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Unhappy New Year: “True Detective” Season 4, Episode 5 recap

For a series defined by its characters’ icy toughness, a sense of nostalgia takes hold in True Detective’s penultimate episode, which I suppose makes its own kind of sense. Danvers and Navarro are creatures of longing — longing for a son who died before getting anywhere near Pete Prior’s age and longing for a mother who died young, taking her daughters’ sacred names with her. This week, even the series’ side players pass the endless night by looking backward.

Kayla, Leah tells us, longs for when Pete was a goofy teen hockey star — a golden boy willing to sacrifice the big goal to help out a kid dealing with personal tragedy; that longing for who he used to be is why Kayla kicks him out of the house.

Elsewhere, Hank tells Pete about how he heroically fished his son from the ice-cold water as a boy. It’s a story about feeling useful, excerpted from a more rewarding season of life when Hank really mattered to the people around him.

And then there’s Qaavik’s friend Kenny, who decodes Annie’s spiral tattoo for Navarro. As a kid, the grown-ups taught Kenny to steer clear of that symbol, which hunters would use to warn each other of thin ice, the brittle places where one bad step could land you in the caves below. Hooligans like him would even crack the ice on purpose. “The Night Country was going to take us,” was Kenny’s grandmother’s warning, uttered like an urban legend — a scary story you tell your kids to keep them safe. But the same symbol arrived to Annie in a dream long before she met Raymond Clark. Was she able to understand it before she descended into the ice herself, or did the spiral’s meaning only dawn on her once Night Country had already come?

This week’s more sentimental tone is announced by an opening scene equal parts clinical and tender: A body that was alive a week ago is reduced to nothing but hot embers on New Year’s Eve. The dead aren’t typically offered much respect in True Detective; they are cold cases too inconvenient to solve or ghosts that refuse to pipe down. How unexpected then to see someone gingerly attend to Julia. A metal drawer softly closed into a furnace. The gentle tick of an egg timer. The scrape of the ashes scoops, the faint rattle of life slipping down a plastic funnel and into a silver urn. When the Iñupiat cremation tech hands Navarro what remains of her sister, she warns her: “Be careful, it’s hot.” It’s some of the most elegant and evocative TV writing I’ve ever seen. Navarro buckles Julia into the backseat; later, with Rose’s help, she’ll crack a hole in the ice and slip her sister into the dark sea.

More than usual, Danvers and Navarro are on different paths in “Part Five.” While Navarro mourns, Danvers heads to the Lighthouse, where Otis Heiss is in withdrawal. It was 30 years ago that a cave-in forced Otis and his colleagues out of the ice caves and into a blizzard, which is how he sustained the same injuries — ruptured eardrums and scratched-out eyes — as the Tsalal scientists. His colleagues followed a “screaming” on the ice that Otis resisted, but he doesn’t know how or why. No one had taken much interest in what happened to him until a half-intelligible Ray Clark asked Otis’s secret to survival before disappearing into the caves again. “She’s awake,” Ray told Otis. “I have to hide.” Otis even offers to guide Danvers and Navarro’s spelunking manhunt, provided Danvers pays him for his services in H.

Finally, a professional line Danvers won’t cross. She and Navarro decide to go it alone, but when they arrive at the cave’s entrance — problematically located on Silver Sky property — it’s been deliberately blown shut. But why? To protect people who might get the wild hair to trespass on chancy ice, or to hide whatever’s down there?

Silver Sky might be the most powerful force in Ennis, but it’s also fighting a multifront war. While the cops are trying to unbury whatever secrets lie below the northern ice, activists — including Leah — descend on the mine to protest dirty water and infant mortality. State troopers get called in to escort mine workers through the crowds, and, thank God, Navarro is with them. Because it doesn’t take long for the situation to turn violent: security guards tussle with protesters while Annie’s ghost lurks nearby, at least in Navarro’s mind. Leah hits her mom’s partner with some kind of tar ball, which means she’s looking Leah’s way when a cop starts beating on the teen. Navarro, in turn, punches the cop because this woman is not in the right line of work. Maybe she chose the force because it aligned with the skills and sense of purpose she felt serving in the Middle East, but that’s not the reality of policing the endless night. The community that needs protecting isn’t protected; the peace she’s keeping comes at the expense of regular people on behalf of big mining.

While Navarro plays Leah’s hero, Danvers opts for tough love. She has Leah locked into a jail cell, hoping that the simulated experience of getting in trouble will help her realize how “vulnerable” she’s been making herself. Liz is an anxious mom making all the wrong plays; Leah is a kid trying to stand up for what’s right. And yet they understand each other better than you might think. “I still haven’t given up on you,” Leah eventually tells her stepmom; they’re all each other has. “She’s not good with people she cares about,” Leah explains to Pete, who’s shacking up at his dad’s house and distracting himself from his crumbling marriage by throwing himself into the case. At long last, there’s a breakthrough in his financial investigations. He follows the money through a series of shell and holding companies to discover that Silver Sky effectively bankrolls Tsalal Station, whose research objectives include independently verifying the mine’s pollution stats. If the mine is hiding the connection, then perhaps it’s also true that Tsalal has been pushing out bogus numbers on Silver Sky’s behalf in exchange for that funding (quid pro quo).

Unfortunately, because Danvers has no guile, she immediately advertises this intel. Kate McKittrick, with Connelly by her side, asks Danvers to visit the mine offices, where she confronts her with video footage of Navarro and Danvers approaching the ice cave on Silver Sky property. Danvers admits the visit was connected to the Tsalal murder case, which, unbeknownst to her, has been downgraded from a homicide investigation to an act of God. According to the Anchorage forensics team, the scientists died in a flash freeze caused by a slab avalanche. Instead of digesting this laughable conclusion and making a cunning countermove, Danvers lashes out, accusing Kate and the mine of covering up Annie K.’s murder and the water pollution near Ennis.

This time, though, Connelly doesn’t back her up. Perhaps while Pete was following the money, it would have been good to look into the major contributors to the commissioner’s mayoral campaign. When Danvers threatens to keep going, Connelly — teaching a master class in how to strategically deploy information — tells her that he knows about the Wheeler case and the murder-suicide that wasn’t. He’ll keep her secret; she’ll forget Tsalal (quid pro quo). Navarro, for her part, isn’t fazed by the threat of exposure and attempts to transfer the blame for Annie’s unsolved case squarely onto Danvers. “You carry her now,” Navarro tells her. As a parting gesture, she springs Leah from the clink.

For a while now, we’ve been speculating about why John Hawkes was cast as Danvers’s incompetent deputy. It wasn’t for his dulcet tones, though the scene of Hank jamming on his acoustic guitar and crooning about the futility of life on Earth affected me as much as it did an eavesdropping Pete. It’s because Hank’s a snake and a liar. Years ago, Kate promised to see him installed as police chief if he moved Annie’s body and covered up the murder, a job he took so seriously that, years later, he would punch his only child for retrieving the case files from his house. Now, Kate wants Hank to make Otis Heiss disappear before Danvers can find the caves, and she’s dangling the exact same carrot: chief of police.

A storm is descending above the Arctic Circle — and not just the Category 4 that Rose heard about on the radio. After Leah tells her stepmom that there have been nine stillbirths in the villages since the start of winter, Danvers drives out to the morgue, where, in an echo of Julia’s cremation, tiny coffins keep each other company above ground until spring thaws. Danvers can’t carry Annie K. She can’t carry those small bodies, smaller than even her Holden. She drives back to headquarters and grabs heroin for Otis from the evidence room. On the way out, she confronts Hank for talking to Connelly and calls Pete in for a dressing down.

“Your father only seems like an idiot,” Danvers tells Pete. Prior Jr. has been sniffing around the Wheeler case since Navarro was welcomed back into the fold, but it’s Prior Sr. who stole what Pete uncovered and used it to help himself. For me, what follows is the scene in which the parallels between Silence of the Lambs’ Clarice and Lecter are most undeniable. Eager student and impatient teacher.

Pete doesn’t really need Danvers to tell him the details of what happened at Wheeler’s; he’s figured it out for himself. Wheeler, you see, was left-handed. To cover their tracks, Navarro and Danvers had to flip every photo of Wheeler’s bruised and battered victim that the police had in their possession. Maybe they even instigated the flood that ruined the files — the one that landed Annie K.’s files in Hank’s den in the first place. That’s the evidence Hank stole from his son’s computer and delivered to Connelly. And it still wasn’t enough for Hank to wrest the big job from her.

Danvers is Lecter, but she’s still Clarice, too, haunted by the screaming that drew Otis’s colleagues, Julia Navarro, and maybe even the Tsalal scientists onto the ice. You think if you solve Annie K.’s murder you won’t wake up in the dark ever again? Danvers gives Pete the key to the shack in her backyard; Kayla wouldn’t like him staying at Liz’s house, but he can’t go back to his father’s after this betrayal. When Hank was retelling the story of rescuing Pete from the freezing water by frantically cracking a hole in the ice downstream, I thought he was having doubts about accepting Kate’s assignment. There’s a difference between moving a dead body and making one. Hank seemed to be wondering aloud what kind of man he’d been all his life and who he might be soon. But if Hank had any reluctance before, he’s definitely going to kill Otis now. Hell, he might just kill Danvers.

After irrevocably splintering the relationship between the Prior men, Danvers springs Otis from the Lighthouse, trailed by Hank the whole time. She calls Navarro, who is sleeping in Qaavik’s warm bed, to join the new search party: The case of Annie K. is officially unofficially reopened. Their only suspect? A reclusive madman who’s spent the last few weeks hiding in ice caves. Their only hope of finding him? The reclusive madman presently getting high in Danvers’s bathroom. What could go wrong?

Well, just about everything. The snow is really falling by the time Hank knocks on Danvers’s door, before Navarro even has time to get dressed and drive over. His cover story is that Connelly wants Hank to bring in Otis on some nonsense charge that surely not even Hank would believe Connelly cared about. Danvers says she’ll just call her lover real quick to confirm, but before she can take a step, Hank grabs Danvers’s gun off the kitchen counter. An undeniable act of aggression, you can almost see the gears grinding in Hank’s head. Maybe he can take care of Otis and punish Danvers in one swoop. He shoots Otis twice, unaware that his son is within earshot.

Hank’s still holding Danvers’s weapon when Pete walks in and points his own gun at Hank. “Think,” Danvers tells him, “think.” This is your dad; this is your career. Put it down. But at the same time Danvers is encouraging calmer heads, Hank confesses to moving Annie’s body and points his own gun, which is really Danvers’s gun, at Danvers. Pete fires, killing his dad. He’s sobbing on Danvers’s shoulder when Navarro walks in. I’m half-expecting Leah to come through the door next to accept her mother’s open invitation to New Year’s Eve dinner. Perhaps Connelly, too, would like to temper the icy sting of the night with a visit to Danvers’s bed?

Let’s do what Navarro and Danvers would never: take a minute to digest. What is Hank thinking when he points the gun at Danvers? Maybe that he and Pete could still make this look like a murder-suicide, with Danvers killing Otis — maybe because he was running out and refusing to help? — and then herself after realizing what she’d done? It’s not perfect, but it’s tidy enough. And it’s easy for me to believe Hank would assume Pete’s loyalty. He thought Kate McKittrick would take care of him. He thought a Russian babe was going to run off the plane from Saint Petersburg and into his arms. Over the course of the season, Hank has proved he had little to offer the world except an overestimation of his importance in it.

Danvers wants to call Connelly to explain and contain the situation, but Navarro is right: If Connelly is buying their silence with the Wheeler case and peddling the slab-avalanche theory just to clear his open cases, the man can’t be trusted. So she brainstorms her own story. Let’s say Hank snatched Otis, just like Hank professed to be doing when he walked through Danvers’s door. Maybe something went bad, and Hank had to shoot him. Maybe, while Hank was destroying the evidence of that murder, there was an accident. Let’s call it a slab avalanche. After the storm passes, Hank’s truck will turn up, but never his body — and that’s just life in Ennis. People disappear and ghosts return. If Pete isn’t agitating for more answers about his dad, who else will bother? Navarro hands Pete the disinfectant and tells him to clean up the mess of his own father; she tells him to take the bodies to Rose, who will show him how to make people vanish.

Danvers carries what’s happened to the babies of Ennis as Navarro carries Annie K. This tragedy is what Pete carries now, and there will never be a place or time to put it down.

Meanwhile, Danvers and Navarro set out on their own errand. Until “Part Five,” ice has been a solid fact of existence in Ennis, but nothing and no one is completely unbreakable. Hammer away hard enough and you can pierce through the ice to save your kid’s life or make your little sister a watery grave. Where the caves come closest to kissing the surface, anywhere or everywhere could be a way into Night Country — just grab an ax and start pounding your way to hell.