Now in its fourth season, True Detective is moving to Alaska. Set after the year’s last sunset, Ennis, Alaska, enters its month-long night in True Detective: Night Country Episode 1. Directed and written by showrunner Issa López, the series pulls together mystery, horror, and the tension that can only come from the arid cold.
As night comes, the eight men who operate the Tsalal Arctic Research Station vanish without a trace, leaving their phones and a severed tongue behind. Detective Danvers (Jodie Foster) is called to the scene and orders a search but does so with tempered expectations. There is more to the disappearances than meets the eye.
The connection that Danvers sees isn’t missed by Detective Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis), well Officer Navarro. After handling a workplace dispute and checking in on her sister Julia (Aka Niviâna), Navarro pushes Danvers to solve the crime and do it quickly. Navarro is certain that the men’s disappearance is connected to the murder of local activist Annie Kowtok, also known as Annie K to her friends. But that case has long gone cold.
True Detective: Night Country Episode 1 lays out the mystery and how it ends all in its 58-minute runtime. We start at the Tsalal Research Station, and we end by finding the men. It’s a narrative choice that happens quickly but ultimately makes the episode’s ending feel incredibly tense. Cold bodies in the snow, distorted by frostbite.
For her part, Jodie Foster is absolutely fantastic in her callousness and her sincerity. True Detective: Night Country Episode 1 is an introduction to the premise and, more importantly, the characters. Executive Producer Jodie Foster plays a role she knows all too well: a detective in a man’s world demanding respect. However, as Danvers, her level head pushes up against Navarro’s emotions in a dynamic way. Kali Reis is unyielding as Navarro. She is an unstoppable force hitting the wall that is Danver’s focus and command.
In Episode 1, Lopez uses True Detective: Night Country to highlight the reality that when Native women are kidnapped and murdered, the world refuses to bring them justice. The audience is taught about the long history of Ennis and, with that, the way it’s failed Native women. For her part, Danvers recognizes the issues and the similarities between the past and the present. However, she doesn’t have to carry the same pain that Navarro does. Navarro found Annie K, the first victim. Her retelling of the crime highlights the brutality and contempt with which it was carried out.
First by Danvers, who reads off the coroner’s findings and crime scene report, detached from it all. Danvers is cold, drawing connections to their current case. She is clinical in every way. And then we hear it from Navarro to close out the episode.
Navarro is detailing the crime the same as Danvers. Only each word she speaks hits like a ton of bricks. It’s not just stab wounds but injuries that Navarro, a Native woman herself and the one who found Annie, could feel the hate from. She details how Annie was kicked after she was dumped and how that showed the disgust. The wounds on Annie’s body could have been wounds against her own. And she closes it with, “Wouldn’t have happened if she was white though.”
On the outside, True Detective: Night Country wears horror on its sleeves. It begins at Tsalal Arctic Research Station, where the dangers seep in quickly. Then, as Rose Aguineau (Fionna Shaw) sees a ghost who leads her to a ritualistic site, the episode ends with it, too. But in between, the tension builds because of the existing character relationships. None of the connections between the characters we see are mapped out. Instead, they feel lived-in. These are stories we don’t know just yet. That said, we can see each personality existing while carrying a mountain of reasons to be connected to each—or resentment. It’s where the horror and the dramatic meet that López captures why genre storytelling can reflect harsh realities.
That’s just with one episode.
Issa López’s directorial vision is cold. You can feel it through the screen in the landscape shots, but more importantly, you can feel it creep over you. As the herd of deer throws themselves from a cliff, the cold tinges are bitter. There is something to be said for using the climate to reflect the atmosphere and for what it means to make something even more bare than the ice that surrounds it.
True Detective: Night Country Episode 1 hits the special spot of feeling grand and intimate at the same time. This is something that López has proven before with her first feature film, Tigers Are Not Afraid. That vision for impact and intimacy is what makes this series one that shakes the viewer.
This six-episode mini-series is just beginning, but I am still tempted to call it one of the most striking renditions of horror on television. It’s not about what we know or what we see in True Detective: Night Country, and that makes it all the more visceral.
True Detective: Night Country is streaming now on MAX (formerly HBO MAX).
True Detective: Night Country Episode 1
True Detective: Night Country Episode 1 hits the special spot of feeling grand and intimate at the same time.