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“True Detective” Season 4 review

For all its critical acclaim and influence on prestige drama in the years that followed, True Detective also generated a deeply toxic fanbase. These fans were men who missed the point but who saw themselves as a vital part of the show’s metatextuality, the real “true detectives” all along. Ever since, that first season has primarily been remembered, not for its incredible acting, its brilliant aesthetic touches, that legendary six-minute tracking shot, nor even the now-ubiquitous line, “Time is a flat circle,” but for the misogyny. Its two subsequent seasons have mostly been forgotten altogether.

All of these uneasy truths loom large over season four, True Detective: Night Country, 10 years after its progenitor. Every succeeding season of this anthology series has occupied a lose-lose position simply by not being season one. But season four, by virtue of being centered around two women — a local chief of police (Jodie Foster) and a state trooper (Kali Reis) trying to solve a mysterious set of murders in the unforgiving Alaskan north — has simultaneously raised the stakes for the series and revived all of True Detective’s messy paradoxes.

Night Country’s new showrunner and writer/director Issa López needed to accomplish two risky, ambitious goals: The season had to justify itself as a creative follow-up to a work that’s very difficult to follow up, and rectify the notorious sexism of season one in a way that would hopefully allow the series to forge a new path. Its sixth episode, which aired Sunday on HBO, had to reconcile both goals in a satisfying finale.

To many among True Detective’s original fanbase, outrage at the second goal has precluded an objective view of how well it’s succeeding at the first. By the same token, many longtime fans are so eager to see the second project succeed that they’re quick to dismiss all critiques of season four’s creative aims as pure misogyny.

These seem like unbridgeable positions. But there’s unfortunately a third view: that Night Country’s creative flaws ultimately torpedo its efforts at feminist reclamation, shifting the season finale away from a compelling cosmic mystery and toward a ham-fisted Me Too revenge plot that leaves a comic number of plot points unresolved and arguably weakens the whole series.

To be fair to López, this isn’t the first season of True Detective to miss the mark by a mile. Season two, a hasty, shoddy 2015 follow-up from series creator and season one writer Nic Pizzolatto, featured all the worst parts of season one on speed — the tortured masculinity, the presentation of women as little more than sexy window-dressing, and a poor imitation of all of Matthew McConaughey’s famous existential monologues as Rust Cohle shoehorned into vapid machismo nonsense from Colin Farrell’s dysfunctional detective. Perhaps to shift himself and HBO away from misplaced allegations of plagiarism, Pizzolatto cut out most of season one’s mesmerizing Weird fiction elements: murky occult figures, arcane Lovecraftian rituals, and worship of the “Yellow King.”

If season two had too little of the supernatural, 2019’s third season was a true return to form, with Pizzolatto returning to the deep South and to a cold case tinged with occult horror, floating on a sense of nonlinear time, and backed by a soul-filled T Bone Burnett soundtrack. But by then, the world was a much different place, and True Detective had to compete with a field of its own descendants — shows as disparate as 2017’s Mindhunter and 2018’s The Terror, each successful at cordoning off a sliver of True Detective’s genius for themselves.

Still, anchored by Mahershala Ali’s pitch-perfect turn as an aging detective who spends decades trying to solve a cold case, season three really clarified the True Detective formula: A labyrinthine mystery driven by deep characterization, replete with hints of a dark otherworldly version of reality, filmed with an attention to aesthetics, and written with a certain literary flourish. Perhaps most of all, True Detective has to have a philosophy — a commitment to engaging with those eldritch horrors, if only to nod to them and be on your way.

On paper, Night Country ticks a lot of those boxes. Inspired by the recently solved Dyatlov Pass incident (an avalanche did it), the season follows a quest to solve the gruesome deaths of a team of scientists. The group was found naked, frozen, and apparently terrified to death in the tundra near the small town of Ennis, Alaska. Populated mainly by Iñupiat residents whose water has turned black due to pollution from an evil mining plant, Ennis has plunged into its annual winter stretch of sunless polar night, and tensions are high as the local police begin their investigation. Sheriff Danvers (Foster) and Trooper Navarro (Reis) work to solve the murders while navigating their own rocky history. The brutal, still-unsolved murder of an Iñupiaq activist has unexpected connections to the current crime; the women quickly realize they have to bury their differences and work together to solve all the murders at once.

Like season one, the finale brings us to a literal labyrinth, this time deep in the ice caves beneath Ennis. López has exchanged the Yellow King for an unnamed divine feminine spirit, perhaps Sedna or Mother Nature. (There’s also a tongue-in-cheek reference to the “Blue King” crab company throughout.) The locals all seem to be aware of “her,” and as our story progresses it becomes clear that some of them view the spirit of the murdered activist as synonymous with this ancient entity. In the final episode, we finally meet her — or at least we come as close to “her” as we can get.

But the similarities to that first season are all surface. López didn’t originally plan to create Night Country as a part of the True Detective universe, and her efforts to incorporate callbacks to previous True Detective seasons make that painfully clear. Throughout season four, references to season one recur, but they usually lack context and aren’t justified by anything happening around them. We learn a season four character had a relationship with Rust Cohle’s father; but so what? We learn our evil mining corporation has ties to evil corporate overlords from previous seasons … and? There are spirals everywhere, but we gain no enhanced understanding of what this familiar motif means.

López picks up on the well-known line, “You’re asking the wrong question.” She has characters repeat variants of this statement over and over again throughout season four until it becomes preposterous, an annoying substitute for meaningful writing. Each reference, from “flat circle” to Funyuns, is purely fan service, a distracting blip on the map that contributes nothing to our understanding of the True Detective universe.

The same goes for Night Country’s over-the-top horror elements, which range from pointless jump scares to spectral phenomena that appear for no reason. Where season two was completely devoid of the supernatural, Night Country is so full of ghosts that they lose all significance.

Other aesthetic choices are so baffling as to be unintentionally hilarious. Night Country utilizes a bizarrely off-kilter soundtrack of somber minor-key covers of famous pop songs that are absolutely incongruous with the mood of the show, from Eagle-Eye Cherry’s 1997 bop “Save Tonight” to eerie Christmas music. In the finale, we get a dark emo needle drop of “Twist and Shout,” and the gravely intoned “Shake it up, baby” lands with such unbelievable dissonance that I burst into laughter.

To be clear, both Foster and Reis are fantastic. Foster’s Sheriff Danvers keeps up a gruff loner hostility, pushing away her family, her partner, and her community, even as she works tirelessly to protect them all. When her exterior finally cracks open, it’s to reveal an unforgettable tapestry of grief and resilience. By contrast, Reis’s Navarro bleeds raw vulnerability throughout, running hot and then hotter as she gets closer to the truth in her long quest to find a killer, and perhaps an even more ancient quest to pursue the unknown spirit of the north.

As individual characters, they fully fit into the tradition of True Detective’s spiritually clashing sleuths who galvanize each other through a charged mix of loathing and shared desperation. Yet Danvers’ cynicism and Navarro’s spirituality never satisfyingly cohere — a fundamental flaw that Night Country doesn’t fully overcome. For all that Reis is excellent, when she and Foster are onscreen together she seems stifled, limited to churlishness and sarcasm. In episode six, Foster delivers an acting master class as her character finally reveals a little of her personal heartbreak, only to be met with a disconnected non-response from Navarro. It’s as if López didn’t know how to follow her own mic drop, so didn’t bother trying. It’s a hesitance that encapsulates a season full of baffling choices and inconsistent characterizations.

Perhaps the most baffling choice of all comes in the finale, when we finally learn that the murders of the scientists were facilitated by the women of Ennis, as payback for the murder of the activist — who, it turns out, the scientists themselves murdered and covered up, years ago. The show fully glosses over the improbable way the women learn about this cover-up to barrel toward what’s meant to be a righteous showstopper: They break into the science lab, armed to the teeth, and enact their vengeance, forcing the scientists to undress and fend for themselves in the brutal Arctic night.

This climax comes off as a ludicrous, unearned payoff, with undeveloped cardboard villagers standing in as mouthpieces for larger political stances, as they have throughout the season for environmental activism and post-Roe medical care. Here, though, it’s as if López was determined to reverse-engineer a feminist morality play, even if it meant superseding all attempts at coherent storytelling. To add insult to injury, the biggest unresolved “mystery” of the show — the one we’re left to assume was the work of the mysterious Arctic god — involves a human tongue being dropped on the floor. That’s right. We’re meant to believe “she” made her presence known by … spectrally drop-kicking a tongue under a lab table.

(The season’s second-biggest mystery, Navarro’s fate at the end, gets left deliberately ambiguous in the finale’s closing shot. Did she walk into the tundra for good, following the siren song of the ice goddess a la Frozen 2, or did she come back alive? We can’t be certain, but the idea that she’s now a ghost herself would feel more satisfying if Navarro’s struggle and escalating mental breakdown had felt less like a casual aside every now and then.)

This absurd plot resolution comes well after Pizzolatto himself reportedly shaded this season, calling the writing “stupid,” much to the delight of fanboys who couldn’t wait to bash the show purely on the basis of its female representation. Who do we root for? Of course we want to root for Night Country under these conditions, and the show has won a high score of “universal acclaim” on Metacritic. And yet I’ve got a dirty tongue backed by the world’s worst Lana Del Rey album that begs to differ.

What’s most frustrating about all of this is that this mess needn’t have happened. There are plenty of examples of better written, better directed female crime-solving duos in communities of sisters doing it for themselves. Last year’s criminally underrated Australian dramedy Deadloch, for example, mined this formula for comedy gold and plenty of suspense alongside well-earned feminist proselytizing. But it did so by relying on whip-smart writing, a story that bears out the moral, and phenomenal acting and chemistry between its two leads — arguably the truest detectives of all in this farce.

The downgrade from Pizzolatto’s season one craft to the clunky sophomoric writing of season four was probably avoidable. If Night Country had just been allowed to be its own thing, without any pressure to either live up to season one or abide by its Weird parameters, it probably would have been a much better show. We can’t fault HBO for wanting to revive one of its best franchises. But Night Country may ultimately go down as a reminder that sometimes it’s best to let sleeping eldritch creations lie.