When HBO announced that True Detective would be returning without any input from creator Nic Pizzolatto, there were concerns that this new iteration of the anthology cop drama would lack the dark eccentricity that initially set the series apart from the police procedural pack.
Possibly in response to those claims, new showrunner Issa Lopez is hinting at pulling off a feat that Pizzolatto never even attempted — creating a conclusive link between the current season and the one that made the show a sensation back in 2014.
Yes, it’s hard to believe, but it’s been a full decade since Pizzolatto’s bleak twist on the conventions of the pulpy noir genre first left audiences awestruck (and occasionally a bit baffled).
Both commercially and critically, the show never again rose to the heights of the McConaughey-Harrelson season, but Pizzolatto seemed unconcerned, eschewing fan service in favor of two later seasons that offered up serviceable if occasionally predictable crime drama.
Lopez, however, seems very interested in revisiting the gloomy terrain of Hart and Cohle’s investigation in terms of both tone and imagery.
True Detective Season 4 Episode 2 might have elicited gasps from viewers multiple times during its frigid cold open.
Not only did the scene feature a clutch of frozen corpses sporting some bizarre injuries, but one of the stiffs was tattooed with the crooked spiral that became one of the iconic symbols of True Detective Season 1.
If you’re one of the people who felt that Pizzolatto failed to deliver on the promise of TD’s early episodes (either in the Season 1 finale or beyond), then you must be excited about the direction in which Lopez seems to be taking the franchise.
The spiral imagery is repeated throughout the opening credits (as are the social media complaints that Billie Eilish’s “Bury a Friend” is overused by modern directors seeking a “creepy” tone).
Then it pops up again when Danvers visits a local high school teacher who happens to be lecturing to his students about the layers of the Earth.
There’s some history between Danvers and the teacher, but however messy their past might be, it’s got nothing on the complex relationship between Rose and Travis.
That one is complicated by the fact that Travis is no longer among the living but still has the nasty habit of popping up to direct Rose to crime scenes.
Between the ghostly ex and the screaming corpse, we’re starting to think that Lopez might be taking us into the realm of the supernatural, which would likely prove a divisive choice.
Then again, previous seasons of True Detective have tossed out cosmic horror red herrings without ever committing to the bit, so the new boss might just be carrying on the tradition.
Danvers’s interest in the earthly side of things dovetails nicely with Navarro’s exploration of the otherworldly.
Rose informs her that as he did in life, Travis only comes around “when he needs something.”
There’s a bit more of the clunky exposition that occasionally bogged down the first episode, as we quickly learn that Travis was a romantic partner of Rose’s who took his own life when he learned that he had a terminal case of leukemia.
We also learn that it was Navarro who found Travis’ body.
“One last gift from Travis Cohle,” Rose remarks. “I got to meet you.”
Yes, Travis shares a last name in common with McConaughey’s similarly long-haired cop from True Detective Season 1.
Maybe it’s a coincidence; maybe it’s something more — either way, you can expect the amateur sleuths of social media to have a field day with it.
(They’ve already pointed out that one of the murdered men at Tsalal was drinking Lone Star beer, Rustin Cohle’s beverage of choice.)
Navarro then informs Rose that her sister Jules also has visions of the dead, prompting Rose to quip:
Don’t confuse the spirit world with mental health issues.
That’s solid advice that might also serve as Lopez’s caution to viewers trying to figure out where the hallucinations end, and the ghostly business begins in the Lynchian world of Ennis, Alaska.
But just as she reminds Navarro that not every rabbit hole is worth exploring, Rose discusses the crooked spiral and reveals that it’s “older than the ice.”
This push-pull between the material and spiritual worlds might continue all season, and viewers’ enjoyment of True Detective: Night Country might depend on their ability to simply go along for the ride without compulsively differentiating the “real” from the hallucinatory.
Speaking of old ice, it seems that the Tsalas team was trying to unearth ancient secrets that might serve to extend human lives. The metaphorical potential is boundless!
Back at the station (police, not research), Christopher Eccleston makes his first appearance as the bigwig from Anchorage who wants the state to take over the case.
He and Danvers clash in predictable fashion, but since putting a dark twist on police procedural conventions has always been True Detective’s stock and trade, we won’t fault Lopez for trotting out the old trope of the messy jurisdiction battle.
This time, the fight introduces a new dimension to the investigation, as Danvers is able to buy herself 48 hours (the time it takes to thaw a frozen corpse) before the bodies are shipped to the capital.
Sure, it’s a bit of a gimmick, but it’s a fun one!
Lopez again demonstrates her penchant for dark humor with a Beach Boys needle drop accompanied by images of a block of frozen corpses being hauled to a skating rink for defrosting.
Again, it is a risky decision, but it’s one that pays off with a few seconds of effective comic relief.
The forgivable cliches continue as Danvers is initially dismissive when Navarro informs her that the crooked spiral tattoo was also found on the body of the murdered Annie K.
Evidence of the paranormal keeps mounting, but like generations of hard-nosed, skeptical cops before her, Danvers keeps grasping for a logical explanation for the scene at Tsalas.
And in the grand tradition of small towns with dark secrets, the locals are not in favor of Navarro reopening the Annie K. case.
Just as we’re beginning to feel as frustrated as Danvers with the lack of any leads, Peter Prior discovers a major clue — cellphone video taken seconds before the lights went out in Tsalas.
That’s when the frightened researcher Clark whispered, “She’s awake,” a phrase that’s now been repeated several times — and we’re only halfway through episode two!
From there, Clark takes center stage, and we learn from the delivery driver and cleaning staff that while the entire Tsalas crew was a bit eccentric, Clark was the weirdest of the weird.
The difference between psychosis and spirituality is one of this season’s main areas of interest, and Clark seems to have one foot planted in each world.
So it should come as no surprise that he also had the crooked spiral tattooed on his chest.
Clark also purchased a trailer from the cousin of a local jerk who bemoans the state of Ennis’ poisoned water supply but also seems to harbor a deep resentment for Annie K., who tried to prevent the construction of the mine that created so much damage.
Yes, True Detective Season 4 is very interested in folks who dig into the earth in search of answers, wealth, and whatever else they might find down there.
Next, Prior the Younger discovers that the Tsalas station is funded by a massive mega-corporation called Tuttle United, and you can bet they had some ulterior motives for shipping those scientists off to the Arctic Circle.
Peter asks Danvers why she’s so angry at Navarro, but it’s too early in the season for such a major question to be answered, so she shrugs him off.
Other family conflicts arise as Navarro tries to convince Jules to seek treatment, and Danvers lashes out at Leah for showing an interest in her native heritage.
The one-eyed polar bear and Danvers’ aversion to the Beatles are semi-explained in a flashback, which hints that a young boy is no longer in her life, possibly as a result of the drunk-driving accident that Leah alluded to in True Detective Season 4 Episode 1.
We get the requisite True Detective motel sex scene courtesy of an unexpected hookup between Danvers and Corsaro.
But hey, it’s a sex scene between two people over 50, which is a nice change of pace!
By investigating Clark’s mysterious tattoo, Danvers discovers that he and Annie knew one another, thus confirming that the two deaths are related.
She pays an unannounced visit to Navarro to confirm that their cases are one and the same — a fact that we sort of pieced together from the beginning.
We get a glimpse of Danvers’ previous life with Leah’s father, from which we learn that she used to be happy and her current state of misery is due to extensive trauma — a tidbit that, once again, most viewers had probably figured out during week one.
For a show called True Detective, it doesn’t give much credit to its audience’s powers of deduction!
I think the world is getting old, and Ennis is where the fabric of all things is coming apart at the seams.
We kid, but if this season has a fatal flaw, it’s that it might be too ambitious for its own good.
The show has so many balls in the air at all times that it’s forced to spend much of its time bringing the audience up to speed.
That’s all well and good for a twisty mystery, but when Lopez indulges her surreal side — such as when she displays the macabre tableau of a pile of corpses thawing out next to a Christmas tree — we can’t help but wish she were getting more of that show.
However, like her protagonists, Lopez feels a duty to make sense of everything, and like Danvers and Navarro, her desire to fit the puzzle pieces together might be to her detriment.
The biggest question of this season could wind up being: Can Issa Lopez reconcile the David Lynch on her left shoulder with the Agatha Christie on her right?
Finding answers is the job of every good detective, as well as every good author of conventional detective fiction — however, Lopez’s ambitions might be more complex.
With a mystery that involves the occult, climate change, helpful ghosts, conflicts between natives and colonizers, and the lingering questions surrounding a season of television that wrapped up a decade ago, it’ll be tough for her to offer up a resolution that will wrap up all the loose ends.
It’s an achievement that arguably eluded Pizzolatto in all his years at the helm, but maybe Lopez can do the seemingly impossible.
As the detectives investigate Clark’s trailer — replete, of course, with a big, spooky spiral on the ceiling — and reach the conclusion that he’s still alive (?!?!), we can’t pretend that we’re not intrigued.
But in order for this show to leave a satisfied audience nodding its head in comprehension as the end credits roll on Part 6, it’ll need to do more than just pique our interest.
Hell, even Twin Peaks eventually solved the mystery of who killed Laura Palmer.
Is Clark haunted by the ghost of Annie K.? If so, is that haunting literal or metaphorical? Did she possess the dour Dubliner and force him to murder his Tsalas colleagues?!?!
Most importantly, will True Detective: Night Country even attempt to answer these questions?
Lopez can take an ambiguous route that still delivers the goods with its conclusion — as long as she leaves us with the impression that she did so for good reason and not because she’d written herself into a corner.
The fact is, when you’re addressing the Big Questions about race, class, climate, and the origins of human life, it’s tough to find room for those conversations in the space of six episodes while still leaving time for the heroes to solve those pesky murders.
Obviously, we’re not expecting Lopez to crack the code of the universe, but it’s tough to imagine that she’s not setting herself up for failure by taking on so very much.
Thus far, True Detective Season 4 has kept us entertained — and a smidge mystified — but we’re growing a little skeptical of this show’s ability to close this case.
Tyler Johnson is an Associate Editor for TV Fanatic and the other Mediavine O&O sites. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, cooking, and, of course, watching TV. You can Follow him on X and email him here at TV Fanatic.