‘True Detective: Night Country’ Is a Slick, Snowy Reimagining of the Dark-and-Gritty Crime Show

“True Detective” Season 4, subtitled “Night Country,” opens with a quote: “For we do not know what beasts the night dreams when its hours grow too long for even God to be awake.” Sans context, the statement seems a fitting framework for a murder-mystery set during an Alaskan town’s weeks-long stretch of perpetual darkness. But franchise acolytes may feel a sudden jolt when the accredited speaker’s name appears onscreen: Hildred Castaigne. Hmm… Hildred Castaigne… why does that ring a bell? Oh, perhaps because Hildred isn’t a real person; he’s a narrator, created by author Robert Chambers, to tell a story in his 1895 horror collection, “The King in Yellow” — the very book that some Reddit sleuths dubbed the “key” to understanding “True Detective” Season 1, or at least all its mutterings about satanic cults, Carcosa, and the Yellow King.

Leading off Season 4 with such a direct reference to the past is a bold choice. While widely acclaimed upon its debut and precedent-setting in its star-driven anthology format, “True Detective” carries a lot of baggage into its 2024 return. There’s the disastrous second season, behind-the-scenes feuds, plagiarism accusations (albeit highly subjective), and seemingly inevitable chaos tied to each entry. “Night Country” is the first “True Detective” season without original creator Nic Pizzolatto’s hands-on involvement (he retains an executive producer credit), and its new writer-director (Issa López), producing team (Barry Jenkins and his team at PASTEL), and stars (Jodie Foster and Kali Reis) are meant to distinguish Season 4 from what came before, if not reboot the franchise entirely.

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So what does it signify that the first thing we see in “Night Country” is a direct reference to what’s arguably the show’s most notable (and controversial) piece of lore? As it turns out, the confident opening is well-earned. “True Detective” Season 4 fully embraces its franchise trademarks: lead detectives with tortured histories; dueling cases separated by years yet connected by evidence; profound car rides, and a lingering supernatural element. There’s haunting new titles (scored to Billie Eilish), horny cops (Jodie Foster, go get it!), and bimbos who can’t resist the badge (a perfectly cast Christopher Eccleston). “True Detective: Night Country” is 100 percent a sequel, a rightful successor, an enthralling continuation, even when its allegiance is taken a little too far.

But in the hands of López, Foster, the PASTEL team, and co-writer/EP Chris Mundy (yes, the “Ozark” showrunner), Season 4 is also a sly subversion of the modern crime genre. After years of “dead girl shows” (as coined by Alice Bolin in 2014, partially in response to “True Detective’s” young, ornamented victim), “Night Country” pushes back on assumptions (some would call them cliches) about killers, casualties, and the cops who tie them together. There’s an anger in how it tells its story, as well as an empathy given to nearly everyone involved. Not only does the new season center on Liz Danvers (Foster) and Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis), but also a group of missing male scientists — and a deceased teen from the past, who’s more than just a memory haunting the present.

The first thing you’ll notice is the cold. A long cry from those sweaty Louisiana days with Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey, who also remains an executive producer), Ennis, Alaska is a relatively small town about to go dark. Near the end of each year, weeks will pass without a sunrise, forcing residents to celebrate with only the lights from strung decor. This season, on the “third day of night,” Captain Liz Danvers is called out to a remote local research base after a delivery driver reports it’s been abandoned. Not only have the dozen or so scientists disappeared, but they left the lights on, TV blasting, and food everywhere. Soon after finding a human tongue on the floor, Danvers notes another oddity: “We are all dead” has been scrawled on one of the white boards.

True Detective Season 4 Kali Reis and Jodie Foster in Night Country
Kali Reis and Jodie Foster in “True Detective: Night Country”Courtesy of HBO

If that’s not ominous enough for you, just wait. “True Detective” Season 4 leans on “The Thing” vibes pretty hard in the early hours, including a few allusions to superhuman dangers. When Danvers asks what the scientists were doing out there — “What were they looking for?” — she’s told, simply: “The origin of life.” On the other side of town, a mystical recluse named Rose Aguineau (Fiona Shaw) cleans a dead wolf she’s strung up outside her house, when she spots a man standing out on the ice. But is it a man, or is it a ghost? You may ask similar questions about the CGI animal visitors that roam through Ennis, whether it’s a massive polar bear or herds of elk, sprinting over a cliff. What’s real, and what’s an illusion? If the bread crumbs lead to unearthly explanations, should they be followed? At the same time, can these desperate detectives afford not to?

López, who broke through with 2017’s Fantastic Fest hit “Tigers Are Not Afraid,” could’ve leaned harder into her horror roots. There are a number of genuinely spooky moments — the second episode’s pre-titles scene will be hard to shake — but “Night Country’s” few frustrations occur when intriguing set-ups aspects feel cut short. The research station is such a magnificent setting for sustained terror, and yet the scenes there never kick into high gear. A peripheral battle between the town’s major mining operation and its indigenous community (Iñupiat Alaskans) fades in and out of focus, without enough specificity to leave a mark. The core mystery is rich and ultimately satisfying, but still slightly short-changed by the inconsistent disbursement of puzzle pieces. As Danvers and Navarro overcome old grudges to crack the case, epiphanies come too little at first, then too many, too fast.

But where “True Detective” has consistently thrived is with its characters, and “Night Country” introduces two top-ranking detectives. Foster gives Danvers an exuberance rarely seen in aging, stuck-in-their-ways TV cops — especially ones widely despised by the local townsfolk, who are either mad she stopped fucking them (the husbands) or mad she did in the first place (the wives). Yes, Danvers is the Wilt Chamberlain of Alaskan cops — a running joke that’s never not funny, in part because when haters call her a slut, she’s always framed like a badass — but her BDE (Big Danvers Energy) is unconquerable, in and out of the bedroom. She gets mad pretty often, sure (usually at her mildly rebellious step-daughter or inept fellow officers), but a pissed-off Foster is still magnetic, and “True Detective” allows the Oscar winner ample room to flex her charisma, just like it did for McConaughey, Mahershala Ali, and, to a lesser extent, Rachel McAdams. (Ani Bezzerides revival, when?)

Danvers’ technical subordinate but de facto partner, meanwhile, is Evangeline Navarro (played by Reis, a former professional boxer). Once tight-knit colleagues, they had a falling out years earlier over a domestic violence case that still plagues the younger detective, along with family issues and overt discrimination — some of which comes directly from Danvers. (Foster has referred to her character as an “Alaskan Karen.”) Life hasn’t dealt Navarro an easy hand, but she’s been toughened by it and remains resolute in her quest for justice. Her steely action scenes are balanced nicely by a sweet relationship with a local bartender, and Reis proves just as commanding as Foster, albeit in distinct, appreciable ways.

To say “True Detective” Season 4 is a return to form for the franchise wouldn’t be accurate — Season 3 already did that — but it would also be missing the point. “Night Country” has no problem embodying the form, function, and tone of past seasons. Longtime fans can’t complain about a lack of devotion to what makes “True Detective” “True Detective.” But Season 4’s real accomplishment is in growing beyond its origins to craft a slyly subversive crime show that’s fraught, finespun, and refreshing. It helps prove that dark-and-gritty murder-mysteries don’t have to be drenched in masculinity, let alone misogyny (intentional or otherwise), to scratch the same itch for amateur sleuths at home. We may not know what beasts the night dreams, but we do know they don’t have to be haunted by the same demons we’ve seen before.

Grade: B+

“True Detective: Night Country” premieres Sunday, January 14 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO. New episodes of the six-episode season will be released weekly.


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