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True Detective season 2 continues the tradition of Chinatown and Roger Rabbit. Here's why.

HBO

Every week, a handful of Vox's writers will chat about the latest episode of True Detective's second season. Before you dig into the latest round, check out our recap of this week's episode, as well the archive of our entire discussion to date. Joining culture editor Todd VanDerWerff to weigh in on "Night Finds You" will be deputy culture editor Jen Trolio, and more.

Todd VanDerWerff: Enough about what's not working about True Detective season two. Let's talk about what's keeping me watching (and probably would be even if I weren't a professional TV watcher person).

If nothing else, series creator Nic Pizzolatto is a fine student of genre, which is fitting for a former literature professor. True Detective's first season fit squarely into the Southern gothic form, playing up the spookiness and surreal nature of its haunted bayou landscape. Season two has mostly left that behind in favor of something that feels more conventional but might actually be trickier to pull off: the California noir.

The California noir is a very specific subset of a very specific subset of the more general "detective fiction" genre. Noir itself tends to play around with various shades of gray, with worlds where the lines between law and disorder are not so clearly defined. These stories tend to star world-weary detectives who find themselves drawn into corruption and uncertainty by femme fatales.

The California noir, then, does all of the above, but sets it in California. And if that sounds like a pretty stupid qualifier for a subgenre, well, we also have "Florida noir" (which tends to contain a comedic element and is best exemplified by the work of authors like Carl Hiaasen and Elmore Leonard) and "rural noir" (think Winter's Bone or some episodes of Justified, also based on the writings of Leonard), so there you go. But what makes California noir work is that California itself is the perfect setting for a noir story. Generally, the California noir pulls back from that world shaded in gray to do something even bigger: explore humankind's hubris.

Think, for instance, of perhaps the most famous example of the California noir, the classic 1974 film Chinatown. In that film, directed by Roman Polanski and written by Robert Towne, private investigator Jake Gittes (played by Jack Nicholson) starts out trying to solve a fairly boring case and ends up examining the way that California slowly leeched its verdant farmlands dry of water in order to feed its thirsty coasts. (The film plays as somehow even more prescient in the wake of  the crippling drought my adopted home state is now facing.)

The same goes for movies as diverse as Who Framed Roger Rabbit — a goofy California noir that takes on the destruction of Los Angeles's streetcar system to make way for rampant freeways — and LA Confidential — which is about, among other things, the rise of the modern Hollywood studio system. The California noir tells these stories elliptically and symbolically (often with a woman standing in for the idea of the state itself), but in the end, everything comes back to the incredibly self-involved notion that human beings could possibly turn a desert into an oasis. The California noir is about the battle between our better natures and the raw, uncompromising natural world we still belong to.

It's too early to say exactly what True Detective's second season might be up to in this regard — though the long-delayed construction of the state's high-speed rail system seems to be the political catalyst for the story. But many of the show's elements fit very neatly into the California noir template. Season two's first two episodes have introduced a widely scattered, seemingly disparate collection of elements that will likely all be tied together by season's end. (There is no way, for instance, that the Good People don't factor into the ultimate solution somehow.) Several world-weary detectives are caught between their own best impulses and a state that would rebuild nature in its own image. A career criminal is trying to repress his criminality in hopes of building a better life for future generations, that they might not be inherently corrupt. (There are lots of allusions to Chinatown in that description.)

Nothing I've described above is wildly original, and nothing I've described above has done anything to convince me that season two won't turn out to be an eight-hour gloss on several basic ideas that the terrific movie Inherent Vice laid out in two-and-a-half hours in 2014.

But I think understanding the genre that True Detective's second season lives in will give us a better chance to evaluate it as a story unto itself, instead of as a continuation of or sequel to season one, where it will inevitably come up wanting.

What do you all think? Did episode two grip you more than the premiere? And is Ray alive or dead or maybe both?

Read the recap, and come back throughout the week for more discussion.

Previous episode's discussion


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