Mini-review of the first episode of True Detective: Night Country

The first episode is a sensory if uneasy feast. Sidenote: the soundtrack for True Detective: Night Country is simply fabulous. This mini-review is spoiler-free when it comes to Night Country's plot, so if that is a concern, feel free to read on!

Mini-review of the first episode of True Detective: Night Country
...I don't quite know how to describe this screenshot without spoilering the first episode, but rest assured that that is indeed (what seems to be) a barefooted man doing an interpretive dance, in the long night, in the snow.

There was something about the two hypocritical and obsessive leading characters set against the Southern Gothic backdrop that cast quite the spell over me, back in 2014. Though the second and third seasons never quite captured my interest once Harrelson-McConaughy’s on-screen partnership came to its end, I was a definite fan of Pizzolatto’s writing of True Detective’s inaugural season back when it first came out.

It wasn’t until this past winter when I saw Tanya Tagaq posting about contributing to the soundtrack of season 4 that I learned True Detective has a new skipper at the helm for season 4, Mexican director and writer Issa López and that the show’s latest season is set in Alaska. I am a frost imp at heart, so I immediately set out to get details. Learning that queer legend Jodie Foster and boxing champion Kali Reis were teaming up on-screen had me extremely excited about all the possibilities.

Issa López behind the camera on the set of True Detective: Night Country. (Image source: Lilja Jons / HBO)

The first episode of season 4 was so engrossing, I forgot to pour the tea I prepared and let it oversteep for nearly 40 minutes. I love the ghostly, dangerous feel of the long winter night, the claustrophobic social netting of the small town, the omnipresence of snow and frost (what can I say, I joke I was born strapped to skis), the subtle supernatural and cosmic horrors that permeate the dreams and all those little in-between moments when the character’s themselves are unsure if they are dreaming or awake.

Foster’s introduction was great; within minutes, I was left with the immediate impression that her character is a particularly intelligent older woman starting to really feel pressed by the limits of her job, her gender, her trauma, her age, the fictional town of Ennis, and the self-protective if (perhaps) maladaptive limits she puts on herself. Reis, similarly, is able to project intense perceptive capabilities and focus within her first two scenes. Reis’ transition from athlete to thespian is full of promise, and the pair played their initial antagonism well. (It wouldn't be an episode of True Detective if the iconic duo got along without friction, now would it?) The racial and colonial undertones resonating underneath that antagonism were well-handled by the script and the actresses — and showed that, at least in this first episode, the show looks like its going to be biting into some particularly tense but extremely meaningful subject matter. Some of my earliest ponderings before I caught this first episode were about the inherent and unavoidable tension of this show being a detective drama touching upon the very raw, very ongoing, very unresolved facts of MMIWG2S. I'm interested, even hopeful, to see if or how episode 2 picks at the threads episode 1 threatens to unravel.

A screenshot of a still from the True Detective season 4, where Foster and Reis' characters are standing in the snow and looking over a snowbank.
Left, Jodie Foster, as Detectives Liz Danvers, and right, Kali Reis as Detective Evangeline Navarro. (Promotional image nabbed from the Internet.)

Furthermore, a delightful surprise: Fiona Shaw’s inclusion in this first episode had me cheering — her portrayal of Admiral Croft’s wife in 1995’s Persuasion remains one of my absolute favourite portrayals of an Austen character on-screen.

My only real criticisms so far lie with the CGI animals: they just looked off. Often, the closer the "camera" got to the creatures, the worst it felt in a way that completely undercut tension and seriousness. The opening scene with the caribou felt niaiseux. This is really unfortunate for an episode that is otherwise so promising, because if the CGI had been a little less uncanny valley, I do think the spirit of those scenes was in the right place.

Tanya Tagaq’s Powerful Contributions to True Detective
The Inuk artist provides vocals for the HBO series’ soundtrack, and her song “Submerged” scores a pivotal moment in the season finale, in which she appears as an actress.

Click on this if 1) you want to read more about this season's powerful music contributions, and 2) you do not mind spoilers!

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