“Start asking the right fuckin’ questions.”
– Rust Cohle
Asking the right questions is the theme for the latest episode of “Night Country,” which left us with a cliffhanger and a corpse-sicle last week, and gives us some serious connections to season one, more twists, and even more questions this week.
The episode opens with the Ennis Police Department on the ice, hacking away at the frozen block of scientists. One of them is tattooed with a strange, angular spiral on his forehead – the same spiral, it should be noted, that was a major plot point in season one(showing up on murder victims, and playing a part in the religious iconography of the Louisiana cult that Rust Cohle and Marty Hart tried to take down).
Police Chief Danvers refuses to transfer the case to Anchorage, despite Ennis’s lack of a forensics lab. “Fuck Anchorage!” she says angrily as the motley crew of cops hacks away at the ice, trying to carve out the block of scientists to bring the bodies back to town. And she’s right – but you’re only allowed to say that if you live here. As the cops are brushing away ice and snow from the corpses, one of the dorkier officers accidentally breaks off one of the scientists’ frozen legs, to Danvers’ dismay. And it turns out, to the scientist in question’s dismay too, as his frozen face contorts into a scream. One of the bodies, it turns out, isn’t so dead after all, and a few paces away, the scientists’ clothes are neatly folded, frozen to the ice.
Rose, the old woman who was guided to the bodies by the ghostly Travis, confirms the season one connection theory from last episode in her conversation with State Trooper Navarro. Travis is Travis Cohle, Rust’s Vietnam veteran survivalist dad, dead from leukemia. Rose, his former fling, is still visited by him, she says. “Ennis is where the fabric of all things is coming apart at the seams,” Rose says, talking about how she sees ghosts of people long gone. These apparently include the senior Cohle, who Rust talked about going to visit in season one. Besides the spiral, now there’s an actual concrete link to the first season – which is, admittedly, a little strange for an anthology series, where each season is supposed to be relatively self contained.
“The spiral,” Rose says, “is old. Older than Ennis.” It matches the spiral on murder victim Annie’s body, from episode one, contributing to Navarro’s desire to be in on the case, a request which Danvers is so far steadily refusing.
Danvers interviews a former fling, a geologist schoolteacher, about Tsalal Labs. All he knows is that the scientists were allegedly trying to sequence the DNA from a prehistoric microorganism, which they thought could potentially stop cellular decay – no more cancer, no more autoimmune diseases. A tricky task, to be sure – but it explained why the lab had been out there for so long, and why the science team was so reclusive. (At this point in the show, one of the students ushered out of the classroom by Danvers was wearing a Big Ray’s sweatshirt, and I did the point-and-snap at my laptop screen. That’s where I buy my socks! And Carhartts!)
After an attempt from Connelly, her supervisor, to move the case to Anchorage, Danvers tells him that according to forensics standards and practices, the bodies need to be thawed for 48 hours at 38 degrees, or else evidence would be lost. (Connelly is played by British actor Chris Eccleston, who’s doing a truly insane accent here, almost like what a Texas accent would sound like through a Scotsman’s mouth, mixed with a little Mandarin Chinese. Completely unplaceable).
The only place to thaw the bodies, it seems, is the local hockey rink, where Danvers has an icy (no pun intended) encounter with one of the representatives for the local mine, Kate McKittrick – the same McKittrick who crossed swords with Navarro years back during the investigation of Annie’s murder. (There’s a lot of threads and characters to keep track of, even two episodes in – it’s hard to keep up without a rewatch). McKittrick agrees to keep the corpses there, but only because she “loves Ennis.”
Not counting the screaming scientist at the hospital in a coma, there’s only five bodies frozen together so far visible. Using one of their frozen faces, Officer Peter Prior is able to access the corresponding scientists phone with face ID. (Would that even work? Never mind).
Meanwhile, Navarro is determining whether Annie knew one of the scientists, given the matching tattoo. Her brother doesn’t think so, and his mine worker friend Chuck claims not to know the scientist, but their conversation at a local burger joint (owned by Navarro’s fling Eddie Qavvik) is interrupted by a bar fight between a mine loyalist and an Ennis resident, shouting about how the Silver Sky Mining Company is poisoning the town’s water. More ideological conflict about resource development versus safety – sound familiar?
Prior and Danvers are able to access video from the unlocked scientist’s phone from the night of the disappearance – before the video cuts out, the scientist shakes, spasms, and whispers “She’s awake,” to the camera. Spooky stuff!
After interviewing some of the lab’s cleaning ladies, Danvers finds out that one of the scientists – Clark – was a habitual weirdo, walking around the station naked, locking himself in his room, crying. And even stranger, he had the spiral tattooed on his chest.
On her way to interview Chuck about the scientist, Navarro flashes back to her childhood briefly – an implied psychotic mother, and a sister who now lives in Ennis and works at Qavvik’s bar. A little more backstory is revealed for our rough-around-the-edges state trooper.
Chuck admits that he does know one of the scientists – Clark, who bought his (now deceased) cousin’s trailer for well above market value.
Prior, after digging a little into the funding of the Tsalal Station, drops to Danvers that a multinational company called Tuttle United provides the bulk of the money. Tuttle, season one enjoyers will remember, is the last name of the family that started the bayou cult responsible for hundreds of ritualistic murders across Louisiana. It’s a powerful family in the show – one Tuttle is a U.S. senator, one runs a multimillion dollar megachurch franchise. Have the Tuttles gone corporate? And how are they connected to an Arctic laboratory?
Danvers’ daughter Leah, in the meantime, has painted the traditional kakiniit tattoos on her chin, which infuriates the police chief for some reason. Leah later sneaks out to meet her girlfriend, while Danvers is unpacking boxes of Christmas ornaments – a reminder that this is technically a Christmas show. While going through the boxes, Danvers finds an old stuffed polar bear toy, and flashes back to her young son(?) playing with it on the floor, while the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” plays in the background (the same song that was on the TV when the scientists disappeared.)
This remembrance apparently spawns a sudden burst of post-menopausal hormones, and the next scene shows us Eccleston and his incomprehensible accent giving the business, sexual style, to Danvers atop an Ennis motel room table. It’s very loud and angry and goes on for a weirdly long time. Congrats to them, I suppose.
Refreshed, Danvers uses Clark’s tax records to determine where he got his tattoo – a place in Fairbanks. The model he used for the tat? None other than Annie K, murder victim. There’s a connection after all, and Danvers reluctantly agrees to work with Navarro “one last time” on the case. The two detectives are teaming up, officially, and after a rendezvous with Qavvik, Navarro knows where to look – Clark’s trailer, which he used to carry on his relationship with Annie in private, away from the lab.
The trailer, covered in ice and snow, is bedecked with animal bones and the same spiral pattern, and some sort of strange life-sized rag doll is lying in the camper bed. It recalls scenes from season one, where the artistic ritual of the scene was part and parcel with what made it totally fucking creepy. Prior calls Danvers, and we find out that there’s only six scientists frozen together in the ice. Counting the one in the hospital, that makes seven. One is still missing – the elusive Clark. Navarro thinks he’s still alive, and apparently we’ll find out next week.
I want to like this show a lot more than I currently do. It does a lot of things right – the setting is pretty accurately described, and the creeping dread that director Issa Lopez imparts is pretty much on the money. You can do a lot with the whole “30 days of night” setting, and she does.
But it’s hard to hear the stilted dialogue coming from skilled actors like Foster and Reis and not think of the musicality of McConaughey and Harrelson’s interplay. Hell, even Vince Vaughn and Colin Farrell had better exchanges in the controversial second season. Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff had chemistry, whatever else you could say about that season. And Pizzolatto’s writing could make up for a lot – but “Night Country,” so far, bereft of Nic’s Ligotti-inspired pessimism and dialogue, is more clunky exposition and choppy pacing, made up for by a cool setting, and a decently interesting plot.
The season one callbacks are fun on one level, and certainly entertaining. It’s cool to go “Oh yeah, Rust’s dad is back!” and “What are those devious Tuttles up to this time?” But sometimes, it does almost take away from the self-contained story that an anthology series is supposed to be, and it does, at points, feel like a crutch for the show-writers. Maybe it’ll be something – we are, after all, only two episodes in. But if the references turn out to be window-dressing to obfuscate a passable plot, so much the worse for “Night Country.”
Of course, I remain optimistic. As more about the lab is revealed, and the creepier elements are brought into the light (that trailer? The microorganism DNA?), the richer the tapestry of the show will hopefully become. For now, all we can do is wonder – where is Clark? And how is the lab connected to Annie’s death? And what did they find, encased in the Arctic ice?