True Detective: Night Country episode 1 marks a darker entry for HBO’s anthology series, but it’s a smart continuation of the show’s themes.
*This review of True Detective: Night Country will discuss spoilers for episode 1.*
It’s not hyperbolic to state that the first season of True Detective, which premiered almost exactly 10 years before the release of True Detective: Night Country episode 1, was the start of a new era in television. There was once a time when A-list actors couldn’t be found on the small screen, and while Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey’s appearance in Nic Pizzolatto’s anthology crime series wasn’t the first of its kind, it opened the door to show that movie stars could thrive outside the multiplex.
Also worth mentioning: the show became notable for having each episode written and directed by the same creative team (Pizzolatto and Cari Joji Fukunaga, respectively), a practice that has become more and more common in television seasons and limited series. While the story of the show may not have broken new ground, True Detective captured the cultural zeitgeist in a way that HBO has been chasing in subsequent seasons ever since.
It’s now almost five years to the date since True Detective premiered its third season, and Night Country feels less like a departure from its glory days and more like a continuation of what worked so well to begin with. This is notable, of course, because this season is the first to not be written by Pizzolatto – he’s still credited as an executive producer though, along with McConaughey and Harrelson. Rather, Issa López takes over as writer (co-writer on some) and director of each of the six episodes.
Jodie Foster and Kali Reis headline this season, and while neither are given any Emmy-worthy moments in episode 1, López writes them with the same nuance and emotional baggage that every protagonist has carried in each season. That is, they’re incredibly fractured, emotionally stunted, but still capable detectives that are caught up in a case that they can’t shake. The season premiere of any show has to do a lot of heavy lifting with introducing its characters, their backgrounds, and their circumstances within the show, and López finds ways to add exposition without forcing it into the narrative.
Foster uses her world-weariness to great effect, as her detective Liz Danvers is dedicated to her job but at the expense of the relationships with her ex-husband and step-daughter Leah (Isabella Star LaBlanc). Reis, who’s more of a newcomer to acting, is a great addition as Evangeline Navarro, an intimidating but driven cop that’s haunted by an unsolved case.
We do learn a number of details of life in this portion of the world, and the peculiar working circumstances that Danvers finds herself in. This includes working alongside her ex-husband Hank (John Hawkes) and his son Pete (Finn Bennett), who may not be her son but he sees as a kind of mentor, at the expense of his time with his wife and son. Much less fuzzy is the relationship between Navarro and Eddie (Joel Montgrand), who she clearly sees as a lone source of refuge, going so far as to use his toothbrush after sex. Navarro’s status as a person of Native descent (Reis is part Cherokee) will undoubtedly make for an interesting element to the social politics of the main case this season.
Episode 1 of True Detective: Night Country leans heavily into supernatural and horror elements, especially in the episode’s early moments – even before Billie Eilish’s “bury a friend” plays over the opening credits. It makes sense, given the setting of Night Country: the remote town of Ennis, Alaska, which is situated north of the Arctic Circle, and is plunged into near total darkness after December 17. The early moments of episode 1 show an arctic research station plagued by a series of eerie occurrences before they inexplicably disappear.
But one curious detail remains behind: a severed tongue, which Danvers quickly surmises is from a Native woman. This brings out the curiosity of Navarro, whose friend Annie was murdered in gruesome and similar fashion. We get an early indication of Danvers and Navarro’s fraught history together, and what their working relationship will look like going forward, but details on this new case are slim beyond the initial facts.
This is to be expected, of course. I never expected a prime suspect to emerge after the first hour, as it’s almost always debunked as a red herring sooner or later in procedural television. I don’t even know if we’ve been introduced to the killer yet. Instead, Night Country and López seem primarily focused on setting the vibes for the season going forward. There are enough details and plot developments so far to keep me coming back next week, and with the solid technical and performative elements, episode 1 is an intriguing start to one of television’s most respected properties.
Episode 1 of True Detective: Night Country is now available to watch on Max.