The following recap contains spoilers for True Detective: Night Country Part 1 (written and directed by Issa López).
It’s clear after just one episode of True Detective: Night Country that the tenuous partnership between Jodie Foster’s Chief Liz Danvers and Kali Reis’ Trooper Evangeline Navarro is going to work very well over this fourth season. While they may not ever best Season 1’s Rust Cohle and Marty Hart, there is a strong chance that Danvers and Navarro end up higher on the disgruntled-detective-partner power rankings than the pairings of both Season 2 and Season 3 of True Detective.
While Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson were both sublime, experienced actors at the height of their respective renaissances, Foster and Reis could not be more different. In terms of the stage of their careers, their experience, and their approach to their characters, the two lead characters of True Detective: Night Country are as far apart in real life as their characters are in this season.
Foster has appeared on film and television for more than 50 years while Reis has two IMDb credits to her name. Foster grew up in and around Hollywood and Reis grew up getting the shit kicked out of her by her four older siblings, and eventually became a World Champion boxer before recently turning to acting.
But for as much as the McConaughey-Harrelson pairing was like an Ali-Frazier tour de force with two actors on top of their game, the divergent paths that both Foster and Reis took to bring them to Night Country allow the tension and different worldviews of their characters to be illuminated on the show. In real life, these two are far from the same. We can sense that in the show, which makes their contradictory philosophies about their work that much more believable.
These distorted reflections the two leads have of one another are just one of many ways that the Season 4 showrunner, Issa López, is holding up a kind of funhouse mirror to Season 1 to create a powerful and mysterious new entry to the True Detective universe. López has spoken at length about Season 4—one focused on two women, in a frozen tundra with no light—and how it is meant to stand against Season 1 and its two male leads in a bright, sweltering swamp.
True Detective: Night Country takes place in fictional Ennis, Alaska, and begins not long after the sun has set for the annual “long night.” After the first episode of this season at least, it’s possible Night Country could shine brighter than anything we have seen from this series since the decade-old Season 1.
Outside of Ennis, in a remote research station focused on climate change and the effects of their environment on other living organisms, eight male research scientists have gone missing. The Funyuns delivery man notices two days after their disappearance and alerts the local authorities. In a small place like Ennis, Alaska, the authorities consist of Danvers, a green patrolman (Peter Prior) whom Danvers has taken under her wing, and that cop’s father (Hank Prior) who is clearly not happy to be taking orders from Danvers and that his son has developed a rapport with her.
Everything in the research station seems to be like the men just vanished; cell phones are still there, Ferris Bueller is still playing on repeat on the TV, and uneaten sandwiches are sitting on the kitchen counter. But two things are out of the ordinary. The first is a whiteboard where someone has written “WE ARE ALL DEAD,” and the second is a female tongue that’s found on the ground with no reasonable person to whom the police can attach it.
It’s the tongue that attracts the attention of State Trooper Evangeline Navarro. Although it isn’t her case and she has no jurisdiction in the matter, a haunting unsolved cold case from six years earlier brings her to Danvers’ office, which is clearly the last place she wants to be.
Through a little bit too on-the-nose exposition, we learn throughout the episode that Navarro was given a case of a murdered Native female six years ago. This young woman was beaten, stabbed, had her tongue cut out, and then left for dead in a storage container. Navarro, a Native Iñupiat that is from the area, was unable to solve the case and locate the murderer. There are hints that Officer Hank Prior also might have run things back then and was unable to motivate or incentivize Navarro to close the case, so Danvers was brought in to clean up the mess.
Chief Liz Danvers soon declared the case unsolvable and requested that Navarro transfer to the State Troopers after she was unable to let go of the case. Still keeping tabs on what the police are doing, a random tongue of a Native woman popping up in a remote research location piques Navarro’s interest and the two are forced back into a distressed relationship.
Danvers and Navarro are far from the only conflict the small town of Ennis, Alaska sees on a day-to-day basis. The mine workers and the factory workers don’t mix well with the Native, indigenous residents of this town. The Natives believe the factories and mines are ruining their land and poisoning the residents. There is an uneasy peace that exists among the races of Ennis, but the whole town seems to be set on a simmer where one accusation or allegation could turn it all up to a raging boil.
Episode 1—less than an hour long—does a superb job of setting up the Danvers/Navarro backstory, and the unrest of the town, but also the personal dynamics of each of the lead characters that they are forced to confront outside their jobs. Navarro is caring for a sister who is either suffering from some kind of hallucinations or visions or is drug-dependent, or perhaps both.
Danvers is responsible for a young Native woman, Leah, who likes to dabble in making underage porn videos with her partner. Some tragic or unexplored family backstory also exists here as there is a reference to Leah’s father, but Leah and Danvers are not of the same heritage and Danvers has been in Ennis for fewer years than Leah has been alive. When the two stop so Danvers can assist the resident drunk driver who has once again wrapped her car around a pole, we’re left with Danvers’ backstory dangling for now.
Another local resident, Rose Aguineau (played by Fiona Shaw), serves as a sort of conduit for the mysterious and supernatural nature of this first episode. She has some kind of connection to the spiritual or the supernatural through visions of her husband, Travis, who has been dead for some time. At one point towards the end of the episode, Travis performs what my colleague Caemeron aptly called a “Thom Yorke dance” out on the ice and leads Rose to an icy part of the tundra where the bodies of at least half of the researchers are buried in the frozen ground.
I suspect, based on trailers released before the season premiered, that all of the men are about to be dug up in this spot, at which point the game will be afoot to determine what caused their death, what forced them to leave the research station so quickly, and if there are forces in play outside the realms in which Danvers and Navarro understand them.
As the episode ends with the discovery of these men, certainly one of the themes that will be explored this season will be the sense that most people in this community believe their town is different during the long night. There is a sense that this is a time when the barrier between the known and unknown, the real and the mystical, and the living and the dead is at its weakest. How far this season wants to take the supernatural element will be uncovered over the next five episodes. But as Season 1 and Season 3 dipped a toe in those waters, my sense is this season might dive in head first.
True Detective is famous for starting to pull so many threads throughout its episodes and then finding a way to neatly connect them at the end. I do not doubt that it will continue with Night Country and the casting has no clear flaws through the first episode. This is a season that is going to surely focus on the tension around opposing forces: Danvers and Navarro, locals and natives, explainable and unexplainable.
On the outside of the show, there have also been opposing thoughts about whether True Detective lost its fastball over the past two seasons. If the first hour of Season 4 is any indication, however, Issa López might be on the verge of unveiling a masterpiece to the audience over the next five weeks.