Showrunner/Writer/Director Issa López makes a drastic departure from the previous three seasons of the noir crime series “True Detective” by relocating the setting to Northern Alaska at the start of Polar Night, launching “True Detective: Night Country” with a scene that hails straight out of horror. This inciting event set at an arctic research station, complete with knowing winks to The Thing, sets the atmospheric tone for a compelling, intense season that easily sets a high bar for the series.
Investigating the mysterious and sudden disappearance of the research station’s inhabitants, with no trace left behind save for a woman’s tongue found beneath a desk, is gruff Ennis police chief Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster). It’s the precise type of event that a small town like Ennis isn’t accustomed to handling, making the already acerbic Danvers all the pricklier and more frustrated. That’s never more apparent than with the arrival of State Trooper Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis) on the scene. An unspoken history exists between the pair, lacing every interaction with venom and tension, but Navarro has a personal stake in solving the disappearances that seem tied to an unsolved cold case.
As evidence mounts and conspiracies unfurl, Danvers and Navarro make an uneasy alliance to solve the case even as forces conspire against them.
The fourth season of the series runs two episodes shorter than its predecessors, making for a much more tightly wound story without sacrificing complexity. López packs a lot in to present a fully realized town full of dark secrets and uneasy history that informs its characters and overarching mystery. It’s not the mystery that serves as the throughline, however, but the complicated relationship between Danvers and Navarro. Danvers isn’t an easy person to like. She’s intellectually superior to her Deputy, Hank Prior (John Hawkes), and she makes it known at every step. The police chief has a way of alienating almost everyone she encounters with her abrasive, standoffish personality, save for Prior’s son and fellow Officer Peter (Finn Bennett), a competent up-and-comer that Danvers coaches. Navarro is the warmer of the two, but only slightly. Driven by the need to bring justice to her cold case victim, Navarro is prone to violence and brash behavior that leaves her almost as socially irredeemable as her reluctant partner.
In lesser hands, Danvers and Navarro would polarize audiences and make it tricky to find a foothold into the season’s central investigation. Jodie Foster’s capable hands ensure that we may not always agree with Danvers, but she’s engaging, complex, and human enough to retain audience investment. Kali Reis wears Navarro’s insecurities and vulnerabilities on her sleeves, earning easy sympathies even when the character is prone to self-destruction. Both actors are helped by Issa López’s writing and subversion of archetypical roles, which creates an air of mystery behind the two leads that further draws us in and carries the season even when the investigation takes a backseat to focus on Ennis’ residents. While the season may belong to Foster and Reis, there’s not a weak link among the stellar ensemble of supporting players.
There’s a fascinating structure to “Night Country.” López wastes not a second of those six episodes yet makes the proceedings feel like a slice of life in an underexplored pocket of the world and all the quirks that come with it. More importantly, the showrunner once again demonstrates keen instincts in playing with genres. “Night Country” is atmospheric and intense, toggling between supernatural chills and noirish dread with an ease that not only sets this season apart but further reels you into this unique, singular world. López offers wry winks and knowing nods to influential horror while injecting her own brand of horror without overstepping the established world of “True Detective.” Bursts of gore or emotional intensity get punctuated, on occasion, with enough levity to prevent the season from becoming too heavy or grim. Longtime fans will find plenty of connections to the original series, though occasionally a bit heavy-handed in execution.
All of it builds to one riveting, satisfying finale that helps solidify “Night Country” as an easy series highlight. López takes the series’ foundation and builds something wholly new from it through actualized characters, gripping drama, political unrest, grisly secrets, and fearlessness to veer straight into horror when needed. The exceptionally crafted season, like its icy setting, offers a breath of fresh air.
“True Detective: Night Country” premieres January 14 on HBO and Max at 9:00pm ET, with remaining episodes airing weekly on Sundays.