True Detective, the anthology mystery series that captivated HBO viewers back in 2014, returns this weekend for its first new season in five years. The new installment, True Detective: Night Country, has a fresh visionary in filmmaker Issa López. Her goal with this story, she told Vanity Fair last year, was to create a mirror image to the first season, which starred Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey and was set in bright, balmy Louisiana. “Night Country is cold, and it’s dark, and it’s female.” López’s take on the police drama is spooky and poignant, but as promised, it’s mighty bleak, to the extent that some may have a hard time sticking with it.
Like the first season, Night Country centers on a pair of police officers investigating a mystery with ties to an unsolved case from their past. Jodie Foster stars as Police Chief Liz Danvers, whose crusty demeanor got her exiled to the small Arctic town of Ennis, Alaska, where winter is accompanied by weeks of uninterrupted night. When an entire team of scientists suddenly vanishes from a research facility within her jurisdiction, Danvers puts her tiny, under-equipped precinct to the task of solving their disappearance. Meanwhile, Danvers’ former partner State Trooper Evangeline Navarro (boxing champion Kali Reis) believes the incident connects to the murder of local activist Annie K. (Nivi Pedersen) seven years prior. The investigation reopens old wounds, and tension ratchets up between a powerful mining company and the community being poisoned by its pollution. Each resident of Ennis is haunted by something, and some of that haunting may be literal.
Night Country is a ghost story as much as it is a detective story. Writer-director Issa López is best known for her dreamlike supernatural horror film Tigers Are Not Afraid (one of the most depressing films I’ve ever seen), and she opens her horror tool chest early and often in the run of Night Country. The first two episodes reminded me of Hannibal, whose body horror was often derived from looking at creatively mangled corpses rather than the acts of violence themselves. There isn’t much blood spilled on screen, but Ennis has a violent past that no one seems capable of escaping. Apparitions and omens of lost family appear in crowds and in blinding snow drifts. To most longtime residents — particularly the Iñuipat, who have been on this land for ages — paranormal happenings like this are just a part of life during the dark winter.
“It’s Ennis,” says one townsperson, “you see people who are gone sometimes. It’s a long fucking night — even the dead get bored.”
As the series progresses, more of López and company’s attention is directed towards the small town and family drama around Ennis than on the police investigation. There’s some common DNA with Twin Peaks here, in that solving the murder of Annie K. is ultimately less important than following its reverberations across the community. Though no one can prove it, Annie’s death is attributed to the mining company, who allegedly made an example of the Iñupiat community figure and environmental activist. The incident rests at the intersection of race, gender, and environmental justice, all of which are in just as short a supply seven years later. The ice is thinning, the town’s tap
While Night Country offers plenty of intrigue on the macro level, the individual characters and relationships are more grim than they are engaging. Everyone has texture, but no one has chemistry. Foster’s Chief Danvers is a user and a cad, scarred from an unthinkable personal loss and insensitive to the pain of others. Her most interesting dynamic is with rookie cop Peter Prior (Finn Bennett), a well-meaning wounded puppy who prefers Danvers’ mentorship to that of his sadsack cop father (John Hawkes), much to Danvers’ delight. Reis’ Evangeline Navarro is just as hard to warm up to, a battle-hardened war veteran whose political idealism is in direct conflict with her career as a footsoldier for the Man. She shows tenderness to her sister Julie (Aki Niviâna), who suffers from escalating mental illness, but treats her lovesick fuck buddy Qavvik (Joel Montgrand) like a disposable toy. (This is framed as funny or charming but is neither.) Danvers and Navarro harbor years of animosity over how their professional partnership ended, and their incompatible religious beliefs.
Night Country is six hours of characters who do not enjoy each other’s company. Most subplots involve pairs of people who can’t stand each other, and the remainder are between people who love each other but are at cross purposes, unable to ease each others’ pain. The lack of levity or warmth lasts nearly the entire night, and it can be hard to watch. Mercifully, Night Country is being released over the course of six weeks, encouraging the audience to parse out the drama rather than absorb it in one or two sittings. Whether the mystery is worth the misery is a question each viewer will have to answer for themselves.
The first episode of ‘True Detective: Night Country’ premieres on Max on January 14th.