Flickering lights, unexplained voices, shoeless spirits — True Detective's fourth season repeatedly flirts with horror.
This column was originally published as part of our newsletter The Daily Show on January 18, 2023. Subscribe here. (We're awesome about not spamming your inbox!)
ALMOST 10 years on since its inception, True Detective has never quite managed to capture the collective imagination as it did with show creator Nic Pizzolatto's first lightning-in-the-bottle season, a dark and twisted tale set in the Deep South, starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in career-best performances.
While this first outing helped usher in the so-called new golden age of television, season two was mediocre at best. Mahershala Ali pulled his weight for the third, but by now the show had done away with most of the weirdness and supernatural elements that had given much of the flavour and a distinct identity to the original.
With its fourth season however, True Detective: Night Country — the first one to carry a subtitle, but more importantly, also the first one without Pizzolatto as showrunner or writer (although he still serves as an executive producer) — the anthology crime drama seems to be going back to its roots.
Set in the fictional town of Ennis, Alaska, right at the onset of a “long night”, the show follows Detectives Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) and Evangeline Navarro's (Kali Reis) investigation into the disappearance of eight men from a research station, and the event's possible connection to an unsolved murder of an indigenous anti-mine activist, Annie. The men, researching (among other things) the impact of climate change and “origins of life”, seem to have vanished into thin air. As for clues: a severed tongue is left behind and the words “we are all dead” scribbled on a whiteboard. But apart from all the mysterious circumstances surrounding the case alone, a strangeness hangs heavy in the air.
From the opening scene itself, series creator Issa López leans into an all encompassing eeriness that is only exaggerated by the barren, cold landscape and the perpetual, pressing darkness. Flickering lights, unexplained voices, shoeless spirits — the show repeatedly flirts with horror, and much like the first season, seems to embrace the ambiguous space where rational explanation, local legends and the otherworldly play off each other.
Nevertheless, the show feels grounded, thanks to a reliably strong performance by Foster as a sharp, no-nonsense police chief, constantly annoyed at and by others; and López's restraint and skill in weaving together various elements and themes, including those of racial tensions and sexism plaguing the remote artic town.
For all that True Detective: Night Country does reasonably well, there is very little that one hasn't seen before — be it the small-town-where-everyone-knows-everyone setting, to the two protagonists with an uneasy relationship coming together to solve a case, the textbook supporting cast of characters (none especially memorable), the socio-political undertones, and even the show's isolated setting.
All that puts the weight of how well the show eventually turns out squarely on the writing. While the new season spends little time on the central case in its opening episode, the premise is promising enough, with plenty of room to flip the conventional tropes on their head. Regardless, for the fans of the genre, Night Country should prove quite a polished offering even if it plays on familiar beats, and something to look forward to for the coming five cold weeks.