“True Detective: Night Country” Finds the Heart of Darkness

The first crime scene in the new season of “True Detective” isn’t that of the seven gnarled, naked bodies we see piled on top of one another in the snow at the end of Episode 1, but of a more mundane violence. A woman tries to flee her physically abusive boyfriend, and he tracks her down at work. This time, he gets walloped, with a metal bucket, by his girlfriend’s co-worker, an older woman. The blow leaves his face a gory mess. The officer who arrives to escort the man off the premises, Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis), asks the girlfriend whether she’ll press charges against her ex; the trooper doesn’t offer him the same choice before putting him in cuffs. The local chief of police, Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster), isn’t exactly complimentary when she later says that Navarro’s “got this thing about women who get hurt.” The arrest feels righteous, but the stench of the man’s menace lingers. Tidy endings are hard to come by, especially once blood has been spilled.

There’s a refusal to separate or elevate sensational brutality from the everyday sort in this latest installment of the HBO anthology drama—a feminist revision of a series best known for its macho poetry and its ogling eye. The show’s creator, Nic Pizzolatto, had his mostly male investigators contend with child murderers and pedophile rings; the QAnon-esque luridness of those crimes haunted the grizzled detectives for decades thereafter. The writer-director Issa López, who has taken over from Pizzolatto as showrunner, moves the action from sunbaked states to the fictional town of Ennis, Alaska, where, as of mid-December, daylight won’t return for several weeks. The uninterrupted Arctic dark lends the season its subtitle, “Night Country,” as well as its wintry, edge-of-civilization atmospherics. Watching the six-part season from under a blanket in California, I couldn’t get warm.

The dead men who form the chilly, Boschian tableau at the pilot’s conclusion are (or were) scientists at a research station on the outskirts of Ennis. With unknown funders and an improbable mission, the facility was shrouded in mystery even before its occupants turned up on the ice with their faces literally frozen in horror. But Navarro is hopeful that their bizarre fate will offer some clues in a homicide case that she and Danvers worked on years earlier—the unsolved murder of a Native woman named Annie Kowtok (Nivi Pedersen), who agitated against the mine that the town relies on for most of its jobs—when Annie’s severed tongue materializes, without explanation, in the scientists’ mess hall.

Here, the “True Detective” formula kicks in: Danvers and Navarro reunite as partners despite their mutual suspicion, and their rocky history eventually threatens their credibility on the new case. Conspiracies, hostile forces, and occult flourishes abound. The universe of the show is one in which the police—even the brilliant ones—are always failing. Danvers has long since reconciled herself to that reality: of the earlier cold case, she says, “This one was never gonna be solved. Ennis killed Annie.” She’s an outsider, unmoved by Navarro’s insistence that a white murder victim wouldn’t have been so readily forgotten. Nor is she particularly sensitive toward her stepdaughter, Leah (Isabella Star LaBlanc), whose newfound embrace of political activism—and of her Native heritage—she considers a needlessly risky attempt at teen-age rebellion. In Danvers’s view, there’s no ridding the world, or even her own squad, of shit-heels and malefactors; there’s only limiting the damage.

Whereas Pizzolatto’s iteration of the show had few female characters of substance, the new season delights in the complexities of its women protagonists. The chief’s no-nonsense veneer allows her to insult her subordinates, including her shiftless deputy Hank (John Hawkes), without it feeling all that personal. But she’s got a maternal side—one that she indulges with Hank’s son, Peter (Finn Bennett), a junior officer—as well as a penchant for affairs with married men that’s made her persona non grata among many women in town.

Foster has spent much of the past decade and a half behind the camera, as a director, but she’s lost none of the cerebral confidence that has underpinned her distinctive sex appeal. It’s no shock that she’s compulsively watchable. It is a pleasant surprise that her nearly unknown co-star is just as compelling, with a refreshingly naturalistic screen presence. Reis, a professional boxer turned actor with cheek piercings where her dimples might be, looks so solid from the neck down that her body is like one long, taut muscle, but her character has a habit of picking fights she’s unlikely to win. Navarro’s volatility masks deep-seated vulnerabilities. Her unstable mother died before sharing Navarro’s Inupiaq name with her, leaving her painfully disconnected from her culture. She lives in fear that her sister, Julia (Aka Niviâna), who’s already been institutionalized once, may slip through the cracks if she continues to resist treatment—and that Julia isn’t the only member of the family who inherited their mother’s hallucinations. Not everyone finds the apparitions the siblings struggle to shake off so unnatural. “Ennis is where the fabric of all things is coming apart at the seams,” Navarro’s friend Rose (Fiona Shaw) says; she routinely sees her deceased lover roaming the tundra. “This is Ennis, man,” another character says simply. “You see people who are gone sometimes. It’s a long fucking night. Even the dead get bored.”

In the prestige-TV era, the police procedural has grasped for cachet through social critique (“The Wire”) or cool vibes (“Fargo”). Some achieve both—“Top of the Lake” is an easy example—but, in less adept hands, the former can feel like homework and the latter a shallow exercise in style. (In the most recent season of “Fargo,” self-serious kitsch and punishing sincerity layered irritation on irritation.) Pizzolatto’s “True Detective,” which last aired five years ago, ran largely on vibes, too, and when sleaze and nihilism couldn’t sustain its overcomplicated plotting, the mysteries sagged.

López has accomplished the uncommon feat of resuscitating a franchise that didn’t deserve saving. She first broke out with “Tigers Are Not Afraid,” a 2017 film that blended human horrors and magical realism, and her season of “True Detective” pulls off the same balancing act. Although Danvers, like the show’s original protagonist (played by Matthew McConaughey), obsesses over “asking the right questions,” López isn’t always interested in furnishing answers, and the series mostly benefits from her willingness to dwell in ambiguity. Are Julia’s visions a by-product of schizophrenia, as her doctors suggest, or rooted in spiritual truth? The matter is never fully litigated. López’s dialogue is more pedestrian than her predecessor’s, but she has an instinct for imagery that’s both genuinely frightening and strangely inviting, amplifying the scripts’ thematic heft. “Night Country” plays with the gendered expectations behind certain TV-cop tropes: it’s Danvers, not Hank, who models self-destructive workaholism for Peter, downing vodka alone and poring over case files before pulling him away from his family on Christmas Eve. The season is similarly probing about the moral authority that can be reflexively assigned to women over men in our fantasies of female vengeance for male aggression. Through it all, meditations on the unknowability of the cosmos are offset by close observations of relationships—however contingent or dysfunctional they may be. By grounding her supernatural whodunnit in more intimate, interpersonal dramas, López transforms “True Detective” from a lot of mystical mumbling into a show with something to say. ♦

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