TRUE DETECTIVE: NIGHT COUNTRY Episode 1 Review – Issa López’s Season Kicks Off With Mood-Setting Episode

The first episode of True Detective: Night Country is now available to stream. Here are our spoiler-filled thoughts.
Jodie Foster Night Country True Detective HBO

Author’s Note: The following review contains minor spoilers for Episode 1 of True Detective: Night Country.

The first episode of True Detective: Night Country is focused on setting up the character dynamics writer-director Issa López will need for subsequent episodes. The new season, the first not coming from Nic Pizzolatto, is set in one of the most terrifying settings in the world: Not only is it freezing cold all hours of the day in the fictional town of Ennis, Alaska, but as the cold open lets us know, December 17 is the last sunset of the year. Waiting for them are several days of night terror.

That cold open is not even interested in setting up the plot right away and uses the full power of these sequences to immerse us into the look and feel of the show. We witness that last sunset from the eyes of a hunter looking through his gun as if trying to wait for the right moment to see which one to shoot and ultimately letting the moment pass. How much will that be a recurring theme throughout the season?

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We then cut away to introduce the victims of the new season, the researchers at the Tsalal Arctic Station, who are seemingly living a normal day, from recording a TikTok video showing how to build a sandwich to having Ferris Bueller’s Day Off playing on the TV; but where is the person that should be watching it? Quickly, we notice something’s off. After one of them seems to be having a seizure and looks back terrified, we cut to the delivery man who finds the research facility empty an unspecified number of hours later, but with a tongue on the floor. That’s when the looming presence of the eternal night starts to really sink in, and the nightmares begin.

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

True Detective: Night Country Episode 1 Creates a Mood-Setting Experience

It’s unclear how much of the first episode really counts as a spoiler since it’s mostly focused on introducing the main characters and setting up the connections of the new case to one that was left open years ago. Despite that, I’ll raise a minor alert for those who want to go in completely blind.

The truth is that it is even distracting how much the episode doesn’t even bring up the disappearances, at least until the very last scene. In fact, after the credits, the first person we meet is not even Jodie Foster’s chief Danvers; it’s actually Kali Reis’ trooper Evangeline Navarro, who is also the first police officer to receive news of the found tongue in our eyes — even if Danvers probably got the tip before her.

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.

As it turns out, it’s a Native woman’s tongue, as Danvers explains to the young Prior (Finn Bennett), son of a veteran officer, and someone who’s probably been ousted as a racist several times in his life, Hank Prior (John Hawkes). That tongue, which is likely the reason why Danvers doesn’t pass on the missing-persons case right away thinking the nerds went on a field trip, establishes a direct link between this new case and one that is very personal to Navarro.

The Native American Community of True Detective: Night Country

As we’re told through a couple of well-placed flashbacks, Navarro (who already saw plenty of horrors while serving in the military) has been haunted by the brutal death of local activist Annie Kowtok for years, which is probably one of the reasons why she’s been held back at work and in her own life — that, combined with her troubled sister, who can’t get over her demons.

One of the biggest strengths of the fourth season of True Detective is its lived-in feel that the town of Ennis offers right away. It’s not about rusty production design of having dust and snow on the floor. It’s all about relationships, and the weight of the history that the characters in the small town share, as well as the tension due to underlying white supremacy.

Danvers is the perfect example: someone who’s not only been living in this community for a long time, but who also holds a position of power there. She is raising the daughter of her former partner (who likely passed away in a car accident), who is of Native American descent. And yet, she can’t stop ridiculing the concept of the spirit animal from their culture. I don’t think she sees herself as a racist, but that is not nearly enough.

Isabella LaBlanc True Detective Night Country HBO
Isabella LaBlanc in HBO’s True Detective: Night Country Episode 1.

On the receiving end is Navarro, who crawls her way into the new case after Danvers eventually admits to herself that there might be a connection between the two — which Reis’ character has to find out on her own. And that’s one of the beauties of the new season, which is a deep character exploration that, so far, is prioritizing the character journeys over the plot developments.

Navarro has enough determination to be capable of achieving anything she wants to, yet has so much anger and frustration in her that she will never go anywhere until she’s able to control it. Her sister and her past experiences, from seeing a Kowtok’s mutilated body to seeing another soldier’s mutilated head on the battlefield, combine too much darkness even for Ennis’ long night.

Then there’s Prior, who probably grew up in an abusive household and is trying to build a family with Kayla (Anna Lambe) and their newborn. Yet work keeps interrupting their intimate moments, and Kayla is close to having enough. She is the even more interesting character here, of course, as she wants to teach her son her own culture and history, yet has to argue here and there with her husband over the balance between scaring him to death and being respectful of the culture. The first episode succeeds at setting up that relationship and leaving the door open for a lot more to come.

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

But at some point, we have to circle back to the plot, and that’s what Issa López was holding Fiona Shaw’s Rose Aguineau for. She was apparently guided by the ghost of her deceased partner Travis to the location of several bodies buried in ice, with a terrified expression on their face.

Notice that this is also the second reference we’ve seen to supernatural events: Travis and the myth that Kayla’s grandmother told the baby that later spooked him. It seems like the impact of the supernatural on the Native American culture is also going to be a huge influence on this new season.

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All in all, this was a solid beginning to the season, though López could have probably focused a little bit more on the actual mystery to keep us hooked. There’s not a lot of incentive to come back next week beyond the cliffhanger; rather than delivering an edge-of-your-seat experience, López is a lot more preoccupied with setting the mood and the character dynamics, which will likely pay off down the line.

Episode 1 of True Detective: Night Country has already aired on HBO and is currently available to stream on Max. Read on for my spoiler-filled thoughts.

About True Detective: Night Country

True Detective

Release Date: Jan. 14, 2024
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. 

What did you think of the first episode of True Detective: Night Country? What was your favorite part? Are you excited for next week’s episode? Let us know your thoughts on our social media channels on Discord and X, and stay tuned for next week’s episode review.

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