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Showrunner Issa Lopez stands behind some lights on the set of True Detective: Night Country Photo: Lilja Jons/HBO

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Issa López wants True Detective: Night Country to show how far we’ve come, and how much we’ve forgotten

‘We don’t love looking back to find the missing pieces’

Joshua Rivera (he/him) is an entertainment and culture journalist specializing in film, TV, and video game criticism, the latest stop in a decade-plus career as a critic.

Let’s dispel any trepidation you might have from previous seasons of True Detective, and all the baggage they carry: True Detective: Night Country is astoundingly good television. A six-episode stunner where a macabre murder unspools into a layered exploration of an Alaskan town at the edge of Earth, its relationship with its Indigenous population, and the things the Arctic’s long night can do to a person, Night Country is about as good a start to television in 2024 we can ask for.

It only gets better when you hear creator Issa López talking about it. In the lead-up to Night Country’s premiere, the writer-director spoke to Polygon about taking over from True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto, responding to the original show’s themes a decade later, and the horror that comes from being disconnected from our history.

Polygon: Night Country is only six episodes, shorter than prior True Detective seasons. Was that a tightrope to walk? It’s both a lot of time and not much at all!

Issa López: In my initial conversation with HBO about it, they were like, “How do you feel about True Detective?” and I told them what I had in mind. And they said, “We love it. 10 episodes?” And I was like, “No,” because I wanted to direct every one of them, you know?

And as time went by there were several conversations where they were like, “Seven?” and I was like “No, six.” It was always six. It is tight for all the terrain we cover in the series, but at the same time, I am a firm believer in economy and saying what’s necessary and never overstaying your welcome, leaving people wanting more. So it was a perfect size, I think.

Night Country is based on a story you were working on before HBO asked you about True Detective, yes? Can you tell us a bit about what you initially wanted to do, and the process of making it a True Detective story?

It was a very raw creature. I had a very bare idea of wanting to create a murder mystery in the ice beyond the Arctic Circle. And [I wanted to show] these communities that we are not used to seeing, in this part of America that is rarely shown in a way that felt like real life — you know, like going to the supermarket and picking up your child from school and having a family fight and doing laundry — but at the same time with the backdrop of this very uncanny landscape, almost sentient.

Alaska detectives Liz Danvers and Evangeline Navarro stand on a snowy hill in front of their squad truck in the HBO series True Detective: Night Country. Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO

I was playing with that when I got the call from HBO asking what I would do with True Detective and I thought it was absolutely meant to be. True Detective is all about the place, the environment. The place is a character in itself. And I thought that it was so amazing to be able to do something that felt so different from the bayou in the first one, and Los Angeles in the second one and from the Ozarks in the third one. So, you know, those are three very different sides of America. And then it just came to me that I had this ice story and it was just perfect matching of all the elements and it came together in a breath.

Night Country feels like it’s both an update and repudiation of the original series—


The old show is very masculine and paternal, right? About characters wrestling with their masculinity. Night Country is very much... not that.

Definitely very much deeply not that, but it is an answer to that in the sense that, you know, [Nic] Pizzolatto is a guy and he did a great job of letting us look into the male psyche, and its obsessions, needs, fixations and fears — male identity and male mission. And all of those things are really, really well achieved. I think it’s a beautiful piece of that.

But it was made 10 years ago. Before Me Too, before Trump, before the pandemic, before George Floyd — you know, it was a different world. So, when I get the question, I get it in a world that has changed, where police are not perceived the same. And where gender doesn’t play the same way. And where intimate scenes are directed differently. It’s simply a different world. So all that informed what I was doing, but beyond that I was like, “OK, so that’s been done, I’m not going to try to do that.” He did it so well.

(L-R) Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson standing in the wreckage of a dilapidated, burned down church in season one of True Detective. Image: HBO Home Entertainment

So what I can do is answer that from the female perspective: female fears and female imperfections and female obsessions and insecurities. And the attempt to understand the universe and make sense of it while everything is falling apart around us, you know, in front of us — particularly in the Arctic, you can see it falling apart, the end of the world coming closer with melting ice. So it’s a direct answer to [the original show]: not opposing it, but responding to the questions that series poses.

True Detective has always had a greater emphasis on the horror of individual crimes, but the shows themselves weren’t scary. Night Country is much more frightening — did you set out to make a horror story?

Well, I wouldn’t start by calling True Detective: Night Country a horror story [laughs], but I would say that it’s definitely in the mix. There’s elements of it. But there’s elements of it in the original series — the original series talks about Carcosa and the Yellow King and a cult that sacrifices to a horned god. So it’s there. And Rust Cohle has moments where he can peer into that universe, it’s up to us to decide if he’s really seeing that, or if he’s just hallucinating because his brain was damaged by drugs.

In the same sense, Night Country deals a lot with characters peering across through the curtain that divides this plane from the next one. And it’s up to us to decide if they’re really experiencing that, or it’s just the long night, or if it’s just inherited mythology in a way.

Kali Reis leans against a cop SUV in a parka and furry hat as Officer Navarro in True Detective: Night Country Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO

Kali Reis’ character, Navarro, has a very moving story in this, starting as someone disconnected from her Indigenous roots and being forced to confront them by this case. She’s cut off from her culture but still haunted by it, in a way that I think is very common for people of Indigenous descent in this country. Is that something that you share, or wanted to explore in this story specifically?

I think that many of us have ended up disconnected from our history, and don’t completely understand the effect that has on ourselves. We mostly think that it’s OK, and we’re doing fine. We don’t love looking back to find the missing pieces.

So definitely — it was an intention for both characters to say, “Stop. And look back. And embrace what you’re trying to leave behind. Because you shouldn’t be running from those things. You’re never going to get away and you’re just going to exhaust yourself and fall down.”

True Detective: Night Country premieres on HBO and Max on Jan. 14 at 9 p.m. EST.


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