Even as it diverges from the original approach, the newest season of True Detective urges viewers to look back at Season 1. The anthology series returns after five years with a season that is framed as a retort to previous installments, in particular the much ballyhooed first season that starred Matthew McConaughey as Lone Star-swilling, haunted detective Rust Cohle.
True Detective: North Country (the subtitle alone angles it away from the rest of the series) sees Mexican filmmaker Issa López take over for Nick Pizzolatto, and she's cast two female detectives — chief Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) and trooper Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis) — and set the entire enterprise north of the Arctic circle, where for months at a time, the sun doesn't rise.
These have been more than just cosmetic changes. The adversarial pairing of Danvers and Navarro obviously calls back to Rust and Marty (Woody Harrelson) in Season 1, but it's also a complement — if not an outright critique — of the first season's hard-line focus on male saviors. In piecing together the murders of a series of women and girls by an insidiously far-reaching cult, Rust and Marty were at the same time trying to wrestle out of the strait-jackets of their own fragile masculinity and come to terms with their powerlessness in a world where evil thrives. Danvers and Navarro are piecing together a case whose roots are even deeper and more insidious than in Season 1, while at the same time working within (and often, in the case of Danvers, complicit with) a system that lets the murder of an Indigenous woman go unsolved.
The gender-swap of the two main characters certainly offers plenty to talk about, but it's the "Night Country" in the title that may prove to be the most significant departure from the earlier seasons. The fictional Alaskan town of Ennis possesses everything a dark mystery like this needs: a central industrial concern (the mine) which gives the majority of the town a shared stake in not rocking the boat; enough dissenters in town who do want to rock that boat (we see this week that the group of protestors against the mine is sizable); a fortress on the fringes where secret science-y stuff has been happening for years. And then there are the ghosts.
In Season 4’s "Part 2", Rose (Fiona Shaw) talked about Ennis as a place where this aging world is beginning to come apart at the seams. And indeed, the season has been operating as a ghost story from minute one. Raymond Clark's (Owen McDonnell) ominous "she's awake" (repeated twice more thus far by mysterious voices to Danvers and Navarro) feels ripped straight out of a poltergeist movie. Rose was pointed towards the frozen cluster of dead scientists in the first episode by the apparition of her dead lover Travis Cohle (more on him shortly). The janitor at Tsalal speaks so frankly about having seen what he assumed was a ghost at the lab the night of the killings that you wonder just how many people in this town see the dead walking around on a regular basis.
Ghost stories can be merely ambiance, though, without ever truly intruding on the larger story's sense of reality. Just because a spirit passes through a room doesn't mean we're dealing with full-on supernatural horror. True Detective Season 1 used a lot of supernatural iconography as well. So much of the public's fever-pitch fascination with that first season had to do with the breadcrumbs that Pizzolatto left about a terrifying underworld called "Carcosa" and a "Yellow King" who ruled over it. That season ended with the realization that earthbound evil like child murder and corruption is far worse than any ghost story or Satantic urban legend, but it still felt like Pizzolatto had taken his audience for a bit of a ride.
The question through the first few episodes of Night Country has been how much of the ghost story that we're seeing is window dressing and metaphor for a more terrestrial evil. In Sunday night's "Part 3," we seemed to get our answer with that terrifying scene in the hospital when the mangled, frostbitten body of surviving scientist Lund (Porrstein Bachmann) sits up in his bed and delivers a message from someone or something to Navarro: "Your mother says hello. She's waiting for you." This is more than a blur darting across a hallway, or a softly lit ex-lover performing modern dance out on the ice. This is a terrifying-looking hollowed-out husk of a person doling out a warning. With that moment, True Detective: Night Country went where its predecessor always stopped short, and flipped the switch to full-on horror.
Now that we're on the other side of the genre divide, what does that mean for Lopez's Night Country as a bookend to Pizzolatto’s original season? Because one other thing we've learned through these first three episodes is that the callbacks to the events of Season 1 are thick in the air. The “corpsicle” made up of scientists who were seemingly scared to death recall the posed corpse of Dora Lang in the series pilot “The Long Bright Dark.” The same spiral symbol that was drawn on Dora’s back was on the forehead of one of the frozen scientists, and is now a major plot point connecting Raymond Clark to Annie K (Nivi Pedersen). The shell corporation that is backing the Tsalal research station is "Tuttle United," which is either an Easter egg referring to the family name behind the murderous sex cult in Season 1 or just a red herring. The biggest callback is Rose's dead lover Travis Cohle, which is the name of Rust's father, who used to live in Alaska and died of leukemia. Does it mean anything more than a strand of yarn that spiritually connects the events in Louisiana to those in Alaska, or will the Cohle family tree have any bearing on the plot?
There are still plenty of opportunities for Night Country to settle back upon a terrestrial explanation for all this death. The mine seems to have given quite a lot of people a motive to murder anyone whose actions might imperil Ennis' lone source of industry. The poisoned water that the mine has produced could be a perfectly rational explanation for everything from madness to contorted corpses to visions of dead people. Obviously, climate change and environmental ruin is a theme that Lopez is using to undergird this whole story, but here at the ends of the Earth, where the fabric of the world is coming apart at the seams, the world's fragile ecosystem might be coming apart as well.
But "Part 3"'s turn towards supernatural horror opens up a flood of possibilities for what's really going on. When Rose recognizes the spiral symbol, she says she suspects it's an old symbol, maybe older than the ice itself. In Season 1, the ancient evil that Carcosa symbolized was the darkness in the hearts of men and how distressingly easy it is for people to give themselves over to that darkness if they know they'll get away with it. Night Country seems to be poking at ancient evil too, but it might not reside in the hearts of men. It might be lurking deep beneath the Alaskan ice.
New episodes of True Detective: Night Country air Sundays at 9:00 PM ET on HBO. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.