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The Least Merry Christmas Ever: “True Detective” Season 4, Episode 4 recap

“We’re all in Night Country now,” Otis Heiss growls at Liz toward the end of this week’s True Detective.

I’d been wondering if and when the season’s title would ever be invoked, but uttered in this moment in this place by this man, it feels like the line might be cleaving the season into halves. Liz and Navarro have driven out to an abandoned dredge, the kind Navarro hasn’t seen pumping since she was a kid. They’ve come here looking for Ray Clark, a man who exists somewhere between the living and the dead — still breathing, we believe, but all but disappeared. And when the episode closes, Navarro has followed the ghost of her dead sister through the metallic maze of catwalks and ladders and into the bowels of the decaying machine. She sits so close to a blinking Christmas tree that the colored lights must make a mesmerizing blur.

Until now, it’s been possible to explain most of what happens on True Detective without thinking too hard about the supernatural. You could, for instance, believe that Dr. Lund delivered Navarro a message from her dead mother, or you could believe that Navarro believed it. By Christmas — the last day of the first full week of night — it’s harder to remain agnostic. The orange that Navarro chucked into the dark in “Part Three” somehow rolls out from under Julia’s bed on the same day she dies by suicide in “Part Four.” Night Country is the place that forces you to accept what can’t possibly be.

It’s also, given the funereal gloom, a curiously difficult place to sleep. The hysterical screams of Annie K. keep Liz awake, and rightly. If we assume that that video represents the activist’s dying moments, how did Annie’s phone find its way back to Raymond Clark’s trailer-cum-altar? And how well could Annie’s murder have been investigated if no one working the case even knew Clark existed? When Liz leaves the house in the frigid wee hours, she drives past Julia, walking down the street and stripping off all her clothes. Her “episodes” appear to be getting more severe or at least more frequent; could they be connected to whatever is suddenly “awake” in this town? Pete’s awake, too, I should mention, watching over the dead bodies as they’re removed to the state capital. And Ted’s awake — worried that those bodies, the hospital brawls, and the Silver Sky protests up north will threaten his Anchorage mayoral bid. Ennis is the faded little map dot that never sleeps.

Except, in a small room in Liz’s house, someone does. Before Liz leaves for work, she checks on Leah, pulling stray hair from her young face — a gesture that betrays the depths of Liz’s love and worry, even if she struggles to communicate either. She’s a mother who’s already lost one baby. She’s a cop who knows too well the violence that can befall women who grow up under the fuzzy glow of the Northern Lights. Annie K. Julia. William Wheeler’s victim. The girl at the crab plant. Even Navarro is tormented. Liz is as right to worry as Leah is to rebel.

But it’s Pete’s family life that’s centered in “Part Four,” as his professional ambitions conflict with the needs of his wife and son. His research turned up the name of Otis Heiss, a German man who, in April 1998, reported to a local hospital with nearly identical injuries to Lund, then largely went off-grid. Liz is impressed, but Pete’s reward is the privilege of putting out a time-consuming APB on Christmas Eve instead of heading home. This means he’s still in the office when Hank returns from the tiny Ennis airfield empty-handed. His mail-order bride got lost in transit. On some level, he must have known, right? And yet, Hank suspended enough disbelief to scatter red rose petals on his Realtree camo sheets. She’s catfishing me; she’s catfishing me not. Hank invites himself to Pete and Kayla’s house for Christmas Eve.

Meanwhile, Liz and Navarro shoulder the fieldwork, which means figuring out where Annie’s video was taken. There aren’t ice caves near the villages where her body was discovered, but luckily Ennis High employs the most overqualified geology teacher the public-education system could buy. Brazen as ever, Liz arrives at her ex-lover’s house late enough at night that his wife has already changed into her velvet Christmas pajamas.

Adam tells Navarro and Liz there actually are ice caves nearby, up by the Brooks Range, but they’ve been closed for years (conveniently?) since a series of collapses. There are maps, though, drafted by a man called — you may have guessed it — Otis Heiss. Obviously, whatever municipal office keeps records of ice-cave cartography is closed for the festive season, but there’s a Venn diagram of evidence suggesting itself already. Annie has (likely) been to the same ice caves as Otis, and almost 25 years ago, Otis suffered the same injuries as Lund. If whatever attacked Otis caused the Tsalal deaths, then it’s (likely) older than Annie’s death. Rose’s cryptic speculation from “Part Two” springs to mind: “It’s older than the ice, probably.”

Speaking of Rose — a character I would like more of — Navarro stops by her cabin to ensure the old maid is doing all right on Christmas Eve. And of course she is. Fiona Shaw is dressed to the nines, putting on a self-catered festive spread that looks like it could feed 20 rather than two. Did anyone else clock that gorgeous, untouched Christmas cake? Like Qaavik did to Navarro last week, Navarro asks Rose to account for her own personal “before,” which isn’t nearly so tragic. Rose was a professor of something (the occult?), burnt out on the cycle of publish or perish — a life that encouraged her and her colleagues to make more noise than meaning. She came to Ennis, she says, for the quiet; she didn’t anticipate the ruckus from the dead.

Meanwhile, Liz gets a Christmas Eve callout from one of her many nemeses, Kate McKittrick, because Leah tagged the Silver Sky offices with the word “murderers.” It lacks subtlety but, crucially, not accuracy. When car doors are closed and Leah can’t hear her, Liz is a bulldog fighting in her daughter’s corner; as soon as they’re in the cab of the truck together, Liz returns to the form of evil stepmother. I’m not saying it’s Liz’s fault that Leah vandalized private property, but, you know what, why is she leaving her orphaned kid all alone on Christmas Eve? So maybe it is her fault. When they get back to the house, Leah packs a bag. “I’m not going to make you pretend anymore,” she spits, practically begging Liz to give her the reassurance any kid would need. And Liz lost her own mother at age 7, we learn, so she has some insight into Leah’s grief. Still, Liz — Alaska’s most obstinate Scrooge — opts for a response of, “Go, get out.”

Left on her lonesome, the chief chooses vodka over turkey and trimmings, and binge-watches the Annie K. video some more. I thought she might just be punishing herself, but eventually, she makes a connection: Someone cut the power at Tsalal station. The same light signature appears in Annie’s video as does the sandwich-making vlog. (In truth, I still didn’t see it even after it was explained.) But why would there be lights in an ice cave in the first place? The obvious person to ask, apparently, is the old Tsalal equipment engineer Oliver Tagaq. Maybe the cops could even do it a day from now when Christmas is over! But everything Liz does, she does urgently. And when she’s too drunk to drive (a.k.a. now) or even provide backup (also now), she makes others do it urgently.

Soon, Pete and Navarro are heading out to the nomads’ village at stupid o’clock, which is the only time in Ennis these days. There’s a cult of personality around Liz that doesn’t quite make sense to me yet. I need more of her professional backstory to understand what makes men and women sacrifice their Christmas Eves to her wild orders. Why do they have such faith in her? I’ve yet to see her catch a single criminal. It’s a fool’s errand, to boot. Tagaq left town the day after Liz and Navarro’s earlier visit, and by the looks of it, he left in a hurry. The jenny is cut, and half-full bowls of food are still on the table, though he did do some redecorating before he hauled ass. On the floor, Navarro finds a rock and a piece of cardboard both scarred with Annie’s spiral.

So, who is having the worst Christmas Eve ever? Hank was in the early running, but actually, eating a TV dinner in front of Elf beats drunk-driving to Ted’s motel room. Mercifully, Liz and her boss don’t fuck because, well, he’s too sensitive to be teased about his teeth-whitening regime and Liz doesn’t appreciate being called a “fucking mess.” On the drunk-drive home, however, Liz does drive into a snowbank while trying to avoid hitting a one-eyed polar bear, a real-life version of the stuffed animal her son Holden is always clutching in her memories. Still, it’s a third-place finish at best.

For a minute, I thought Pete might take the prize. When he finally gets home, long after all the lights are out, he has the nerve to pick a fight with Kayla, who only says that his apology is bullshit (which it is!) and that she would like to sleep now (which is reasonable). But Pete, an idiot and a manipulator, accuses Kayla of not wanting Darwin in the first place, which he couches in an infuriating faux self-deprecating comment about how he ruined her life by, you know, safeguarding the future existence of their unborn son. Are you kidding me? The son that Kayla puts to bed while you’re off following orders? Who cares who wanted Darwin more in utero? It’s Kayla taking care of him every night.

The fight is short and nasty, but in the end, the series takes such a devastating turn toward tragedy that Pete’s Christmas Eve is a distant second. After Liz finds her naked and freezing, Julia finally agrees to chill out at the Lighthouse for a spell. But when Navarro calls to check in just hours later, Julia answers the phone in the same place her sister found her last week — sitting on the gunwale of a barge stuck in the ice. They hang up, and Julia removes her clothes and folds them into a neat pile, not unlike the Tsalal scientists. She walks out onto the blue ice and, beyond it, the winter sea. Somewhat implausibly, the Alaska Coast Guard is able to find Julia, ID her body, and inform Navarro before the rehab center — which, to be fair, isn’t a custodial facility — even notices that their newest charge is missing.

Navarro loses her mind at the news, trashing the Lighthouse lobby, then getting back in the car to pick a fistfight she’s sure to lose (with the thuggish, abusive husband she arrested in “Part One” and a few of his drunk buddies). She goes to Qaavik, who sweetly bought her SpongeBob Wild Watermelon paste to match the toothbrush she took off him to clean her banged-up face. He relocates her dislocated finger and assures her she’s not alone. He hugs her through her pained and desperate screaming. It’s a tremendous loss for a person who can’t afford to lose another tether to the world of the living.

Night Country is technically a Christmas movie now, but can there be a Christmas morning without morning? Navarro shows up at Liz’s house to be greeted with a lecture about the afterlife from the only woman we’ve met who’s even lonelier than Navarro. Liz tosses Holden’s polar bear into the snow, same as Navarro did with her mother’s necklace. “There’s nothing except us,” Liz tells her partner, as though she has some special access to the truth. “The dead are gone,” she adds. When Navarro clarifies that Julia is dead, Liz becomes the new world-record holder for time elapsed between saying something and regretting it.

I really like the dynamic between Liz and Navarro; I’m continually impressed by how Kali Reis holds her own with Jodie Foster. I also think that the scenes of them alone together feature most of the series’ clunkiest dialogue. There’s the scene of them discussing the potency of prayer in the car — a conversation that feels like it should portend something but ultimately ambles away. And here, in this showdown in Liz’s living room, though Foster does everything in her power to sell the scene, it happens again. Navarro believes there’s a curse coming for her; Liz asks her what she saw that night at Wheeler’s house, and for some reason, Navarro insists the answer is nothing when really she saw the ghost of Wheeler’s victim fingering her killer. Why lie now? Because Navarro doesn’t want to admit it out loud? Admit it to herself?

Luckily, Santa Claus saves the day: A fisherman saw Raymond Clark walking the ice out by the old dredge and calls it in. Liz and Navarro wordlessly agree to check it out, their argument still simmering between them. The dredge is abandoned but not vacant. There’s a fire burning in an old oil drum, and Annie’s tattoos are carved on the walls. Liz runs off when she sees the shape of Annie’s pink parka dart past, but Navarro follows a voice in her head or a ghost, or maybe it’s the same thing. Navarro sees or thinks she sees her blue-haired sister floating in the water. She sees or thinks she sees wet footprints leading down a long corridor, as long as the corridor that Julia took to her room at the Lighthouse.

Meanwhile, Liz is on her own, climbing through the rig without backup. When she finally catches up to their suspect, it turns out not to be Clark at all, but Otis Heiss in Annie’s parka. Otis is a drug addict and a recluse, but when he says Clark went “back down to hide,” it doesn’t sound like crazy ramblings. “He’s hiding in the Night Country,” Otis adds. “We’re all in the Night Country now.” The episode ends with such menace that I was desperate to watch the next episode despite this one’s faults.

What is Night Country, exactly? Where are its borders? Does it extend as far as the polar night is long? Is Otis talking about the ice caves specifically, or is he talking about the peculiarity of Ennis — a place where ancient things, like prehistoric whale bones, can linger alongside modern ones, like iPhone videos? Is Night Country a place where ghosts scream as loud as the living? Or maybe it’s not defined by the supernatural at all. Maybe Night Country is any place sustained by cutting into the dark earth below it. Maybe it’s the place your mind goes when the moon tucks itself below the horizon, and you slowly start to forget the feel of the sun on your face.