True Detective: Night Country

‘True Detective: Night Country’ Finds Comfort in Darkness

At the edge of civilization where True Detective: Night Country is set there is no promise of salvation, only carnal vengeance and some comfort in the darkness.

True Detective: Night Country
Nic Pizzolatto and Issa López
14 January 2024 (US)

If there’s one type of series that has truly overwhelmed the medium of television since its inception, it’s the cop show. The incomplete Wikipedia entry alone counts 847 shows, of those, 401 were made in the US from the late 1940s onwards. With some variations and exceptions (e.g., US’ Homicide: Life on the Street or UK’s Broadchurch), the majority of these sagas are little more than mouthpieces for “copaganda”, tales of heroes and heroines hunting depraved individuals in a mostly equitable system, ultimately protecting the innocent and preserving justice. Not even the era of “prestige drama” changed the premises sufficiently; now we mostly get the erratic antihero tilting at structures of power so nebulous they might as well be windmills.

One would be forgiven for skipping yet another (prestige) cop show, this time about two erratic antiheroines tasked with finding a group of scientists who vanished without a trace somewhere north of the Arctic Circle. But don’t be fooled by True Detective: Night Country’s deceptively simple premise or its flawed history – this rich, multilayered, impressive-looking drama is the rare genuine left turn on the clichés. It’s also a damn good mystery thriller, preserving the best from the beloved first season of the anthology series while subverting or ignoring the rest (including the mostly forgotten Seasons Two and Three). With killer turns from Jodie Foster and former champion boxer Kali Reis, a superb supporting cast, and a story even more chilling than its subzero setting, True Detective: Night Country flattens the snow for new possibilities in a tired genre.

A decade ago, that rare exceptional show about cops, True Detective, won the world over with its mysticism, (theological) depravity, and, let’s be honest, pretentiousness. Nic Pizzollato’s and Cary Fukunaga’s remarkably bleak, cerebral saga of two pained cops tackling heinous crimes against the backdrop of the patriarchal, mythically primordial South remains among this century’s most revered detective tales. Its combination of stark, aesthetically comprehensive horror and the indictment of our unjust order paved the way for the celebration of arrogant, dysfunctional men such as Matthew McConaughey’s nihilistic Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson’s aloof Marty Hart (both brilliant in their roles), so long as they were ready to stare the abyss in the eye.

A meaningful analysis of the anthology’s iconic first season would require a standalone essay, but some of its features remained the series’ staples. The less successful Seasons Two (2015) and Three (2019) both have their distinct sense of space: from the marshes of Louisiana, through the dust of inland California, to the Ozarks, inheriting the macabre tone, grim color palettes, and generally immense psychosocial issues of their protagonists. Other defining aspects changed over the years, most notably the transition from mystical, near-mythical contextualization of violence and disgust with a failed society or even civilization toward more workaday plots and notions of crime in the latter seasons. Now Season four, the first one with a unique subtitle, True Detective: Night Country, learns from its predecessors, subverts and surpasses them in wondrous and unexpected ways.

Breaking away from the Pizzolatto as showrunner tradition, True Detective: Night Country is run, written, and directed by Mexico’s Issa López (2017’s Tigers Are Not Afraid). An acclaimed writer-director in her country, López shapes Night Country as a female-centric take on True Detective’s tropes and a stark mirror image to the archetypes of inert and defenseless women portrayed as little more than the symbolic virgin/whore dichotomy. The upshot of this bold and slippery decision is a triumphant inversion of numerous genre potboilers and a cynical clap back to the pretend attempts to go woke in a morally broken world.

“Welcome to the end of the world: Ennis, Alaska”, reads a sign at the entrance to the small fictional mining town 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It is December 17, and Ennis is descending into 60 days of polar night. In the very first moments of this long darkness, the lights in the outlying Tsalal research station start to flicker before dying out. “She’s here”, mutters one of the eight aghast scientists who are about to disappear into thin air. 

When seven of the scientists are found naked and frozen in the snow with horrified facial expressions (in what is referred to as a “corpsicle”, one of the many examples of True Detective: Night Country’s black humor), chief of Police Elizabeth Danvers (Foster) is called upon to investigate. Nothing about the Tsalal case makes sense; while examining the station, Danvers uncovers evidence that will connect the death of seven men and the disappearance of the eighth with the murder of the native Iñupiaq activist Annie Kowtok. 

A midwife who vocally protested the environmental devastation caused by the pollution from a local mine, Kowtok was tortured and brutally stabbed to death six years prior, and her murder remained unsolved. Not even one hour in, a severed tongue, an ominous black spiral – a callback to Season 1 –  popping up in different places, a strange photograph of a parka, the definitive disappearance of the eighth scientist, questions surrounding his team’s mission, and the activities of an opaquely run local mine, all hit us like a blizzard. It is up to Danvers, a frosty white woman at odds with pretty much everyone she comes across, to get to the bottom of the abundant horrors plaguing the remote community.

Hearing of the link to Kowtok’s case, Evangeline Navarro (Reis), Danvers’ former partner demoted to state trooper, flies into the orbit of the enduring puzzle. Navarro, a half-Native policewoman brought up in the Lower 48, is overwhelmed with emotional challenges, among them violent disdain of abusive men and continuous care for her mentally troubled sister Julia (Aka Niviâna). As if the existing spiral of catastrophe wasn’t enough, the relationship between Danvers and Navarro is strained at best, marred by a problematic professional past. 

On the dot, there are heaps to unpack here, and it is to López’s credit that she takes her time with each of True Detective: Night Country’s myriad themes without losing sight of the narrative demands of her chosen genres, horror as much as mystery or thriller. Echoes of John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal (2013-15), and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (1991-92) reverberate over each six sumptuous, meticulously put-together episodes about humans as the ultimate monsters, predating in the all-encompassing dark. 

Feedback from Alaska residents and Native locals who have watched this season suggests López did her research, reproducing the look and the feel of life on the edge of the world faithfully, though the show was actually filmed in Iceland. The Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister, whose portfolio includes impressive work on AMC’s supernatural horror anthology The Terror and 2021’s The Antlers, calibrates the inhospitable distance, bareness, and crepuscule of (stand-in) Alaska to portray it as both frightening and awe-inspiring. Through the lens of López and Hoffmeister, Ennis comes alive as the true liminal uncanny, a real place with all the recognizable elements of society and landscape, but strange to the point of inducing neurosis and anxiety.

With elements of the supernatural, mostly building on the symbols of the rich indigenous culture of North America, the one series True Detective: Night Country resembles most in terms of atmosphere is The X Files (think 1993’s First Season episode Ice). There is the omnipresent black spiral drawing, the mission of Tsalal’s scientists to find a microorganism that could grant humans eternal life (!), and the numerous ghosts all around. 

Among the powerful, quiet beauties of the narrative is López’s insistence on representing these “ghosts” not as threats but as comfort, company, and support for the wasted living. In particular, Danvers’ reclusive friend, Rose Aguineau (the brilliant Fiona Shaw), a former professor dwelling in a lonesome cabin secluded even by Alaskan standards, relies on the departed for guidance. The first time we see her, Rose is gutting a dead wolf when she receives an important message from her late partner. Vignettes like this are spread throughout the show’s run, not to (just) rattle the audience but to illustrate the private nature of consolation and the intimacy with which myth is treated in a deeply hostile, violent world. Shaw delivers some of True Detective: Night Country’s most striking and telling lines, including: “I think the world is getting old, and Ennis is the place where the fabric of all things is coming apart at the seams.”

Not to go full Lost here, but the quote indicates the creators’ thematic approach to the story they believe was important to tell. You may have noticed I am avoiding spoilers at all costs, as any insight into the outcomes of the investigation would ruin the viewing experience. However, the “fabric of all things coming apart at the seams” does not refer to any occult phenomenon. It actually speaks of a total collapse of civilization, the enduring hypocrisy of racial, gender, and class violence that, somewhat poetically, tries to shroud itself in obscurity, hiding in (in this case) literal darkness.

Liz Danvers, a brilliant detective who happens to be a (white) woman, ends up in Ennis an outcast, banished from Anchorage so as not to threaten the career of a male peer (a solid, if underutilized Christopher Eccleston). Observant and direct to a fault, she is disliked because she’s a workaholic with a strong whiff of hubris – traits a man would normally be celebrated for. Another reason Danvers is despised in the neighborhood is her boozing and frequent dalliances with married men, habits she picked up after an unspeakable personal tragedy. Again, such coping mechanisms, reckless or immoral as they are, would be tolerated in a man, who would be exonerated with designations such as “difficult”, “complicated”, or “troubled”.

Still, Danvers gets little love from anyone except her deputy’s (quietly disturbing John Hawkes) son, Hank Prior (Finn Bennett), who looks up to her and jumps on command, something she’s more than happy to take advantage of. Words can hardly illustrate the intensity of Jodie Foster’s not-giving-a-damn performance. The two-time Academy Award winner and one of the most formidable performers alive has never been better. At once riotously deadpan and achingly despondent, her Danvers is a kaleidoscope of the material realities of being female and angry.

Navarro, a half-Native New England transplant seeking to connect with her indigenous roots and spirituality, doesn’t fare much better. Her brashness and proclivity to attack violent men on and off duty would likely be seen as “heroic” in a male cop. Instead, Navarro is just as shunned as Danvers, seeking solace in cautiously detached affairs and dreams of disappearing. Her obsession with Annie Kowtok’s case, which is explained as the knots start to unfold, is one of the rare things pushing her forward, perhaps the only thing other than the love of her ill sister. 

Danvers’ indigenous step-daughter Leah (Isabella Star LeBlanc), a sexually voracious teenager hellbent on protesting the environmentally damaging activities of the local mining company, is the joker card for many of the social topics explored. An Alaskan native (unlike her stepmother), Leah is eager to belong to the Iñupiaq community, consulting local women on the rituals and symbols and experimenting with temporary kakiniq tattoos on her face. The disapproval she receives from Danvers isn’t exactly racism; it serves to drive home the point that individual cultures tend to disappear as a result of the colonization of the White Man and the fantasy of a globally homogenous society tailored to white norms. 

Said colonization is nowhere more evident than in the sinister mine run by the whites, whose activities nominally fund the majority of the town while poisoning the water and soil, resulting in miscarriages in Iñupiaq women. The dominantly white employees heavily mistreat the indigenous community, i.e., the majority of the local population, leading to protests that must be silenced at all costs. As the offspring of a rare mixed-race family, Leah gives us insights into both societal debate and the frozen heart of Liz Danvers, for whom Leah remains the only person worth caring for.

One of the greatest operative aspects of True Detective: Night Country is the fully realized environment in which the manifold mysteries and turmoils converge. Ennis is among the most throbbingly fleshed out fictional places in recent memory, replete with colorful, if not cute, biographies; each of its many outcasts, runaways, and degenerates get enough screentime to weave new threads into the show’s grim web. To understand this civilization scaled down for size, we trail Danvers and Navarro, both bubble-wrapped in myriad dynamics of power, gender, class, race, and generational trauma.

It is somewhat curious that López opted for sparse, specific dialogue, an otherwise questionable choice for a work of such complexity, though in this case, it works wonders, juxtaposed with the astonishing accompanying imagery. The overall takeaways of the series couldn’t be clearer: the human world is a violent and dark place full of hatred and exploitation, and those in power seem perpetually uninterested in saving anything other than their own ass. 

Mystery and especially cop shows are tough genres to navigate effectively. While most often symbiotic, the former is fraught with clichés, the latter sinking under endless copaganda and cheap machismo (and yes, traces of this exist in True Detective: Season 1, too). The overarching idea that the system is kinda bad – because it’s, you know, cool to be vaguely anti-capitalist – but that we can be saved by cunning alcoholic oddballs with emotional issues when they get angry enough to “do something about things” is not just untrue but also perilously in line with the system it purports to subvert.

At the edge of civilization, in freezing Ennis, there is no promise of salvation for any of the system’s and patriarchy’s victims. There is, however, carnal vengeance and solace in the remote dark, which is apparently the best we as a society can do for now. Saying anything more would be a criminal spoiler, and I cannot wait for everyone to see True Detective: Night Country’s mind-blowing finalé. I found it deeply satisfying and surprisingly comforting. Special shoutout to López for reviving Rust Cohle’s cringe-worthy phrase “time is a flat circle” in a most deplorable and condescendingly didactic of characters. 

While some will likely be disappointed by the plethora of parallel stories and a somewhat loose (and at times plodding) narrative surrounding the issues of racial and class struggles, I find the atmospheric, sparse treatment refreshing and, in this case, marvelously executed. True Detective: Night Country is a series devoid of histrionic didacticism frequently embedded in the core of white savior or white flagellant works. Our protagonists of any race couldn’t be further from this paradigm. Nevertheless, the dialectic between being an oppressed body and a body of agency within the women of Ennis yields some remarkable, intriguingly antihumanist conclusions. There is so much more to be said about this startlingly accomplished work. I cannot wait for us all to revisit it once the finalé airs.