Luck Tomorrow’s character work with the verve of the Fast franchise’s action scenes. Instead, what we got was a series of uneven vignettes that needed better editing. Hopefully, these things improve as we go along.
As for the cast, it’s a mixed bunch as popularly expected. Farrell goes for the typical tough guy/deadbeat dad in noir fiction but his natural talent and charisma manages to salvage the limited writing. Kitsch is the weakest link as expected since his enigmatic character isn’t helped at all by his enigmatic performance. Vince Vaughn goes back to channeling 90s Vince Vaughn. While the man has the natural talent and potential for crime drama, he clearly struggles through this episode after being accustomed to decades of low-brow comedies. Then again, maybe his popular image is obscuring the way we perceive his performance. The saving grace of this episode is undoubtedly Rachel McAdams. She brings several layers to her character making it the most complex characterization so far. She is definitely the Rust Cohle of this season.
All in all, this episode wasn’t the great pilot hook that “The Long Bright Dark” was which is bad for the purposes of a TV pilot. However, we still have a full season ahead and I hopefully look forward to some improvement, especially on Justin Lin’s part.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars