Looking back, 2014 was truly a different time: Obama was in office, skinny jeans still reigned supreme and “True Detective” established itself with an unabashed emphasis on masculinity. Three years earlier, Ryan Murphy had revived the anthology series with “American Horror Story,” but it took the imprimatur of HBO, massive movie stars and a “serious” genre like crime to give the format real prestige. In pairing Matthew McConaughey with Woody Harrelson on a journey through the bayou, creator Nic Pizzolatto elevated some of that genre’s clichés and left others intact — including a marginal presence for women, crowded into bit roles as wives and villains to make room for portentous monologues and four-minute tracking shots.
The fourth season of “True Detective,” subtitled “Night Country,” is both a sharp break from the show’s past and an implicit response to its shortcomings. After a disastrous Season 2 and an improved, if understated, Season 3, Pizzolatto has fully ceded all showrunning duties, though he retains credit as an executive producer. In his place, Mexican filmmaker Issa López takes the reins for a haunting murder mystery set in far northern Alaska. (Director Barry Jenkins also joins the “True Detective” team via his production company Pastel.) And to share the titular role, López casts a first for the franchise: multiple female leads, in the form of living legend Jodie Foster and boxer-turned-actor Kali Reis. But “Night Country” doesn’t just tweak the “True Detective” formula in terms of gender. The six-episode season also takes a notably different approach to the supernatural, a background motif of past installments that here becomes a central theme.
Foster’s Liz Danvers is the police chief of Ennis, a fictional town that experiences the real phenomenon of polar night, in which the Earth’s extremes plunge into darkness for days at a time around the winter solstice. Just after the last sunset of the year, eight scientists at a secretive research station seem to vanish into thin air. To find out what happened to them, Danvers has to re-team with her estranged former partner Evangeline Navarro (Reis), who’s spent years hung up on the unsolved murder of Native midwife Annie Kowtok (Nivi Pedersen). When evidence emerges that the two cases are related, Danvers and Navarro begrudgingly pool their resources.
As “Night Country” continues, it starts to furnish the details that make Ennis feel like a lived-in place, such as the longstanding tensions between the Native community and a mining corporation they charge with dumping pollutants into the water supply. On an interpersonal level, Danvers is a prickly misanthrope with a penchant for ill-advised affairs, whether with a high school teacher married to the mine’s local manager or with the boss who exiled her to the Arctic in the first place. Her only colleagues are a father-son duo: Hank (John Hawkes), a sad sack pining for his mail order bride, and Prior (Finn Bennett), a young father whose dedication to the job causes a rift with his wife Kayla (Anna Lambe), who’s putting herself through nursing school. Danvers is widowed, though still raising her teenage, half-Native stepdaughter Leah (Isabella Star LaBlanc), who gets involved with anti-mine protests both to act out and to explore her own heritage. In just a few hours, we get a crash course in Ennis’ tightly woven social web, a claustrophobic environment at odds with the open space that surrounds it.
Before the show’s realism trickles in, though, “Night Country” begins on a fantastically creepy note that resonates throughout the season, a tone sustained in part by a credits sequence set to Billie Eilish’s “Bury a Friend.” When a deliveryman stops by the station, all that’s left of the scientists is a severed human tongue and the parade scene from “Ferris Bueller” blasting on a loop. Not that it takes long to find the all-male crew: They turn up naked, frozen and dead, discovered by local eccentric Rose Agineau (Fiona Shaw) who herself claims she was led to the bodies by the ghost of an ex-lover. (“It’s a long fucking night,” Rose says. “Even the dead get bored.”) But there are signs, like burnt corneas and ruptured eardrums, the scientists didn’t simply die of exposure.
The two investigators react to these events like a modern riff on Mulder and Scully. Danvers insists there must be “a real explanation” for the deaths, while Navarro is more open to the paranormal. But there’s an added racial dimension to this believer-skeptic divide. Navarro is part Native, the butt of Danvers’ crude jokes about “spirit animals” and other perceived superstitions; her sister, Julia (Aka Niviâna), struggles with either hallucinations or visions, depending on one’s perspective. Finally, there’s the rewarding contrast between Foster, a veteran stepping into her meatiest role in years, and Reis, whose revelatory intensity belies her recent transition into acting. Both the roles and performances complement one another, giving “True Detective” two true, evenly matched co-leads for the first time since Harrelson and McConaughey.
Everywhere Danvers and Navarro look, an ominous black spiral keeps popping up, drawn on a wall or scratched into a rock. The symbol is a callback to the eerie dolls and stick sculptures of seasons past, but the question of what can or can’t be explained by pure logic is much more central to “Night Country” than any “True Detective” before it. While ultimately ambiguous, said ambiguity reads more like an intentional choice than a red herring (or Yellow King, if you will) — one that ties into the season’s highly specific setting, which becomes more than just a striking backdrop. The hardened female cop in a blue-collar community, as seen in series like “Happy Valley” and “Mare of Easttown,” is now as much of a trope as elements of the first “True Detective.” In redefining what the show can be, “Night Country” also invigorates the archetype by placing it in a fresh context.
‘True Detective: Night Country’ premieres Jan. 14 on HBO and Max at 9:00pm ET, with remaining episodes airing weekly on Sundays.