After a bit of an extended hiatus and some noticeable tonal shifts across its past couple of seasons, the True Detective mystery anthology series returns with Night Country, a chilly and chilling thriller that recaptures the serpentine, ambiguous supernatural leanings of its initial instalment. With another different writer/director/showrunner at the helm and a pair of well matched female leads, True Detective: Night Country reminds viewers about the strength of the show’s premise and its ability to get deep under the skin of the viewer. Rich in character, social value, and suspense, True Detective: Night Country is the best overall effort in the series, narrowly edging out the original season, which already feels like a lifetime ago by this point.
True Detective: Night Country takes place in the city of Ennis, Alaska, which proudly calls itself “the edge of the world” in their local motto. It’s known for brutally snowy and cold weather conditions, a mining based economy, a high cost of living, and a large, but marginalized indigenous population. And like most locales in the far north, it’s also a place that plunged into near total darkness for several wintry months. On December 17 – the date of the last sunset for the year – Police Chief Elizabeth Danvers (Jodie Foster) is called to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a number of male scientists from a research facility on the outskirts of town. The crime is baffling, and the clues left behind even more bizarre, one of which seems to connect back to a long dormant and unsolved murder of an indigenous woman. The case captures the attention of Alaska State Trooper Angie Navarro (Kali Reis), Danvers’ former on-the-job partner, who was pretty much forced out of the local police department and has never forgotten about the unsolved murder. As the cases become more and more linked, Danvers and Navarro enter into an uneasy partnership to close the book on this dark chapter in local history once and for all.
Series creator Nic Pizzolatto hands over the narrative reins to Mexican filmmaker Issa López (the exceptional Tigers Are Not Afraid), who proves to be a perfect fit for True Detective’s signature blend of long form procedural and horror elements. Playing out from mid-December and throughout the holidays (making True Detective: Night Country perfect fodder for those “It’s a Christmas show” types), the added layers of snow and darkness heighten a story already steeped in the sort of corporate corruption and cultural divides that further enshroud the land in shadows. It’s not so much a show that visually and narratively tries to find light amid the darkness, but rather focuses on rooting out the evils that rely on that dark to stay hidden and off the radar, both in the context of the case at hand, and within the characters themselves. Here, everyone moves and dwells in darkness, just and unjust alike.
Yes, everyone in True Detective: Night Country is a hardened cynic, just like the previous series, but López has crafted the most detailed and conflicted characters in Pizzolatto’s series thus far. López examines a wide variety of personal relationships within the context of the case, and not just between the two leads, but within the larger context of the community around them. Danvers, who’s haunted by personal loss, has a contentious relationship with Hank (John Hawkes), a good ol’ boy cop who still harbours a grudge with her because he was passed over for the job of chief. Hank doesn’t appreciate how Elizabeth constantly uses his son, a rookie cop named Pete (Finn Bennett, a real standout), as a gopher that gets all of her most thankless tasks. The mess that is Danvers’ life extends beyond her day to day job, however, as she also has to contend with the whims of her rebellious, socially conscious indigenous stepdaughter (Isabella LaBlanc), and a tumultuous love life that includes and on-again-off-again secret tryst with the police commissioner (Christopher Eccleston). It’s a hardened part that Foster plays with gruff, confident aplomb, bringing the perfect mix of professional skill and misplaced “know it all” bravado that makes the character so fascinating.
Pairing such a messy Type-A personality with an equal but different counterpart is what made the first season of True Detective (with Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson) must-see television, and the dynamic between Foster and Reis provides López with a similar dramatic bedrock to build upon. For her part as the easily irritated, dogged Navarro, Reis is given just as much interwoven backstory to work with. She’s seen as a traitor to her people because she’s a cop who often has to side with the mining consortiums that continue poisoning ancestral lands. Her refusal to let things go makes her a thorn in the side of everyone, and often leads to her being her own worst enemy. Her sister (Aka Niviâna) is struggling with addiction and mental illness, and Reis fears those same demons might be hanging over her like a familial curse. And she almost refuses to let her guard down or be seen as remotely vulnerable to the kind hearted guy (Joel Montgrand) she has been hooking up with. Just like Danvers, Reis verges on being a loner, only because every meaningful connection in her life has ended in hardship. The might not like each other very much, but Danvers and Reis make for a perfect odd couple pairing.
The case at hand in True Detective: Night Country takes the detectives to a lot of wide ranging thematic places, and even though there’s always the worry that López and company won’t be able to pull everything together, the story eventually wraps up in satisfying, pleasingly unexpected fashion (with still enough ambiguity to stay in line with the series’ established, etherial tone). López weaves the details of her characters’ lives seamlessly into the story, imbuing everything with a rich sense of historical injustice, themes of sexual inequality and double standards, racial tension, and cultural respect. While True Detective: Night Country plays to López’s strengths as a capable crafter of suspense that leans into the supernatural realm, it also showcases her ability to tell a subtly epic, generational spanning mystery unfolding in one of those small towns where everyone knows everybody else’s business.
Like the primary season of the show, True Detective: Night Country will weave its way into the viewer’s brain and refuse to let go; its grip growing stronger with each passing episode. It’s definitely a smartly drawn and intricate procedural, and a spine tingling chiller in some of its eerier moments, but López has also made a grand, engaging, and uniquely character driven drama of the highest order. While some elements of the show require a healthy suspension of disbelief, and while some attempts at environmental advocacy could stand to be better fleshed out, True Detective: Night Country remains a tightly constructed entry in a series that shouldn’t wait so long to come back next time.
True Detective: Night Country premieres on HBO and Crave in Canada at 9:00pm EST on Sunday, January 14, 2024. New episodes premiere on the same night and time until February 18.
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