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Notes On True Detective: Night Country By Eugene Thacker & Tariq Goddard
The Quietus , February 19th, 2024 09:24

The pessimistic philosophical text In The Dust Of This Planet was an influence on Season 1 of True Detective; its author and publisher settle in for the long dark night of Season 4. Contains some light spoilers for early episodes of Night Country

True Detective: Night Country is the fourth incarnation of the occult-leaning anthology of TV crime stories originally conceived by writer director Nic Pizzolatto. After a bravura opening season in 2014 – which featured Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson tackling philosophical, metaphysical, liturgical and psychedelic problems, as well as violent disagreements with a spatially/temporally transcendent serial killer, a meth-dealing biker gang and each other – the show seemed set to shake up the conventions for murder investigation procedurals at the very least. A second season a year later, featuring Colin Farrell and Vince Vaughn, was initially judged to have suffered a "sophomore slump" however, although it has also since attracted a slow-burning vocal support from some more comfortable with the great tonal leaps between series. The popular narrative of season three – featuring Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff – was one of a near complete return to form, perhaps dependent on some mixture of Pizzolatto having to work with other writers and having been given more time to create the season.

The fourth season – which was ostensibly created without Pizzolatto's involvement, who was replaced by new auteur Issa López – premiered at the end of January, featuring the stellar pairing of Jodie Foster and Kali Reis and the final episode airs in the UK tonight (Monday 19 February). Keeping any kind of spoilers to an acceptably light minimum, the action takes place during the total night of Alaskan winter in the fictional town of Ennis. Against a backdrop of extreme wage inequality and tensions between native and white inhabitants, with a mainly blue collar population suffering because of pollution and addiction, the story concerns the mysterious disappearance of eight scientists from a nearby research station, and while rampant capitalism might be one of the drivers of the event, there are conflicting suggestions that it may actually be supernatural in nature. The choice of the two leads plus incredible support from Aka Niviâna, Fiona Shaw and Dervla Kerwan, helps López make good on her initial claim that Night Country would be "a dark mirror" of series one: "[The original is] male and it's sweaty, Night Country is cold and it's dark and it's female."

Back in 2014, the first season gave pop culture a new reading list including Robert W. Chambers' weird fiction anthology The King In Yellow and a core text for the philosophy of pessimism, In The Dust Of This Planet. The author and publisher of the former – Eugene Thacker and Tariq Goddard – watched series four recently. Here are their notes.

1. “Ask the right question”

The televisual landscape in 2024 seems rife with desperate, self-aware, contrarian provocation, clever tricksters eager to stay ahead of common (sensical) responses to the streaming whirligig, too cool for sincerity and too cautious to care about politics, but in their element when arguing that Season 2 of True Detective was perfection incarnate just to annoy the pedants who believe the world is round (and so prefer Season 1) – or that Ray Velcoro’s moustache rocked way harder than the Schopenhauerian speculation spilling out of the death mask that was Rust “the Taxman” Cohle, a figure whose innate greatness ought to be taken for granted, even by those who hate nothing more than confessions from an onscreen cop.

To its credit Season 4 – Night Country – doesn’t want to play these games, far less embrace mirth or frivolity in any form at all. Conceived and directed by Mexican auteur Issa López, Night Country accepts it must aspire to the level of a masterpiece or be judged a failure, and consequently the anxiety of influence hangs heavily over its every solemn second. López is no stranger to horror fans, many of whom consider her 2017 film Tigers Are Not Afraid a benchmark in the studied collapse of the eerily fantastic and the brutalism of the real, and it is this attentiveness to the unraveling of metaphysical certitude that also bears the indelible imprint of the True Detective series.

To be clear, anything that even aspires to be as necessary as Season 1 is worthy of respect, and though Season 4 never quite beheads the king, it more than holds its own, both nodding to the original series while taking us into new terrain, where the burden of human dominion darkly turns into what can only be called a sacred conspiracy, ratcheted up to the Arctic deep time of the planet itself.

2. “We’re alone – God too”

By now everyone knows it is the last day of light in Alaska and the death instinct is in full effect, as caribou charge off a cliff and are later joined in eternal rest by a team of scientists, who, having been found in a block of ice where they have died horribly of fright – their contorted facial expressions consistent with the primordial howls of The Thing – bear the stigmata of all fools who mess in matters beyond their depth. In place of bird traps and straw dolls, Night Country gives us a spiral pictogram, found embalmed onto the head of one of the victims. But whereas the horrific caricatures of children’s toys seemed to be the calling card of a pedophile ring, this time around the totem seems to imply death by metaphysics, or at least by some archaic form of geomancy beyond the pale of both religion and science, and further evidence that this “shitbowl” of a case is not going to be solved by anyone who doesn’t believe in the unbelievable. At this point the scientists’ likely transgression (the comically unsympathetic manner of the investigation suggests they asked for it) is that they have made the mistake of looking for the origin of life at the end of the world – namely Ennis, a remote Alaskan remnant of a town where “the fabric is coming apart at the seams”.

Faced with all this, even a committed pragmatist following the evidence of their own senses might suspect that this is some kind of ritual killing, a collective execution without executioners, a sacrifice of another sort, whose nebulous motives and nefarious agencies forever lurk in the blind spot of cognition. Suffice it to say that in Night Country the question isn’t so much the conventional ‘whodunnit’ but rather, ‘whatdunnit’ (after all, the cops do not find the bodies – a ghost does).

And so for this crime to be solely of the world of human beings risks absurdity from the off, unless it be a combination of the two, which may still be a bridge too far for those who prefer Dashiell Hammett to David Lynch, and in this sense Night Country loads the dice in favour of a cosmic mystery rather than a Police procedural, highlighting the rupture between Season 4 and its forebears.

3. “The world is getting old”

At the same time, True Detective has always grappled with a set of thematic dichotomies: scepticism versus belief (or the religious equivalent, faith versus doubt), God versus a meaningless universe, spectres versus Monstrous Sapiens, the banality of evil versus the irreducibility of it, and those that can hear the dead sing versus those that cannot, or will not.

This struggle is often played out within the characters’ minds, the camera neither picking sides nor awarding victory to either tendency. The strength of the franchise is to not regard these admittedly basic oppositions as hackneyed to death, but as definitional and determining as they really are, taking them back from wayward undergraduate soul searching, and restoring them to the level of classical ontology, as deeply unwavering as it is deeply uncertain.

López acknowledges all this and wants to go further than series creator Nic Pizzolatto has gone before (he is credited as an executive producer this time around). To that end she overthrows the existing detente between the known and unknown, the secular versus the religious, the natural versus the supernatural. The varied and rich tradition of indigenous Alaskan thinking interwoven into the Season 4 – via the Iñupiat residents that live within and at the fringes of Ennis – helps to move True Detective into a new space, where the natural is supernatural (with corporate mining and Big Pharma as black magic), and the supernatural is natural (the dead walk among us every day – or is it we who walk among the dead?) It’s telling that Rose Aguineau (played by Fiona Shaw), a sort of benevolent white witch who seems to exist beyond good and evil, has no qualms about dropping a dead body, no questions asked, into a hole in the ice – warns Trooper Navarro to not “confuse the spirit world with mental health issues”, not because one is reducible to the other, but because they both exist, irreducible though each may be.

This is why Night Country is at once an extension of and departure from the True Detective series. To his credit, Pizzolatto outlined an affective arc in Seasons 1 through 3 that is remarkable for both its poetry and its precision. If Season 1 gave us the slightest glimpse into a dreaded cosmic ‘beyond’, Season 2 deployed only the outer veneer of the supernatural as a smokescreen for a much more human, much more secular conspiracy, while Season 3 took this even further, and, in a daring move, suggested to us another kind of horror: that there are only human beings, and nothing more, no Elder Gods or green spaghetti monsters, just humans, leaving us with nothing but jumbled facts, confused events, and fading memory slowly eroded by time.

True Detective has always been television that is as much about ‘life itself’ in all its perishable glory as it has been about crime, justice, or knowledge. In this sense the series privileges the big questions we often ask no matter what our age, while addressing them through the nominally clichéd dramatic trope of two cops just doing their job (a conceit inspired in its stark simplicity).

And yet, as the sense of ‘the beyond’ recedes behind the fog of all too human schemes, the same metaphysical doubts remain. If Season 3 ends on the decidedly secular note of ‘there’s only people’, it would seem that the only option left is that of Night Country: ‘there’s no people’, and in fact, there never were, as we all live on borrowed (planetary) time, and the distance that separates the dead walking among us and we the living walking among them has perhaps long ago collapsed beneath the eerie patience of arctic ice.

4. “Out there, abandoned, forgotten”

Geography is crucial to the atmosphere of True Detective as a whole – in fact, the setting is a silent character in and of itself, establishing the ambient dread particular to each of the series: the half-sunken terrain of the American south, where desolate marshlands, ruined buildings, and invasive species are set against a roiling, cosmic sky; or the concrete desert of southern California, highways crisscrossing like occult sigils (recall Season 2’s closing scenes, the central characters absorbed into the vast landscapes of forest, desert, and ocean); or the barren, ageless rocks and withered trees of the Ozarks, dead nature creeping into the dead time of uncertainty, doubt, and lost memories (recall Season 3’s opening scenes, search parties confusedly drifting in the otherworldly night of granite, limestone, and fog).

The Alaskan setting forms a central part of Night Country, the landscape porous with the interstices of the human drama – at some points, it quite literally engulfs the characters. And while Series Four was not actually shot on location, the arctic setting provides more than enough of the same kind of reversal of foreground and background we’ve come to expect with the previous landscapes: a rift in the labyrinthine ice, surreal skies, and days of night gently wrapping around a fragile psyche, elongated in frozen time. The perfect crime, it would seem, is the murder of a world cast in our own image, while we all carry on unawares, the earth itself demanding a blood tribute that we must pay for with our dead.

Perhaps the ancient myths have spent too much time reaching up towards the heavens, just as our cosmologies (and satellites) are forever gazing up at the stars. We forget that the sacred is below, within the chthonic rifts that reveal to us a primordial earth. Night Country invites us to peer into a different cosmos, an abyss beneath our feet, a chthonic cosmos beneath ice and mud and rock that is as impervious to our all too human hopes, dreams, fears, and schemes as we are to a planet that we, with stunning presumptuousness, call “our” home. In Night Country the ice engulfs everything, the living, the dead, and the fossilised remains a life so ancient it is alien. The Tizerhuk lies frozen in its patience, waiting, watching, coiled around our most unutterable suspicions. Maybe we’ve had it wrong all along, and the earth is not there to feed us, or to be mined, or to provide the backdrop for our dominion – maybe we exist in order to feed the earth.

5. “She’s awake”

As anyone inclined towards this kind of entertainment will already have seen The Terror, Yellow Jackets, The North Water, and probably Tin Star and Fortitude as well, to say nothing of the hallucinatory, teratological requiem for humanity that is John Carpenter’s The Thing (viewers will have noted the Blu-Ray DVD on display in Episode 1), and so undertaken long service in hard stations with Arctic Noir, Night Country is as haunted by the signifiers of its setting as it is compelled by them. The personalities of the lead investigators is both integral to the human drama, while also allowing the Arctic setting to quietly seep into their psyches, the two partners alternately goading, indicting, and instructing each other, to a point where their interpersonal drama is so compelling that we would follow them on their own, killer or no killer, case or no case.

Both women arrive haunted, and by several ghosts each, bombarded by signs from above or below almost without interruption, from abandoned toys to one-eyed Polar Bears, revealing to each their histories both acknowledged and buried. The transparent facticity of this, like those occasions where López employs straight-ahead horror, is never really in question. We witness Danvers’s dead child ask Navarro, in a vision, to pass on a message to his mother, and although Foster’s reaction to this news is worthy of the greatest god haters of all time, that it really happened is never called into question, particularly as Danvers eventually relents and accepts consolation. Despite meaning well, Navarro makes it clear that her god is as in need of help as the rest of Ennis, and is closely defined if not interchangeable with nature, which though under attack, can still inspire the best of us to ask the right questions (“Prayer? You talk to god?” – “No, I listen”), proving no match for the prickly cynicism that Danvers seems only to grateful to finally be unburdened of.

Foster’s Danvers is quarrelsome, brilliant, promiscuous, down-home, hokey, and an incubator of unexamined prejudice – as believable as she is unfairly maligned. The running refrain is that she has no friends, and is pretty much hated by everyone but Prior, though by playing Danvers as not quite hateable enough, just a lonely widow who will sleep with Ennis’s married men to address some unnamed grief, or raise her voice to mask an essential decency, lest this render her a target in the intensely political world of Alaskan police work, gives us the push and pull that inhabits so many of the genre’s most compelling characters. Reis’s Navarro has likewise had a hard time of it with family trauma, military service, and the complicated role of being an indigenous police officer, hence her resting wounded pride face, and the brooding sullenness with which she meets adversity. If Danvers encapsulates the necessary hypocrisy of the law, Navarro is the counterweight to copaganada, epitomizing the duality of police work, her basic impulse to demand greater consistency in the application of the law, and when the law is inadequate to the demands of justice, it’s time for the spirit world to step in, where another kind of justice is enacted.

6. “Older than the ice”

Night Country is, of course, not without its shortcomings: uneven pacing, a convoluted plot thick with digressions, and a social justice message that, while necessary, occasionally borders on the didactic. We are expected to work hard, and the show is clearly built to be watched twice, as even the reading material of one of the scientists – Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian – acts as a precursor of what we may know by the end of the series. This deliberation, along with the curious mix of the predictable and the hard to follow, flags the way the non-supernatural side of the story takes on some supernatural implausibilities, as if the distinction between the two realms no longer matters in a story world where there is no longer even the separation of day from night.

But none of this is enough to bury Night Country in the ice, and its boots-on-the-ground readiness to go big or not at all is still preferable to the timid alternatives for which most television drama settles. Season 4 can claim to have made a genuine contribution, for if the evidence is leading Danvers and Navarro towards the question of life and a confrontation with death, then the deaths themselves may have unwittingly pointed the investigation in a more existential direction, and that, in the deep time of the earth, the fleeting moments of insight are as insubstantial as suffering is real – and this is, perhaps, something with which one could look Rust Cohle in the eye and not blink.

Night Country may not give us the level of involuntary watchability of Season 1. Instead it is a bold meditation on the nature of revenge and the revenge of nature, and to that even greater crime that we all hope watching television will help us forget – that if we murder the earth, we leave the earth with no choice but to murder the future.

The final episode of True Detective: Night Country aired today on Sky Atlantic. Eugene Thacker's In The Dust Of This Planet is published by Zer0. Tariq Goddard and Thacker edited The Repeater Book Of The Occult