One Question Quiz
Kali Reis and Jodie Foster in season four of True Detective. (Photo: Supplied)
Kali Reis and Jodie Foster in season four of True Detective. (Photo: Supplied)

Pop CultureJanuary 16, 2024

True Detective is back, and it feels brand new

Kali Reis and Jodie Foster in season four of True Detective. (Photo: Supplied)
Kali Reis and Jodie Foster in season four of True Detective. (Photo: Supplied)

HBO’s flagship crime drama returns with a completely new team, and it might be the best season yet.

A new season of True Detective? Are we under a National government, looking into the middle distance at another Trump-tinged election while the planet heats up? Well, yes. But it’s also 2024 and there is a new season of the show that was once HBO’s award-winning golden child. Five years after the last season and 10 years since the show first premiered, True Detective is back – without creator Nic Pizolatto, but with a new director riding a high (Issa Lopez), starring the unlikely duo of an A-lister making her prestige TV debut (Jodie Foster), and an indie wildcard (Kali Reiss). This is True Detective, but not as you know it.

The core premise, however, might seem a little familiar. When eight men go disappearing from a research station in small town Alaska, hardened cop Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster, conspicuously returning to the onscreen profession that gave her her most iconic character) shows up on the scene, perturbed not by just the lack of definitive evidence, but the presence of what is obviously, to her, a Native woman’s severed tongue. On the other side of Ennis, the small mining town that would not exist if not for said mine, Evangeline Navarro (Reis) finds out about the presence of the tongue, and links it back to a cold case of hers from years ago. Navarro and Danvers have a past, and it’s not spoiling anything to say that these characters, the two protagonists, end up working together to solve this new mystery.

Jodie Foster as Liz Danvers in True Detective. (Photo: Supplied)

I’ll be honest: the first three seasons of True Detective never hit me just right. Even the first season, indisputably the best, now feels like an Ouroboros of muddled mythology and puffed-up masculinity gagging on its own tail, while the second and third iterations sit somewhere between messy and perfunctory. Night Country, however, feels like something new and exciting.

The change behind the scenes is perhaps the most obvious indicator that something is different. Issa López, mostly known for directing horror film Tigers Are Not Afraid, brings a chilly and more ethereal feel to the series. Not only are the visuals literally colder – being set during Alaska’s seemingly endless winter of night – but even the aural cues are harder to pin down. When Billie Eilish’s ‘bury a friend’ plays over the opening credits, it’s clear we’re in a different world.

That extends to the claustrophobia that seems to claw towards the edges of every frame. Every location is full of detritus, every breath containing two parts snow, one part air, and every single character knows one another, in stories that go back years before the opening shots. True Detective is a crime drama, sure, but in a small town like Ennis every story is a family drama. López understands this, and frames the characters’ intimacy more like imprisonment. Horror is a dead body, hell is a breathing one.

Jodie Foster and Kali Reis in True Detective. (Photo: Supplied)

Night Country shows its cards in a scene early in the first episode. Danvers shows up to the mysterious crime scene – ‘Twist and Shout’ plays from a speaker locked in a closet, “WE ARE ALL DEAD” scrawled on a whiteboard – and immediately notices things her male colleagues do not. Firstly, the mayo on a sandwich has gone rotten while the cold cuts have not, indicating how many days the men have been missing for, and something you’d only know if your kid had left their lunches in the back of your car. Danvers cracks, “You were never the sandwich-making kind of dad.”

In other shows, the femaleness of the lead characters has been the central conflict, and the main theme to revolve around. Series like Prime Suspect, The Closer, even Mare of Easttown set the lead character’s gender as their main source of strife, sometimes without interrogating what their gender means for the world beyond their job, their precinct. Night Country, however, takes a different route. The reason why Danvers and Navarro are so good at their job is because of their experiences as women, and women in a small community. They see the things that men don’t notice, because they’ve never had to notice. It is no accident that Danvers’ two male colleagues, Hank and Peter Prior – because this series has never been subtle with its names (see: Rust Cohle, Antigone Bezzerides) – fall on either spectrum of male incompetence. Hank is a deluded and petty misogynist, while Peter is a floundering simp.

It’s not just this season’s shake up in regards to gender that makes it compelling viewing, however, although as the mystery unfolds it has some very clear, pointed, things to say about who is allowed to have opinions and who is not. There is a sickening creep as we see the town having to negotiate its relationship to nature; how they’re stuck not just in eternal darkness but eternal cold, and danger. Ennis is a town full of people who make their profit off exploiting the land, and while nature might seem on the surface indifference, perhaps the indifference now comes with a side dish of vengeance. 

As with many cop shows, there is a worry that this is covering familiar territory with different shoes. There is a murder that will, almost certainly, have a more mundane explanation than it seems. Boundaries will be crossed, enemies may be allies, allies may turn out to be the worst people you’ve ever seen. But in the case of True Detective: Night Country, the unfamiliar shoes are worth the interest.

True Detective: Night Country is streaming on Neon, with new episodes dropping on Monday nights. Four episodes were watched for review.

Keep going!