True Detective's (2014) Season Two premiere episode is titled “The Western Book of the Dead.” The episode does nothing to directly explain its title, so what is it referencing?
Relatively unknown author named John Y. Crighton wrote an essay in the 1960s titled “The Western Book of the Dead,” which was published in an underground newspaper. InterVarsity Press describes the essay as commenting “on the Western world's deteriorating understanding of its identity, significance and future.” The entire text can be read online for free. It’s separated into 12 very short chapters and takes just minutes to read.
That's not an understatement. Here’s the entirety of Chapter 1:
“In the beginning – i.e., before the beginning – there was NOTHING. And MATTER came out of NOTHING. And MATTER was CHAOS.”
And the final chapter:
“So MAN ceased to be MAN – a rational, moral creature, a being who once transcended the causality of nature. Instead he became a meaningless, enigmatic machine-like piece of MATTER. Even the MANIPULATORS who controlled UTOPIA ceased to be MAN in the old sense of the word. After denying their mannishness for so long, they finally lost it and so became the most terrifying animal on the face of the earth.”
This language resembles the dialogue in True Detective. The style is instantly reminiscent of the creepily poetic dialogue used by Nic Pizzolatto on True Detective, and the material carries the show's themes of exploring the darker sides of human existence. Remember Rust Cohle's (Matthew McConaughey) diatribe about the pointlessness of human existence from Season One?
"I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self aware. Nature created an aspect separated from itself, we are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self. This accretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed, with total assurance, that we’re each somebody. When, in fact, everybody’s nobody. I think the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming. Stop reproducing. Walk hand-in-hand into extinction."
The takeaway of Crighton’s work centers on the idea that man will ignore reason in the quest for significance, though all actions are meaningless. Even though there’s no larger point to anything we do, we should still try and do it, because doing nothing causes meaninglessness to occur more rapidly.
In the first episode of True Detective’s Season Two, it’s easy to see how this subtle satire fits. The main characters are unlikable. They are deeply miserable and flawed, full of rage and hypocrisy. Despite that, they work toward ambitions. They are cops. They solve crimes. The referential title is an apt fit, and likely represents a blueprint for the season’s thematic overtones.