Alaska-set ‘True Detective: Night Country’ takes on a very cold case

Alaska-set ‘True Detective: Night Country’ takes on a very cold case

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It feels right that Jodie Foster returned to the small screen to stare down a CGI polar bear and yell at the denizens of a small Alaska town in her capacity as their jaded, horny police chief. Foster belongs on TV; I’ve wanted for years to see that confidence, bordering on swagger, in serial form. And the blistering intelligence. And the flashes of something softer under all that defended reserve. Her screen presence is such that any project including her will have originality basically baked in.

And yet I finished “True Detective: Night Country” feeling frustrated as well as moved. This was a season with good bones (pun intended) that needed more than six episodes to breathe. Absent that space, it leans on so much shorthand that the setup starts to feel hand-wavy and a little, well, generic. Set in a fictional Alaska town called Ennis, “Night Country” is innovative and even brilliant in stretches but strangely artless at building out its own world. Hints of the tensions plaguing Ennis, for example, fail to establish much beyond an ambient, paint-by-numbers hostility. There’s a local mine polluting the water, skyrocketing stillbirths, a bar fight where a drunk says the town wouldn’t even exist without the mine. That these issues connect, somehow, to violence against women, especially Indigenous ones, seems perfectly plausible. But the case is never quite made, and if you exclude the protagonists (many of whom are quite specific and sharply drawn), Ennis is peopled by more archetypes than actual characters.

The series is also — partly because its two chief investigators, Foster’s Liz Danvers and Kali Reis’s Evangeline Navarro, are effective but laconic types disinclined to elaborate or explain — confusing. I often ended up in a baffled, inferential crouch, drawing on other shows for missing context about how an Arctic community might theoretically work, or develop fault lines, or devolve. The stylish thriller “Fortitude” — about a remote and insular town reeling from the resurgence of an ancient parasite preserved in the permafrost — is an obvious point of comparison, along with John Carpenter’s 1982 film, “The Thing,” of which showrunner Issa López is a fan. But there are also echoes of Jane Campion’s “Top of the Lake” and especially “Northern Exposure,” the definitive TV series about life in Alaska, notable for how it seasoned workaday human endeavors (and moral systems) with a Jungian mix of magic and fate and the wild.

There’s a reason “Night Country” compulsively courts these comparisons. The show, rich though it is, won’t quite commit to specificity. Everyone, including the victims and the perpetrators, is more representative than unique. Even the traumas tend (with one exception) to be formulaic. There’s a point in the series that feels almost like a wink to this: Foster, playing Ennis’s prosaic chief of police, responds to an otherworldly tableau of male cadavers mutilated by horrifying, apparently self-inflicted wounds with an amusingly bureaucratic order to check whether there are records of any similar injuries on file.

(There is, improbably, one such case on record, and maybe that’s a thesis of sorts for this season, which heavily thematizes the unstated connections between events and causes. Nothing is new or unique. If you’re feeling generous, that’s a bid for something like universality.)

Fans of the “True Detective” franchise (which I am not, and that feels important to say in the spirit of full disclosure) will no doubt engage in comparative exercises, too. The new season certainly seeks to honor the show’s past successes; a Yellow King reference shows up at the beginning, and a “flat circle” allusion pops up later in the series.

But the contrasts also feel sharp and deliberate. López is this season’s showrunner, director and writer, and it sometimes feels like she’s thinking of this season, with its female cops and female writers, as a contrapuntal answer to much that the hypermasculine first season introduced. There is no speechifying here, thanks to our two tight-lipped female cops. Danvers, whom Foster has described as a “Karen,” is a widow trying to raise her stepdaughter, and Reis’s Navarro is an Indigenous cop who can’t quite escape feeling like an outsider, even in her own community. The catalyst for the new season isn’t a dead woman (though there is one, a midwife named Annie K); it’s a large number of dead men. And their bodies, not the woman’s, remain the camera’s focus. In lieu of sweaty Louisiana, most of the season was shot in Iceland in the snow and the dark. And while the spiral from the first season pops up (a little too often, I’d suggest) its meaning seems … different.

The season begins a few days before Christmas, on the cusp of the months-long darkness, with the mysterious disappearance of eight scientists from an Arctic research station called Tsalal. Danvers shows up at the scene with her colleague Hank Prior (John Hawkes), a dissipated cop getting scammed by his mail-order bride, and his bright-eyed idealistic son (and Danvers’s mentee) Peter Prior (Finn Bennett). They find blaring electronics, abandoned sandwiches and an Indigenous woman’s severed tongue.

It’s an intriguing setup that quickly and effectively establishes what kind of sleuth — and teacher — Danvers will be. The concrete examples the show delivers can be great. (She knows the rate at which mayonnaise goes runny, for instance, and deduces when the scientists disappeared.) The more conceptual setup, however — Danvers emphasizes looking for the “right question” over finding the right answer — is cool in theory but weak in practice. Montages (plural) of Foster arranging and rearranging case files in spirals and staring at them don’t illuminate much about how she works.

End of carousel

This may be the downside of making taciturnity your sleuth’s chief trait. It’s at times genuinely tricky to track what the detectives are looking for and why. (At one point, Danvers shows Navarro a parka in a photograph, but because they both instantly grasped its significance, I didn’t.) The mystery you end up trying to solve is why whatever’s happening on screen is happening, rather than how or why the crime was committed.

Many of these problems resolve on a second watch because you know what’s going on and can focus on the jokes and echoes and creepy resonances, but having just a few more characters asking just a few more questions could (to crib from Danvers) have made this season great. So would letting some of the animosity unspool through dialogue; I’d have loved to know the substance of Danvers’s objection to her teenage stepdaughter getting a Kakiniit tattoo, for instance, but that conflict gets shoved aside for the sake of broader but more generic ones (evil corporation vs. Indigenous community, violent men vs. women, etc.).

As a result, the town — and the base and the mine — all start to feel more like placeholders than actual places as the series begins to sag under the freight of all the themes it introduces. These include domestic violence, pollution, indigenous identity, corporate corruption, shady science, racism, “the origins of life,” a mysterious “she,” something called the “Night Country,” mystic visions vs. run-of-the-mill mental illness, reproductive justice, addiction, mother-daughter conflict, natives vs. newcomers, ghosts, midwifery, spirituality vs. atheism, activism, protesters, trauma, suicidality, adultery, gossip, bereavement, the problem of life after death, and the problems people try to solve from the other side. Also: polar bears.

That’s a lot. It’s so much that Foster, for all her screen time, gets underused (and also just oddly used — there are flashbacks where she seems to play a different character altogether). Reis, to her credit, is the standout.

It seemed to me, a few episodes in, that “Night Country” had hopelessly overextended itself. The ending, however, goes a long way toward redeeming some odd pacing and early missteps — and toward authorizing some of the show’s stranger cuts and omissions. While the new season arguably overcorrects for aspects of the franchise to which it belongs, it also ties together more than I thought possible. The effect is blurry but disturbing and sometimes beautiful.

“Night Country” isn’t perfect. Plenty of answers are missing. But like its rigorous, tetchy protagonist, it does at least end up asking the right questions.

True Detective: Night Country premieres Sunday on HBO, with subsequent episodes airing weekly.

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