True Detective is so laden with literary references that the burden of explaining them is probably better suited to a college thesis. But that won’t stop us from attempting to do so. While season 1’s foggy bayou took inspiration from supernatural gothic horror, season 2 takes a more mystical, spiritual route—not to mention a distinctly pessimistic one.
Season 2’s first epiosde takes its title from an actual book, The Western Book of the Dead. One version was written by a man named Alfred Schmielewski, who went by the name “Yogi A.S. Narayana.” Narayana was a mid-20th century mystic and alleged psychic, who predicted his own immortality—and was reportedly killed in a mysterious and fortuitous murder that remains unsolved. (Confirmed information on Narayana is difficult to come by, but we’re working under the assumption that writer Nic Pizzolatto might take even a fictional story as inspiration.)
Here, you’ll find more explanation than you need to unpack “The Western Book of the Dead,” True Detective‘s first episode of season 2, and how the book by the same name may give us hints about the rest of the season. (Note: This post was written having watched episodes 1-3, but we’ve steered clear of major spoilers.)
On reincarnation and immortality: “Aging may emerge as a preventable disease”
The Western Book of the Dead proclaims itself to be “not a Book of the Dead, but a Book of Immortality.” It alleges that a Yogi, or enlightened person, can “leave his physical frame when and where he pleases.” Here are a few salient quotes to help understand the meat of this book:
In True Detective, Antigone’s (Rachel McAdams) father owns some sort of yoga/ spiritual center, the Panticapaeum Institute, creating a clear line between her character and the book’s themes. Keep these ideas in mind when listening to him teach.
On man’s potential: “Born mentally dead”
From here, The Western Book of the Dead becomes even more nihilistic and elitist in a vaguely Nazi-ish way (Narayan was born in Austria in 1928, but according to this not-totally-credible bio, one of the few available, he wasn’t necessarily associated with the Nazi party). Some snippets from the text:
These quotes are absolutely ripe for a crime show like True Detective: Imagine a killer so disgusted by the “programmed” masses that exist without potential, doing nothing to contribute to the advancement of humanity. The text gets darker:
The other Western Book of the Dead
Another Western Book of the Dead exists online in PDF form—it’s unclear how exactly the two texts are related, but we’d be willing to bet Pizzolatto has read this one, too, based on the quotes below. This Western Book, which is written out in verse form like a piece of scripture, details man’s realization that humanity is not significant:
We know that sex plays a huge part in this season’s True Detective: Steve (Riley Smith) apologizes to Antigone after they leave her bedroom because something she did—or wanted—took him by surprise. Her sister works as a cam girl in some sort of legal brothel. Paul (Taylor Kitsch) has to take medication to maintain an erection (I have my theories on this, but they contain spoilers). Ray (Colin Farrell) is fighting for the boy who may or may not be his biological son—this aligns with “families begin to die,” and families and children being “left to the whim of the courts.” It’s going to be a rough season.
We’ll continue to analyze the rest of the literary references in True Detective as season 2 unfolds. Stay tuned.