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True Detective: Night Country

“Don't confuse the spirit world with mental health issues.”

There was a time when True Detective was on fire, but unfortunately its fourth season left me cold. And not on account of the wintery weather, at home or onscreen.

Setting is typically as essential to True Detective as the story and characters. Season one had the grimy, murky wetlands of Louisiana, season two the tangled web of industry in seedy Southern California, and season three the trashy hills and barren woods of Arkansas. With Night Country, we are taken to the remote tundra of Ennis, Alaska. Shortly after the town settles in for several months of perpetual night, disturbing events begin mounting up:

A group of scientists at the nearby Tsalal Research Station go missing before all but one of them are found dead in the ice miles away, completely naked and frozen in terror. Adding to the weirdness, the severed tongue of a years-old murder victim is found in the abandoned station. Leading the investigation, we have Chief Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) and Trooper Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis), who are baffled by the new case, haunted by the old one and determined to connect the dots. Along the way, they also confront secret conspiracies, a one-eyed polar bear, and a bunch of ghosts that might be real or imagined.

Like previous seasons, Night Country makes an effort to immerse the viewer in the world of its detectives, exploring the angles and hidden depths of the characters and setting. Ennis is a town that has been home to Native Americans for generations, but the local Iñupiaq population is being disenfranchised by a mining company that supports the town while poisoning the land. As such, we have a lot of cynical characters who are cut off from the rest of the world and stuck in a hopeless place where there's no sun, with a significant number who hold a sincere or half-hearted belief in the supernatural.

Now, I initially didn’t flinch at this because True Detective has always danced with the idea of the supernatural a little bit. It’s part of the show’s mystique, and new showrunner Issa Lopez is aware of that. We have Rustin Cohle’s cryptic visions from season one, naturally, but there’s also Velcoro’s bizarre premonition in season two or the disturbing way Hays’s dementia is portrayed in season three.

Night Country tries to exist in that kind of ambiguous zone, where it isn’t clear if spirits exist and are guiding characters or if that’s just something in their heads that they cling to in the face of personal demons. Danvers and Navarro represent this duality, with the former being cynically dismissive while the latter desperately embraces such beliefs.
I think it tries to be a little too clever with what is clarified and what is left vague. Because, a lot of the time, it doesn't seem so vague. In the first episode, the two detectives are already plagued by visions and the dead science team is only ever found because the local philosophical hermit (Fiona Shaw) is led to them by the spirit of her dead lover. And eventually it’s revealed that even characters who laugh and rage against the idea of anything far out like ghosts or life after death secretly want to believe in it as well.

A lot of criticism is being directed at this season, but I think its main problem stems from a general lack of clarity. It spends far too much time beating around the bush about everything — the murders, the spirits, Navarro’s visions, Danvers’s tragic backstory, the mysterious case (separate from the main one) the detectives were on years ago — that by the time it gets to a climax for any of these elements, the resolutions either don’t land or aren’t fleshed out well enough. Even the cultural strife in the community could have been better illustrated, considering how integral it is to the plot.

Adding insult to injury, the writing lacks subtlety. Which might’ve been forgivable if True Detective were an especially subtle show to begin with, but that just isn’t the case. Whether it’s Rustin Cohle's idiosyncratic philosophy in season one, the amusing collision course of edgy worldviews in season two, or Wayne Hays’s battles with masculinity and modernity in season three, this show has always been overt with its ideas. So saying Night Country is unsubtle compared to the rest is especially damning.

I don't want to sound too harsh, because there were many elements of this season I liked. For one thing, it's very well-made. There's a lot of beautiful, mystifying imagery and the dark Alaskan atmosphere is palpable. It probably has the freakiest and most intriguing mystery in the form of the "corpsickle." And I liked the dynamic between the two main detectives, Danvers and Navarro, as well as the third investigator Deputy Peter Prior.

Danvers and Navarro are both rather surly characters, mavericks like any good TD protagonist, but I like their differing motives to solve the case. For Danvers, it's partly a pride thing but more-so part of her habit of using and bending the rules to seek justice. With Navarro, it's personal outrage over the murder victim, a Native woman who actively opposed the local mining operation, as well as the fact that she's... haunted by spirits of the dead; blurring the line between Navarro's spirituality and her family's history of mental illness was inspired but could have been executed better. And Prior was good as the younger, more down to earth character who balanced out the other two's eccentricities; additionally, he's a surrogate son to Danvers and a reflection of the cop Navarro once was.

But while the characters are interesting in their own right and the actors all do well, you're never allowed to know any of them well enough to warrant very strong feelings. In contrast to the rest of the anthology, I found the investigation angle way more interesting than anything going on with the characters and themes; this is one of the things that make Night Country feel more generic, even with its flair for the dramatic. The characters and themes were what really held our attention in previous seasons, meaning they didn’t have to rely too much on the mystery to carry things.

Overall, this season suffers from trying to be too many things at once. It's a detective story, a commentary on the repeated injustices against the Native American people, a psychological thriller that flirts with being a supernatural thriller, a commentary on mental health issues, a love letter to the first season of the show and a deliberate inversion of what people remember the show to be i.e. the first season. On top of this, I've read that Night Country was originally Issa Lopez's own project that got retrofitted to the True Detective universe when she brought it to HBO. Meaning it also had the onus of being an original story that had to be tweaked to fit a different mold.

I don't know if this accounts for the poorly executed thematic or stylistic elements, the plot holes in the latter half of the season, or the general feeling of unevenness I got throughout, but something's missing here for me.

Forms and voids:

* Like every season of True Detective, Night Country reminds me of certain movies. Right off the bat, the most obvious one is The Thing, given the focus on the all-male Arctic science team and the horrific manner in which they died; that the prime suspect is named Clark should give anyone who's seen that movie a hint as to where things are going. Apart from that, I also saw shades of Wind River, The Pledge, Insomnia and, of course, The Silence of the Lambs. I'm also tickled that both lead actors from Contact have starred in True Detective.

* Gorgeous cinematography throughout, particularly whenever characters are driving on those lonesome icy roads in pure darkness. It gives the viewer a sense that the characters are living in an infinite void.

* Pretty good CGI effects for the animals and environmental details.

* I like the fast-paced intro with the Billie Eilish song, “Bury a Friend.” The score is pretty good overall as well, especially the track called “Investigating Tsalal.”

* Though not as experienced of an actor as Jodie Foster and other past True Detective stars, I thought Kali Reis had the most realistic cop demeanor I’ve seen on the show so far. I just wish the rest of her character was as easy to believe.

* Though this season was predominately female in its production and aesthetic, it was the male characters/actors I found the most engaging: John Hawkes and Christopher Eccleston make the most of their relatively small roles. Finn Bennett as Prior, despite being portrayed as a cute sidekick to the two leads, often feels like the real true detective of this story. And the most likable and least complex character is Navarro’s sort-of-boyfriend Qavvik (Joel D. Montgrand).

* Too much “as you know” dialogue from start to finish. Characters spend a lot of time expositing and reiterating information for the viewer's benefit.

* The subplot with Danvers’s stepdaughter is hackneyed, annoying and ultimately goes nowhere despite being so overwrought.

* Some people really don't like the twist in the season finale. Personally, I didn't mind it as I thought it was well set-up, I didn't see it coming and it was the only part of the finale I found particularly exciting.

The consensus around True Detective seems to be that the first season was a masterpiece and everything after that was garbage. I think seasons 1-3 are all quality shows that are flawed to varying degrees. This one is the least impressive so far. The main issue, above any individual flaw, is the distinctly different tone and voice. That tone and voice isn’t necessarily bad, but it is not the one established in the rest of the anthology. The transition feels too jarring, and all the efforts to resemble previous seasons in style do not help. Two and a half out of five severed tongues.


  1. So, I loved this, but I also feel like I loved it because it did so many things I'm inclined to love, like a stronger focus on the supernatural (within an essentially realist context), female solidarity, and--of course--a strong sense of place, which is a feature of the first season of TD. (I disliked the second season and never managed to watch the third, so I can't speak to how it creates a sense of place.)

    I'm going to talk about the season finale in the rest of my comment, so I'll give some spoiler space. Before I get there, I should add that I didn't bother to follow any online theorizing about this show, so it's possible I'm dead wrong, or repeating something that Reddit has already flogged to death.


    The way I see it is that there's a prehistoric entity under the ice: it's like a fertility goddess, in that it gives, but it also takes away. So maybe it's more of a "balance of the universe" goddess.

    The entity provides the cool "heal the world" stuff the scientists discovered, but also wants to protect the land from pollution. The entity wants people to know they're not alone, so it generates things like oranges and stuffed polar bears, but that just makes people feel haunted by their dead mothers and children. The ways of a fertility deity are strange...

    The entity manifests, now and then, in a variety of forms. One form is the collective women who force the scientists onto the ice. They reminded me of the women of Thrace, who kill Orpheus for assaulting with their sons. (There are plenty of other examples of angry hordes of women destroying people across various mythological systems.)

    Another form is an individual women, at different times. Annie K, then Navarro. By the end, Navarro is doing precisely what the entity was doing before: returning/relocating objects (the toothbrush, the stuffed bear). It just makes more sense now to the people now, since people associate those objects with her, so they can create a realistic narrative of where they come from. It's harder to do that when an orange rolls out from under your bed for no obvious reason.

    That whole hinted-at backstory really worked for me, because there is no point when the townspeople go, "Oh, now I understand this mysterious thing! That explains a lot!" Instead, the town keeps being weird in the way it has always been weird. Do people really want actual answers to things in real life? Don't we just want to get on with our day?

    I'm hesitant to refer to this season as magical realism, since that's such an easy label to apply to any Latin American storyteller, and Issa Lopez is from Mexico. But the basic concept of magical realism--that it's not fantasy, it's just a version of reality that isn't entirely mundane--seems to fit with the world of this season of the show. The world in which a delivery guy can casually mention that, y'know, you just see dead people sometimes.

    I really, really loved Fiona Shaw's character, mostly because I absolutely love the "wacky old woman full of wisdom" character type, and aspire to be like that some day.

    I'm sure that there were a bunch of plot holes throughout the season. I can think of a handful of things I found very unsatisfying from a mystery perspective.

    But I loved the overall vibe so much that I'm more than happy to give them a pass.

    1. Totally understand appreciating something for its vibe, especially if you've got expansive thoughts about it like that; that about sums up my time reviewing Westworld. I've heard some people theorize about eldritch Carcosa entities, but your ice-dwelling fertility goddess sounds more interesting. That, at least, might explain the tongue thing. Not sure if it's an explanation I like or not, but still.

      I also enjoyed Fiona Shaw in Night Country, though seeing her in an HBO show again gave me my monthly itch to re-watch True Blood; before, it was Skarsgaard in Succession.

      Btw, I hope your interpretation is correct. "The ways of a fertility deity are strange" would be a beautifully concise way of summing up this season.

  2. I have to say, I've heard nothing particularly positive about the latest True Detective series other than, as mentioned, the fine acting and cinematography. This is sad, as I was really looking forward to watching it, especially since I thought the first series was utterly brilliant, Two was okay, Three was very good, and Four has Jodie Foster, whom I would watch reading the phone book if we still had phone books.

    It doesn't bode well that they apparently are giving Issa Lopez a green light to work on the next series. Oh, well.

    I may still catch it sometime, but only if dealing with HBO/Max/Whatever doesn't involve too much additional effort; probably wait until there are several things I want to catch there before paying for a brief subscription.

  3. I haven't seen this series, but I think it's really interesting and somewhat sad that they decided to modify another property into a season of the series. I'm probably more likely to give this one a try just for Jodie Foster.

    Thanks for your review, Logan. You always do a great job.

  4. Thanks for putting certain doubts into words I couldn't manage. And I know this is sacrilegious to say but I didn't think Jodie Foster was all that great in this role. I was astounded that Alan Sepinwall loved the season (along with the writer at AVclub). I've never disagreed with him before, but he kept seeing a brilliance that failed to reach me.
    Also I didn't like the intro sequence :( Breaking a 3-season streak of openings that I fell madly in love with... I remember one of the comments suggested "I Follow Rivers" (cover by Marika Hackman), used elsewhere in the show, and that felt like a clear improvement.
    All of which to say this was still a better season than season 2's... it's just not a very high bar and at least my trusted critics weren't pretending to love that one.


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