TRUE DETECTIVE: NIGHT COUNTRY Review – Issa López’s Season Is a Worthy Addition to the Saga

The new season of True Detective, titled Night Country, stars Jodie Foster and Kali Reis. Written and directed by Issa López, it is a great addition to the anthology series.
True Detective Season 4

Regardless of the quality of the season, one of the few consistent things about all entries under the True Detective banner has been the top-tier level of the cast. From Matthew McConaughey or Woody Harrelson to Mahershala Ali or Rachel McAdams, the series has been able to lure in some pretty big names. But with Issa López’s True Detective: Night Country, the bar has been raised by the addition of Jodie Foster.

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López comes in for the fourth season of the anthology crime series, taking over from writer-creator Nic Pizzolatto, and it doesn’t take long before we realize we’re in pretty good hands. Night Country takes us to Ennis, Alaska, during the final two weeks of the year. As set up by the cold open of the first episode, this part of the world is about to immerse itself in a long night, with Dec. 17 being the last sunset of the year. It’s going to be hard for a horror movie to ever capture the feeling of uneasiness and distress caused by the lack of natural light better than True Detective: Night Country did.

It’s not just about the horrors that await at the end of the next corner, but it’s about what the feeling of the eternal night does to the people of Ennis. They are very aware that it messes with their brains: “It’s a long night. Even the dead get bored,” they say. And they mean that literally, as some of them genuinely see the ghosts from people in their past — and those visions play an integral part of the narrative.

True Detective HBO Kali Reis Jodie Foster
(L-R) Kali Reis and Jodie Foster in HBO’s True Detective.

What to Expect in True Detective: Night Country

A few hours into the long night, after the sun sets down one last time, the scientists at the Tsalal Station, a research center close to the town dedicated to investigating the impacts of climate change and possibly a lot more (we’re told early on their work could have extraordinary new medical implications), disappear. Chief of Ennis Police Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) arrives at the scene with grumpy officer Hank Prior (an extraordinary John Hawkes, whose supporting performance was one of the highlights of the season) and his son, the department’s latest recruit, Peter Prior (Finn Bennett), just referred to everyone as Prior.

Did they go on a field trip and never come back? Or did something happen? The mayonnaise on the sandwich on the kitchen table tells them they’ve been gone for 48 hours; the human tongue underneath it hints something larger has happened. “They found what?” Trooper Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis) probably thought to herself before busting into Danvers’ office to have a word.

True Detective HBO Isabella Star LaBlanc
Isabella Star LaBlanc in HBO’s True Detective.

Throughout her post-military career, Navarro has been a bit of a troublemaker at the department, with two personal crusades that stick out in particular. The only relevant one for this discussion is the unsolved murder of Annie Kowtok a few years ago, to which she was the first respondent and which has haunted her ever since. Annie K’s tongue was cut out, and Danvers was able to identify that the tongue they found was someone of Native American descent, just like Annie.

In the three-act structure perfectly captured by the six-episode run of True Detective: Night Country, questions will abound and answers will be lacking for a while until all the pieces start to come into place. That’s pretty typical for a murder investigation, of course, but what’s new about this is the implications that some of them may have.

As hinted at earlier, Night Country does not shy away from metaphysical tie-ins, and in fact, embraces this side of the Native American culture that half the town of Ennis is a part of. There are some things none of them can’t explain, and as they go deeper into the ice, mysterious voices from the Great Beyond start coming back to them, namely to Navarro, and a cryptic symbol is found everywhere. The true meaning remains unknown, but the implication seems to be that a demonic female figure is haunting some of the places and some of the people related to this case.

Jodie Foster Night Country True Detective HBO
Jodie Foster in HBO’s True Detective: Night Country Episode 1.

The Town of Ennis, Alaska

It’s not until the third episode that the murder investigation starts to take a prominent role in the narrative. Issa López directed all six episodes and wrote the first two and the finale on her own; 3-5 she co-wrote with various additional scribes. During the first two, the script’s priority is to set up the complex dynamics of the town of Ennis, which has a lot of unresolved racial issues. The Native American population that was in the land first still makes up for a significant portion of Ennis, and the many cultural differences between them and the whites are present everywhere.

Take Danvers, for instance, who probably doesn’t see herself as a racist, yet she doesn’t shy away from mocking integral parts of their culture like their connection to the next world or the concept of the spirit animal. And yet, she’s raising a 16-year-old Native American, who frequently causes her more headaches than brutal murder investigations. She’s Leah (Isabella Star LaBlanc) and has a great part to play in the story.

On the flip side, Navarro can’t stand her comments, but it goes well beyond that — the two have a history together. Her arc is the most important throughout the show. Even though both she and Danvers have a lot of things to wrestle with from their respective pasts, Navarro’s demons appear earlier as the case of Annie K starts to thaw, and as that gets her closer to Danvers. She also has a sister with mental health issues to take care of. Reis’ performance is dialed down most of the time, as she tries her best to pull her punches even when she gets put in the worst possible situations. And she doesn’t always succeed.

True Detective HBO Night Country Finn Bennett Jodie Foster
(L-R) Jodie Foster and Finn Bennett in HBO’s True Detective: Night Country Episode 1.

Then there’s the young Prior, an aspiring officer who has seemingly won at the game of life: he’s separated himself from his troubling father (though the two still have to share office space), married the love of his life who fell in love with him because of his sweetness and charm, and also had a kid with her, and got the job he wanted as a police officer and is Danvers’ protégé (even if she won’t admit to it.)

But not all of that success is compatible, and Danvers’ attitude as a boss is as self-destructive as it is selfless. The concept of office hours is non-existent, and even though she’s aware that Prior is having trouble at home as Kayla (Anna Lambe), who is killing herself to raise their child and attend Nurse School, doesn’t like that they don’t have any intimacy anymore.

López’s writing around Prior is very smart, and though it might be predictable at times, that is also a reflection of how well she’s able to draw these characters. That is because she spent the first couple of episodes focusing on them as opposed to the murder case, and despite leaving Kayla, one of the series’ best characters, severely underdeveloped.

The most important thing to understand about True Detective: Night Country is the years-long (not-so-stable) relationship that the Indigenous people have with the white population of Ennis. It’s also the thing that López’s writing was at its sharpest with: There’s always a sense of history and the weight of the past is felt all throughout the six-episode run, even if sometimes the specifics are lacking. One of their big fights revolves around a local mine, which on the one hand is employing a quarter of the Ennis population, but on the other, the Native Americans argue it’s poisoning their water and throwing waste into their land.

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The success of every murder mystery ultimately hinges on how the storyteller can nail the ending; a satisfying conclusion can make us overlook some of the narrative’s missteps (which do not abound in True Detective: Night Country), but an unsatisfying resolution can tank it entirely. It’s not just that Issa López was able to tie all of the storylines with a fulfilling verdict, but she was also able to make us think, just like the detectives did at some point, that we’d never get there.

The final episode, however, did pose some philosophical arguments regarding the outcome of the mystery that probably could have been expanded a bit more. It’s hard to address this issue without going into spoilers, which we won’t be doing today. So stay tuned for my weekly recaps of every episode, featuring spoiler-filled conversations about what went down in each episode right after it airs on HBO, every Sunday at 9 pm ET.

RATING: 8.5/10

About True Detective: Night Country

True Detective

Release Date: Jan. 14
Director and showrunner: Issa López
Writers: Issa López, Alan Page Arriaga, Namsi Khan, Chris Mundy, Katrina Albright, and Wenonah Wilms
Produced By: Princess Daazhraii Johnson, Cathy Tagnak Rexford, Sam Breckman
Executive Produced By: Issa López, Mari Jo Winkler, Barry Jenkins, Adele Romanski, and Mark Ceryak for PASTEL, Chris Mundy; Alan Page Arriaga, Steve Golin, Richard Brown, Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson, Cary Joji Fukunaga, and Nic Pizzolatto
Production: Anonymous Content, HBO Entertainment
Distributed by: HBO
Cast: Jodie Foster, Kali Reis, Fiona Shaw, Finn Bennett, Isabella Star Lablanc, Aka Niviâna, Anna Lambe, and Joel D. Montgrand with Christopher Eccleston, and John Hawkes

Synopsis: When eight researchers at Tsalal Station suddenly disappear, Danvers (Jodie Foster) orders a search but tempers expectations of finding the men. After handling a workplace dispute and checking in on her sister Julia (Aka Niviâna), Navarro (Kali Reis) tries to convince a skeptical Danvers (Foster) that the men’s disappearance is connected to the murder of local activist Annie Kowtok, a case that has long gone cold. 

How excited are you for True Detective: Night Country? Will you be checking it out when it drops, or do you think you’ll wait for all six episodes to be available? What was your favorite season of True Detective up until now, and why? Let us know your thoughts on our social media channels on Discord and X.

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