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We Build Alaska

Review: True Detective: Night Country – Episode Four

This episode of “Night Country” ups the jumpscare factor, but does little to improve on the plot. 66% of the way through, and more questions and subplots seem to be being dropped in favor of other, less compelling ones. But I get ahead of myself – Dry January is over, and I’m drinking warm Gekkeikan sake and a cold Montucky, alternating between sips to reckon with every, to put it bluntly, “wacky” stylistic choice this television show makes. Nic Pizzolatto, by the way, agrees with me.

Episode four opens with Danvers lying in bed, replaying Annie K’s murder footage on her phone over and over again. It’s Christmas Eve, and the Anchorage police are packing up the corpses to go to Anchorage, as she drives to the ice rink – to be interrupted by Julia, Navarro’s mentally ill sister, wandering shirtless along the side of the road. (This is what I mean about subplots being dropped for less compelling ones – we’ve seen entirely enough about Danvers’ troubled stepdaughter and Navarro’s sister, and nothing that they’ve done contributes to the overall plot or even mood of the show. They feel less like characters with actual agency and more like convenient props to be moved around when the showrunners need the detectives to reckon with their personal lives.)

After the credits, the decision is made to commit Julia to a mental facility in Ennis, and Connelly, Danvers’ one-time cop lover with the incomprehensible accent from episode two, is back in town, ostensibly to provide support with the “protests around the mine.” He doesn’t think Danvers can handle it (and so far he’s been right, if you’re asking me).

Prior informs Danvers that he might have a lead on someone else that suffered similar wounds as the scientists on the ice – self inflicted bites, burns on both corneas, and so on. Otis Weiss is a German national who’s gone ghost, and there’s not much to go on, besides a sighting in Noatak two months ago. Danvers puts an APB out on Weiss, to Prior’s protests that “it’s Christmas eve!”

Navarro informs Danvers via phone that there aren’t any ice caves in the area, so Annie’s death implies that she was killed and then moved into town where she was found. Danvers has an idea, though, apparently.

Meanwhile, the older Prior waits at the airport for his Russian mail-order fiancé (a sub-sub-plot point that was mentioned briefly in passing during the first episode, and something that I truly forgot was going on in the background). She never shows, on the Norlandair plane that shows up at the Ennis airport. (I looked it up – it’s an Icelandic airline that only flies to Iceland and Greenland. How hard would it have been to slap some digital Alaska Airlines or Ravn livery on the plane pulling in – or not show it at all? All the good grace these people built up with me with their Carhartt mentions and Crowley Oil signs was immediately lost when I saw that plane pull in.)

Danvers’ idea, it turns out, is to go bother another old geology teacher flame (married, by the way) and ask him where there might be some ice caves. He thinks there might be some “up by the Brooks Range” but can’t be sure. (The geography of Ennis is a little confusing – up implies north, so is it by Nome?)

Back at the mental hospital, Julia is confronted by an orange rolling out from under her bed (a callback to last season, where Navarro saw the same thing out on the ice). After investigating, she’s confronted with a ghost-like lady, wearing her mother’s crucifix necklace. (This was one of the first big jumpscares of the season, and I actually flinched. No shame in admitting it.)

The Priors go off to Christmas dinner together, and Navarro goes to visit Rose, the old lady that found the scientists, who remarks that Ennis is quieter than where she used to live. “Except,” she says, lighting a blunt and snapping her lighter closed, “for all the fuckin’ dead.” (This line would have been sort of cool in the first few episodes, but by the fourth, it feels like cover for a transparent plot. Yeah, we get it – Ennis is spooky and people see ghosts here. Do something with that. By this point in season one, there had already been two firefights, one sketchy biker bar, and copious shots of McConaughey doing a lot of blow.)

Danvers gets another call from the owner of the mine – her stepdaughter Leah has spraypainted “Murderers” on the glass doors of one of the mine buildings. Somehow, Danvers gets them to not press charges. (This goes back to what I said about how Leah doesn’t feel like an actual character – she reads like the screenwriters plugged “disaffected teen northern Alaska” into an AI chatbot and sort of copied down whatever the computer spat out. No nuance, no depth – just barely comprehensible political “activism.”)

Navarro gets a call from her sister, who’s somehow escaped the hospital and is standing naked out on the ice. After hanging up, Julia walks out into the snow and disappears.

Danvers compares the video from Annie’s death and the scientists in the lab, and determines that in both cases, the power went out, so there must have been power in the ice cave. Somehow, she ties this back to Oliver Tagaq, the nomad from last episode, because he worked on the lab’s engineering crew. She gets Navarro and young Prior to go back out and interview Tagaq again, but he isn’t home. The detectives find a rock with the strange spiral carved on it, and his friends say he left the day after they came originally.

Danvers, in the meantime, goes over to see Connelly, who is sitting on his hotel bed watching “Elf.” (I’ll give them this, that made me laugh out loud in my unkempt apartment. The quick cut from Connelly to Will Ferrell jumping on an ice floe – pretty good stuff.) After bumping and grinding it out (please stop showing me weirdly shot sex scenes) Connelly says that Danvers is driving people away, and getting worse at her job. She storms off in a huff. (Is he wrong? Half of the “detective” work in this show has been her demanding that Prior do something, and she can’t seem to actually get any meaningful information out of her leads. Jodie, I’m sorry, I loved you in “Silence of the Lambs” but this Alaska cop is less Clarice Starling and more Gomer Pyle.)

After dropping Peter Prior back at his house, where an icy argument ensues between him and his wife, Navarro gets the call. The Coast Guard (?) has found her sister out on the ice, and they’re bringing the body into town tomorrow. In a blind rage, she drives to the mental hospital, and blows up at the hapless receptionist, smashing the place up. Navarro then proceeds to get beat up after assaulting a bunch of dudes standing outside, one of whom had been knocked out in episode one for domestically abusing his girlfriend. Licking her wounds, she heads to Qavvik’s, where she breaks down crying. At the same time, Danvers runs her car into a snowbank after seeing (hallucinating?) the same one-eyed polar bear.

On Christmas morning, Navarro heads to Danvers’ house, and sees the stuffed polar bear missing an eye on her floor, asking if it’s “Holden’s,” presumably Danvers’ son’s. Danvers responds poorly, saying that “dead people are dead,” chucking the bear out into the snow. Their argument is interrupted by a call from Prior, saying that the search team saw something out by the abandoned gold dredge on the edge of town. The photo he sends looks an awful lot like the mysterious Clark, and the cops go running.

Inside the spookily lit gold dredge, Navarro and Danvers are separated. Danvers finds the subject of the photo, but it isn’t Clark – it’s Otis, the German who disappeared. Navarro is confronted with the ghostly apparition of a woman (her mother?) and a Christmas tree set up in the bowels of the dredge. When asked where Clark is, Otis responds shakily “He’s hiding,” and then says “We’re all in the night country now.” (Hey, that’s the name of the show!) After finding Navarro again, Danvers realizes she has gone catatonic, and her eardrums have been perforated – the same injuries on the scientists. The episode then ends with – and I’m not kidding – a spooky, single-female-vocal rendition of “Twist and Shout” by the Beatles.

What else can I say? When it’s good, it’s OK. I started out really liking this show, and was willing to overlook its problems; now, whether that was an actual indication of its quality in the first episode, or if I had been on a 4-year “True Detective” drought and was willing to take anything at this point, remains to be seen. I tend to think it was more of the latter.

The problem with this show is that it’s unnecessarily complicated, and it throws characters at us that we have no reason to care about, because they’re so poorly fleshed out that their motivations remain strangely arcane. Characters make choices in this show, and the ramifications of those choices are either never discussed, or they’re so disconnected from the actual impetus of the original choice that they might as well be two completely separate events. Subplots – Prior’s mail order wife, Peter’s troubles at home, Danvers’ promiscuity, Leah’s half-assed activism and underage girlfriend, Julia’s recurring mental illness – all distract from the already paper-thin plot. The only one who actually seems to do any “True Detecting” is Peter Prior, who Danvers throws issues at and expects him to magically solve. (Which he does, by the way. What North Slope cop knows how to hack an iPhone?)

There are two episodes left in this show, and we are hardly any further into actually solving the crime than we were at the beginning. Leads show up, and instead of actually revealing any pertinent information, they spout some creepy psychobabble about the “night country” or “the ghosts of Ennis.” This show is almost totally inscrutable in its motivations – something that, once again, I suspect Pizzolatto’s absence has not helped one bit.

Events just sort of happen, and you get the sense that they would, regardless of the actions of the show’s main characters. I think that, at one point, the “strong female cop” would have worked just fine in the show’s setting – but now, four episodes in, none of these female cops have actually done anything but drink, complain, get in fights, screw their superiors, and pass their duties off onto other people.

There are two episodes left. Can we wrap up all the plot threads, maintain some kind of story consistency, and craft an ending that actually makes sense? Maybe – but I am decidedly not optimistic. This sake has made me mean, and much less likely to suffer bullshit from television than I would have been earlier. Sound off in the comments if you agree, or if you think I’ve gotten this all wrong.

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4 months ago

Thank you for also noticing the ridiculous notion of the Coast Guard finding her sister on the ice pack at night in the middle of winter. Who is writing this stuff? They are in big trouble trying to wrap this up in the next two hours. They haven’t even been to the Brooks Range ice caves yet, haha.

4 months ago

My husband and I got into an argument over this as neither one of us could figure out what is going on. I agree with your sentiments and thanks for giving insight in this overl-complicated plot. Don’t know who to root for but I like the young cop. This show has been an exercise in frustration but hopefully there is light at the end of this tunnel. Hate to see good talen go to waste.

3 months ago

I actually used Google to search for something to read that would explain why I’m SOOOOO confused and don’t understand this show! Like…is it just me? Thank you for confirming my feelings. This show blows. I love Jodie Foster, too, but…this is nearly unwatchable. Every episode leaves me more confused and at this point, I really don’t care who did anything.