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“True Detective” Season 4, Episode 1 recap

How many of you expected True Detective: Night Country to contort Ferris Bueller’s “Twist and Shout” parade scene into an earnest horror moment? Not me! And, I would imagine, certainly not Matthew Broderick. I wonder how he feels about the image of himself boogying in the backdrop of an abandoned lab—with a severed human tongue on the floor, no less!

On Sunday night, HBO premiered the first episode of True Detective: Night Country, following 2019’s (!) underrated season 3, which starred Mahershala Ali. This time around, the anthology series features Jodie Foster and newcomer Kali Reis as the titular true detectives, tracking the disappearance of a group of scientists in Ennis, Alaska. But we’ll get to that. This season, Esquire will recap every episode of True Detective: Night Country, no matter how dark things get. (Judging by the tongue, this season will be grim.)

Though I have to say, this first episode is both heavy on setup and, somehow, begins in medias res-ish? So to make this first recap easier on my brain—and yours, I hope—I’m going to break the premiere down in a very who-what-how-when-type way. Next week, unless things go full spiral, I’ll run the episode down beat by beat. Any good season of True Detective needs a Rust Cohle (the batshit-crazy, can’t-pin-’em-down one, played by Matthew McConaughey in season 1) and a Marty Hart (the seemingly straight-laced one who’s actually just as psychotic, played by Woody Harrelson in season 1).

While it’s not a perfect 1:1 comparison, (former boxing champ!) Kali Reis’s Evangeline Navarro is the Rust of Night Country. Just swap Cohle’s alright-alright-alright galaxy brain for a big ol’ heart. Navarro’s backstory is another one we learn via breadcrumbs. (Pro tip: Watch this episode with closed captions.) Here’s what we gather about Navarro in episode 1: She’s a war veteran who, after she finished duty, made her way to Ennis. A few years before the events of Night Country, she worked with Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) as another detective in the police department. At one point, she developed an interest in the case of a missing Alaska Native woman, but couldn’t find a lead. She wanted help from Danvers, who told her to give up the case—and clearly didn’t care all that much about the possibility of a hate crime. If you believe Danvers’s version of the events, the case broke Navarro and let to her reassignment as a state trooper. Now, there’s a new set of disappearances—we’re getting into it soon—which has Navarro thinking about the old case. Oh, and she’s fooling around with a guy who owns a Spongebob toothbrush.

Meanwhile, our Marty is Detective Danvers, whose character traits are: fantasy football, Jodie Foster’s attitude toward Gen Z, somewhat reluctant parent, and the Minnesota Vikings. Throughout the premiere, Night Country parses out information about Danvers’s complicated family situation. It seems like she 1.) works with her ex-husband, John Hawkes (Hank Prior), in the police department, 2.) works with their son, Peter Prior (Finn Bennett), in the police department, and 3.) acts as some sort of guardian to a teenager, whose father died via tragic means? This one’s left intentionally open-ended.

This is where things get fun in True Detective. Let’s try to figure this out together. Night Country’s central mystery appears to focus on a group of missing scientists in Ennis. The short of it, from the police department’s perspective: Some unknown entity gives the scientists money to build a lab in the area, to study all sorts of things—climate change included. One night, they jet out of the lab, wander outside into the Alaska wilderness, and freeze to death. Danvers finds the bodies courtesy of a local woman, who claims that a dead (but maybe not!) man led her to the scene. Back in the lab? A looping feed of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and a severed tongue. What a combo.

So, what do we know as paying members of HBO and/or Max? That some trippy shit is going down. The night of the disappearance, one of the lab members suffers from some type of seizure, and—when he’s conscious again—says, “She’s awake.” (Later on in the episode, the same line wakes Danvers in the middle of the night. Navarro hears it, too, right before the polar bear walks in front of her car.) And the (potentially undead) man who leads the older woman to the bodies? He’s absolutely going through some fit of demonic possession or, potentially, participating in cult activity, making strange gestures on the trail.

We don’t get many answers here, but Night Country already feels eerily reminiscent of season 1’s Yellow King storyline. In that plot, we saw a bunch of cultists—who were pedophiles and child traffickers—fixate on the iconography of a godlike figure called the Yellow King. In Night Country, “she” might be a supernatural presence, à la the Yellow King. Given that we have a confirmed appearance of the season 1 cult’s symbol (a spiral) in Night Country’s trailers, it’s possible that HBO will actually try to draw a straight line back to season 1. Is it the same cult? Or just an Easter egg?

Clearly, Night Country went to the Damon Lindelof school of asking all the questions first, then figuring out the story later. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily! We love Damon Lindelof. It’s just that—instead of properly introducing us to Danvers and Navarro, then sending the action to spiral-land—we get all of the exposition in spontaneous chunks, while a ton of supernatural tomfoolery takes over this small Alaska town. I know this is True Detective and hard-to-follow is the M.O., but season 1 worked because we spent some real time with Rust and Marty. Got to know them. Actually had some time to witness two great actors do their thing. So far, all we’re seeing is a stellar performance from Foster, some very purposeful vibe-setting, and a mystery surrounding a whole bunch of people we never had the chance to care about.

That said, Night Country writer-director Issa López wasn’t kidding when she called The Thing and Alien inspirations for this season. The celebrated Mexican director has already created the best True Detective landscape since season 1’s depiction of south Louisiana. Ennis is bathed in eternal night, full of football lovers and drunk drivers, and is facing such a water crisis that beer is the only safe thing to drink. It feels real, full of secrets, and downright scary. Heading into episode 2, let’s just hope Night Country finds a story worthy of its setting.