True Detective is the rare show that was much more exciting and complicated after seven episodes than it is after three seasons. What started out as a brooding series about detectives looking into the dark heart of senseless, seemingly occult killings eventually transformed into a detective show mostly about men being sad. What is remarkable about the show’s newest season, True Detective: Night Country, is that in just one episode, new showrunner Issa López has managed to bring back the creeping, supernatural horror vibe that gave the first season so much promise.
The new season is set in the small town of Ennis, Alaska, and this first episode is mostly concerned with setting up the peculiarities of the town and the bones of this season’s mystery, along with getting to know our latest true detectives, of course. The show’s opening, and its central mystery, is classic cold-weather horror: A group of researchers in a secluded winter base suddenly disappear, only to be found far from their base, frozen deep in the ice.
Where the first season of the show hinted at the supernatural and the ways it sometimes may (or may not) peek through into our world, Night Country leaves no room for doubt. By the end of this episode, more than one character has had visions, and the condition the scientists are found in seems impossible to imagine happening naturally. But the true underline that makes the supernatural elements of the story undeniable is that local weirdo Rose (Fiona Shaw) is the one who finds the frozen scientists for the police, and the only reason she knew where to look is because some long-dead friend showed her the way.
López doesn’t let the supernatural overwhelm the rest of the world in Night Country’s first episode, but she’s unambiguous about its existence. This feels like a pointed response to the True Detective stories that have come before. Not combative, per se, but direct. While the previous seasons, particularly the first, led its characters from the natural and explainable world of crime toward something more supernatural, Night Country’s mystery is starting at unexplainable and working its way back.
But for all the ways that López seems to be responding to True Detective’s past in the first episode of her season, she makes her love for the series clear, too. When it comes to the cops looking into this case, López revels in characterizing them as every bit the same kind of broken bastards that original series creator Nic Pizzolatto placed at the center of his three seasons writing the show. Leading the investigation in Night Country is Liz Danvers (played marvelously by Jodie Foster), a brilliant cop with a mile-long record of pushing people away by being an absolute asshole. Then there’s Liz’s old partner Evangeline Navarro (boxer turned actor Kali Reis), a self-destructive hothead who let one case get stuck in her craw and consume her whole career.
The two cops don’t share the same dynamic as Matthew McConaughey’s Rust Cohle and Woody Harrelson’s Marty Hart, exactly, but it’s clear that López was after the same crackle the two had between them, and through just one episode she’s already seemed to nail it. The two only share brief scenes in episode 1, but the chemistry they have is instant and the bickering is pitch-perfect for cluing us in to the fact that they’re sure to work together again eventually.
Through just one episode, True Detective: Night Country feels like what True Detective was always supposed to be. Impossibly, it captures the vibes of the series’ best episodes better than anything in the second or third seasons ever achieved. López feels at war with the series’ history, not because she hates it, but because she loves it enough to want its best version. What Issa López wants is the twisty, supernatural, pitch-black mystery show that had the internet in an eight-week chokehold in 2014. And so far, she’s off to a great start.