True Detective Season 2 — The Western Book of the Dead
True Detective: Season 2 is finally here, and it’s time to start unravelling the mysteries and unpacking the symbols. I love this sort of thing.
To be sure, these aren’t going to be weekly recaps. I’m not going to rehash the plot. We’ll just dive on into the weirdness, so make sure you watch the episode first (and, of course, there will be spoilers).
There are a few things I’m watching for this season. First, is there anything supernatural or at least occultish going on? Nic Pizzolatto has gone back and forth on whether this season would have the same occult underpinnings as season one, and frankly I was hoping it would. There are plenty of crime dramas, but not nearly enough weird ones. I can happily say, yes, there’s plenty of weirdness here. I’ll get into the specifics in a moment.
Second, does this take place in the same world as season one? I don’t need Cohl to show up, just some little Easter egg that tells us, yes, this is all a connected world. That would be cool. If anything like that appeared in the first episode, I didn’t notice it. On second thought, maybe I did, but I didn’t realize it at first.
Here’s a fun question: when is this story taking place? There were a few details that pin it to some time frame relatively close to 2015 — Antigones’ sister working as camgirl, high-speed rail as a major plot point. But there were also a couple of hints that this is taking place in the near future, that this season is actually science-fiction. What was that hologram of the nude girl in the milk bowl in the dead guy’s house? And when Frank gives the presentation at the casino, that sure looked like a holographic representation of the rail/commercial corridor, not just a model. Both of those things are, I think, technically possible using current technology, but they’re treated as so commonplace here, barely even commented on, that it feels like we’re some time in the future. I might be chasing my tail on this one, but it stood out to me.
Symbolism. So much symbolism. The underlying theme here is “buried bodies.” It’s mentioned repeatedly in the Leonard Cohen theme song. Of course it probably has a literal meaning, but the phrase “buried bodies” is also used similarly to “skeletons in the closet,” meaning dark secrets. That opening shot of the land marked out by surveyors’ stakes was shot so ominously I thought maybe it was some kind of mass grave at first. Do you think perhaps they will find some literal buried bodies when construction on the high-speed rail begins?
We can’t ignore the elephant in the room, which is to say we can’t ignore the giant raven head in the passenger seat of the car. That car was driving a dead man to a place where he would surely be found — no one buried that body. There was a message being sent, or some other purpose. So a raven traveled with them, and you can take your pick from mythology as far as what symbolic interpretation to go with. Messengers of the gods? Odin’s “thought and memory”? Or, maybe the Quran, where the biblical tale of Cain and Abel has a small added detail — a raven shows up and teaches Cain how to bury his brother’s corpse. In some translations, it instead teaches him how to hide his shame.
Then there’s Antigone. There could not possibly be a more loaded name to give a character (we’ll hold off on her sister being named Athena for now, because that puzzle piece doesn’t quite fit anywhere yet). Antigone was the daughter of Oedipus, and most people are probably familiar with the grotesque, incestuous tragedy of his life. But Antigone didn’t play a major part in that story — rather, she is known for burying the body of one of her brothers, in defiance of a law against this. Look, a theme! On a deeper level, the 11th grade English interpretation of Antigone’s story is that she nobly upheld the laws of the gods over the inferior laws of man. And yet this Antigone is a cop.
And what of her dad? On the surface, just another California hippie retreat namedropping yoga goofball. But he named his daughters Antigone and Athena, something that goes beyond loopy child-of-the-60s naming conventions. His wife committed suicide, as any proper wife of an Oedipus would. But his little talk to his followers was pretty damn interesting, and brings me back to season one’s preacher. “The face you wear is not your own.” Antigone’s dad explicitly restates my theory about season one: “Simultaneously hold in your mind the belief that this world is meaningless, and that God did not create a meaningless world.”
But also — he put an exclamation point on the whole thing by talking about preparing for the final era of mankind. Combine that with his discussion with Antigone about letting people make their own choices (with an explicit reference to his wife drowning herself in a river), and we’ve got the ingredients of an apocalyptic death cult! Hot damn.
Let me put my own exclamation point on things — the title of this episode, “The Western Book of the Dead,” maybe, just maaaaaaaaybe has some meaning as well. The Book of the Dead is an Egyptian occult book that contains advice and instructions for souls as they pass into the underworld. The most significant part of that journey is a meeting with Osiris, who judges everyone and determines the fate of their souls.
“I welcome judgment,” Ray told us. And the phrase hung there for a moment, as if we should pay special attention it.