Previous seasons of “True Detective” have played with supernatural elements, a flirtation with the idea that there is evil in the world that defies mortal categorization, but none have leaned into an atmosphere of nearly biblical dread like the excellent 6-episode “True Detective: Night Country.” A mesmerizing study of murder, misogyny, racism, cycles of abuse, and possibly something out of H.P. Lovecraft, “Night Country” will rattle you. It doesn’t just sustain a tone of imminent violence, it feels like the world could crack open and simply ingest these characters in this land of endless night, where the sun doesn’t rise for months and the darkness hides things that thrive in it. With a pair of simply stunning central performances, sharp writing, and consistently accomplished direction, it’s an achievement.
Director Issa Lopez (“Tigers Are Not Afraid”) has crafted a vision in “Night Country” that alternates between stark, violent realism and unforgettable surreal visions. She has said that she wanted a mirror image of the traditional “True Detective” season, telling Vanity Fair, “Where True Detective is male and it’s sweaty, Night Country is cold and it’s dark and it’s female.” Mission accomplished. This is a show that puts a chill in your bone, filmed in Iceland and set on the edge of civilization in Ennis, Alaska, a place where the sun sets in December and doesn’t rise again for months. There are awful things in the darkness in Ennis, most of them manmade, but some that also seem much older than humankind. Rust Cohle famously said, “The light’s winning” at the end of the first season. It’s hard to see the light in “Night Country.”
Our unsteady guiding hand through this darkness is Liz Danvers, played with icy perfection by Jodie Foster. Reminding us that she is quite simply one of the best to ever do it, Foster understands that Danvers will recall one of fiction’s most notable crime solvers in Clarice Starling in early episodes—it’s impossible not to be reminded of her Oscar-winning performance when she’s shining a flashlight around a potentially threatening location—but Liz becomes her own character. Foster captures the kind of person who is determined to find justice but cynical enough to know how rarely that happens and how little satisfaction it can bring when it does. Liz has burned most of the bridges she’s ever crossed, unliked by most people in town, including her stepdaughter (Isabella Star LaBlanc), who gets involved in fights over land rights and Indigenous representation in ways that put her safety in jeopardy. The only person who seems to admire her is a new cop named Peter (Finn Bennett); he’s got drama at home from a bitter father (John Hawkes).
The horror of “Night Country” opens at a research facility in the Alaskan tundra that becomes the scene of an unfathomable nightmare. The scientists go missing, and there are signs that something awful happened at the base—like a human tongue on the floor—before most of them are found naked and frozen into the shape of something out of a surreal painting. What on Earth happened here? Was it human or something supernatural? It brings in Liz and a local cop named Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis of “Catch the Fair One,” proving she is going to be an actress to be reckoned with for years to come), who share a dark past that leads to both tension and unity. They were involved in the kind of awful night that makes them never want to see one another again, but it also binds them.
“What were you, Rose, before?” Evangeline asks Fiona Shaw’s displaced character this question in the fourth episode. It’s specifically about the past that Rose fled for Alaska, but it’s also rooted in the fabric of this show, one in which everyone is either fleeing or trying to forget what they were before. It’s a show that feels quite literally haunted by the ghosts of its location and the ones that its characters are trying to flee, coming closer to horror than any previous season. It also helps that Lopez and her team shoot their thriller with an incredible sense of light and shadow, using the Christmas lights of the season, headlights, bar lights, etc. in ways that play games with what we see and what we imagine.
In the end, without spoiling, of course most of the true horrors of this region and its people are borne of human frailty, greed, insecurity, and cruelty. If there’s anything that ties the seasons of “True Detective” together, it’s the sense that it’s getting increasingly difficult to fight against the darker side of humanity. Lopez and her writers inject just enough hope into the committed intensity of its leads to allow us to think that the light is still winning. But the fight is getting tougher.
Whole season screened for review. Starts on HBO on January 14th.