Fear of the dark is amongst one of humanity’s most primal instincts, based not just on the void of light itself but the possibilities of what horrors the blackness may conceal. So, for many, even before the mutilated bodies hit the screen, the setting of a perpetual night in True Detective Season 4 is a monstrous prospect. The story begins on December 17, where in the fictional Alaskan town of Ennis, the “polar night” commences, and the cloak of darkness will engulf it until the new year. On a scientific research station outside the town, eight men go missing and it is up to local law enforcement, led by the formidable — albeit frequently problematic — Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster), to find out what happened and why.
Also working on the case is her current protégé Peter Prior (Finn Bennett), his ineffectual father Hank Prior (John Hawkes) and disgruntled former protégé Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis), who fell out of Danvers’ favor six years prior thanks to a series of unfortunate events, including the department neglecting the case of a murdered Indigenous activist and leaving it unsolved. Navarro suspects the two incidents may be connected but is rightly infuriated that people “care now it’s a bunch of white guys.”
While the season doesn’t quite hit the heady heights of its first critically and culturally adored season, it comes close with a robust central mystery that leads to an unpredictable but satisfying conclusion.
An existential question has lingered over the anthology series since the first outing concluded. What was it that made Season 1 so good in the first place? And what needed to be replicated to recapture the magic of Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s dark pursuit of The Yellow King? The most ungenerous interpretation has been that Nic Pizzolatto’s script was overwritten and portentously plotted, and that was disguised by Cary Joji Fukunaga’s skillful direction, which brought the best out of his performers and included heartstopping six-minute tracking shots through escalating gang warfare and terrifying chases through rotting mansions.
Without Fukunaga in the director's chair, Season 2 was doomed to fail (despite Colin Farrell charming his way through it). But Season 3 showed glimmers of hope for a sustained cultural phenomenon in 2019, with Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff investigating the disappearance of two children across three reasonably gripping timelines that gave the cast meaty roles they took on with aplomb. Meanwhile, Fukunaga’s self-consciously weird Maniac in 2018 indicated his Midas touch may have been overstated.
Now, four years later, we finally seem to have cracked the formula. What makes a season of True Detective great is complex characters for actors at the height of their powers, mysteries centered around truly depraved acts of violence, and a thick atmosphere of despair that even Cormac McCarthy might find a little much. The baton has been passed from Nic Pizzollato (who remains as executive producer), and acclaimed Mexican director Issa López has taken over as writer, director, and showrunner, with Foster, Barry Jenkins, and Alan Page Arriaga (The Shining Girls) among those joining the long list of executive producers to try and drag our detectives through a compelling nine circles of hell.
That said, Season 4 injects a little fun into the proceedings, affording Foster’s steely, hyper-competent lead detective the odd quip and some tender and sexy moments for its central players. The references to both the prior outings (yes, someone says “time is a flat circle”) and to Foster’s prior turn as a skilled member of law enforcement (yes, a man offers an investigator a “quid pro quo” deal) insert some well-needed levity to what is an otherwise profoundly pessimistic look at humanity. Even the familial bonds that one might hope would provide our central mystery solvers a little respite are as taxing as their grisly workload, as relationships between Danvers and her step-daughter, Navarro and her sister, and the younger Prior and his father are engulfed in intergenerational trauma from which there seems no likely escape.
Season 4 makes salient points about identity, grief, and the treatment of the Indigenous population, particularly the genuinely grotesque reality that 84.3% of Alaska’s Native women experience violence, and how, in 2016, it was reported that 5,712 American Indian and Alaskan Native women went missing, yet only 116 of those cases were logged.
The show also doesn’t just do grim reality, it goes full balls-to-the-wall horror in nearly every episode, with scenes in research facilities, trailers, and icy tundras that rival the most spine-chilling moments of its first outing. At one point, young police officer Peter Prior urges a teenage girl not to look at the grisly half-frozen tableau, saying, “Don’t look — trust me, you don’t want that in your head,” and he isn’t kidding. Many scenes are harrowing to briefly glance upon and hard to scrub from your retinas when they’re over, even with the distance that watching them on a screen affords.
Despite the darkness of those images and the literal setting, the show is handsomely made, employing the cover of night for all its worth to give the visuals a rich texture, with torches and car headlights cutting through an inky fog to unveil the horrifying truth.
In the end, True Detective doesn’t fully posit a futile, unending darkness. Even the cruel winter of Ennis comes to an end, and the characters that survive the ordeal do so with the sense that the future is worth fighting for. But more than anything, this installment restores faith in True Detective itself, that greatness can be regained even if it takes a little while to find your footing. It serves as a new dawn for the series, even if many had to suffer along the way.
True Detective premieres January 14 at 9:00 PM ET on HBO. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Leila Latif is Contributing Editor to Total Film, the host of Truth & Movies: A Little White Lies Podcast and a regular at Sight and Sound, Indiewire, The Guardian, The BBC and others. Follow her on twitter @Leila_Latif.