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Cosmic Horror

True Detective: Night Country and the Demise of Crime-Riddle TV

A decade ago, the series turned viewers into sleuths, hotly debating plot details and clues. That era of TV is over.

Michele K. Short/HBO
Jodie Foster and Kali Reis in True Detective: Night Country

Time, you may have heard, is a flat circle. It’s hard, now, to go back to the moment of the first True Detective in 2014 and remember the hold it had on us. We recall, of course, the way it opened the floodgates for the prestige limited series. It was a proof-of-concept that one-season commitments and easy Emmy odds could lure A-listers like Woody Harrelson and Matthew ­McConaughey. Those two actors walked through the vines into Carcosa, then Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep and everyone else walked in after them, and a thousand big little lies and white lotuses and little fires bloomed everywhere.

The memory that’s harder to conjure is the precise texture of viewers’ absorption in the world of the show, week to week. The show’s production values and star power certainly put everything in an appealing package, but True Detective’s real allure, as it aired, was the gripping strangeness of its mystery, the seeming cosmic horror of its whodunit. The Yellow King, the Green-Eared Spaghetti Monster, the Big Hug Mug—show creator Nic Pizzolatto, for all his eventual missteps, was able to produce a series that electrified viewers’ conspiratorial imaginations and paranoid inclinations. True Detective, in this sense, was less an heir to HBO hits like The Sopranos or The Wire than it was to Lost. A generation of serial TV viewers had been trained to turn their acts of spectatorship into acts of detection themselves, hunting for Easter eggs and subtextual clues. This was the time when Mad Men’s fandom became obsessed with the idea that Megan Draper was going to be murdered by the Manson family, when Vince Gilligan was nesting coded spoilers in every episode of Breaking Bad. Even the artsiest epics were dropping chum for Reddit gumshoes.

True Detective was a show built for that style of viewership, self-consciously so. In the first episode, Harrelson’s by-the-book cop Marty Hart warns ­McConaughey’s mystic savant, Rust Cohle: “You attach an assumption to a piece of evidence, you start to bend the narrative to support it, prejudice yourself.” He was warning us, too. All of that season’s lore and mythology and cryptic foreboding would ultimately come to nothing. What seemed extraordinary ended up being pretty ordinary after all. There were no supernatural forces at play, no complex coherent systems of occult power; it was just a bunch of pedophiles from central casting cloaking their crimes in evangelical prophecy, Satanic ritual, and even the secular grandeur of the state. And, beyond that, a show that seemed to have been building up to a sweeping critique of misogyny—in the Senate, the church, the police, in marriage—ended up being more of a shrug. Rust and Marty get to experience transcendence, and all those women who aren’t betrayed by them or objectified by them stay dead or keep dying.

Ten years later, along comes HBO’s excellent new True Detective: Night Country, a show that’s as much a tribute to that original series as it is a point-by-point response. Written, directed, and produced by acclaimed Mexican filmmaker Issa López, Night Country is the first of the four True Detective seasons made without Pizzolatto as showrunner, and the difference is striking. Rather than a sequel or a reboot or even a new installment, Night Country should be considered a revision, eager to preserve the anthology’s signature funk while feeling free to let go of Pizzolatto’s gallery of men in crisis. It’s also a response to the television landscape that the original True Detective helped shape, formally and thematically. As a result, it doubles as something like a referendum on 10 years of TV, 10 years of paranoid viewership, 10 years of the decline and dissolution of the prestige antihero. You can practically smell the psychosphere.

Whereas the original series played out on the receding shorelines and amid the murky bayous of Louisiana, Night Country is set at the other extreme of the American landscape: the northernmost coastline of Alaska. Oil rich, deeply provincial outposts on the bleeding edge of a rapidly changing climate—True Detective knows how to pick ’em. Taking place almost entirely during the extended period of sunless days in the northern Alaskan winter, Night Country follows Elizabeth Danvers (Jodie Foster), the chief of police of the small town of Ennis, as she works with and against young trooper Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis) to solve two seemingly disparate mysteries. The first is the inexplicable sudden death of the staff scientists at a remote Arctic research facility called Tsalal. Six men, in the nude, frozen together like a giant novelty ice cube for a Hieronymus Bosch–themed cocktail, faces arrested in various states of terror amid the frozen plain. The second mystery is the unsolved murder of an Indigenous activist named Annie K., which took place some years before the events of our show and was deemed at that time a simple act of violent retribution for her vocal opposition to the local mine. Both Danvers and Navarro remain unsatisfied by that explanation. The case haunts both women, who, you might imagine, are also haunted by other figures of their pasts—Danvers’s lost son, Navarro’s lost mother—figuratively and literally.

All this transpires against the backdrop of Ennis itself, a community of intimate familial bonds and suffocating closeness. There’s the malevolent mining company that both poisons the town’s water supply and employs half of its residents; there’s the local Inupiat community, all seeking to triangulate their identities in a town largely ruled by whites; there’s the robust Alaska Native protest movement against the mine, which used to be led by Annie K. and now has attracted Danvers’s Inupiat stepdaughter; there’s Navarro’s beloved sister, fighting against hospitalization for mental illness; there are a variety of romantic entanglements that complicate nearly every interaction; there are corrupt cops and scuzzy politicians and militant nomads and village madwomen and secrets upon secrets buried beneath the ice.

But beyond all that, there are ghosts. From the very beginning, we hear from characters of all stripes that life at the edge of the world is frequently populated by the dead. Sometimes the specters are merely chatty, other times they are potentially murderous. Danvers remains a skeptic, but she’s pretty much alone in that. In fact, it is Night Country’s most pivotal intervention as part of the True Detective universe that its supernatural subplots are pointedly not red herrings. Part of what sustained so much fan obsession in the original series was the notion that, beneath these visible crimes, there was some invisible force at work. Maybe God, maybe the devil, maybe an earthly manifestation of one or the other—we, along with Rust and Marty, got distracted by all this mythology that would eventually slough away in the end.

Night Country is considerably more committed to its cosmic overtones, and in the process reveals something about the original show. It portrays a community that believes in spirits: In a pragmatic sense, then, there are ghosts in Ennis, Alaska. In this setting, they are simply a part of the ensemble. “Rejoice,” an old woman tells Rust in the first season. “Death is not the end.” True Detective was about crafting a world in which such a revelation might alternately bring mortal terror and relief. I’m not sure I fully realized the truth of that until I saw López’s take on the franchise here. She watched the same show we did, and she found something we missed.

This show’s got the same weird spiral pictogram from 2014. Its setting in Alaska is also where Rust Cohle notoriously hung out between the two timelines of the original show. There’s a company named Tuttle United, after the powerful political family from Louisiana. And Cohle’s iconic line from the first episode—“then start asking the right fucking questions”—is essentially Danvers’s mantra. Some viewers might be annoyed by these references or find them too cute, but I loved them. Some might find this easy, but I don’t think the references come easily. López isn’t doing fan service; she’s citing the text. Night Country is a work of criticism about True Detective.

It’s maybe a bit reductive but also pretty undeniably accurate to say that Night Country is specifically a piece of feminist criticism of True Detective. Prior seasons carried with them the aura of feminist critique. They depicted the bad acts of bad men with such sumptuous and leering detail that viewers had to imagine that some critique was implicit. But the show never went out of its way to do much more than that, trusting the audience to morally grade these fragile, brutal men as we followed them on their arcs toward redemption. The thing Night Country valiantly tries to do is to understand that there, in fact, was already a meaningful insight to be had about gender and violence in the True Detective series, but that the show’s unwillingness to put women at its center placed an artificial ceiling on what it might be able to say.

Most of these gut renovations end up working out, but what the show has gained in conceptual complexity, it’s also gained in degree of difficulty. Early episodes, saddled with the task of explaining and teasing so many interlocking traumas and regional contexts, are filled with awkwardly confusing exposition scenes that slow down the show’s otherwise visually stunning, otherworldly set pieces. And, for that reason, it takes a while to discern which subplots are a bit hard to follow because they are complicated and still partially obscured, and which subplots are actually just not that well fleshed out. Another feature that made the original True Detective such a hit was its incredible narrative efficiency; every morsel of a clue or plot twist was delivered to us in a neat package. Night Country clocks in at six episodes, a constraint that results in some things serving stock purposes in the story rather than lending greater specificity to the tale (the ambivalent presence of the mine in the local community, in particular). In other words, I think a lot of the valid criticisms that could be leveled at Night Country come down to the fact that there really ought to have been a little more of it.

In the 10 years since True Detective premiered, its production model and its reception style have continued apace. Though I am hard-pressed to think of all that many series so thoroughly dissected by fans. Succession was elaborately memed; Hannibal became a niche fanfic obsession; Game of Thrones, of course, was battled over; and viewers worked hard to unravel the whodunits of Big Little Lies and The White Lotus. But True Detective was perhaps the last true effusion of a certain type of (pleasurably!) deranged fan engagement. Perhaps our trip to Carcosa ruined us for that style of spectatorship, made us feel foolish for all that naïve belief, for putting our trust in the hands of a creator-auteur-god like Pizzolatto. The most common argument I heard online in the lead-up to the finale of Succession is that it didn’t matter who took over the company. Nobody online was saying the identity of the Yellow King didn’t matter in 2014, right up until abruptly it didn’t. Night Country is likely not going to resurrect that style of viewing, but it might well resurrect True Detective.