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Navarro (Kali Reis), Danvers (Jodie Foster), and Pete (Finn Bennett) standing in front of the corpsicle, a frozen mass of several bodies, in True Detective: Night Country Photo: Michael K. Short/HBO

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True Detective: Night Country is slowly starting to thaw its icy mystery

Episode 2 deepens the mystery and begins to defrost the corpsicle

Austen Goslin (he/him) is an entertainment editor. He writes about the latest TV shows and movies, and particularly loves all things horror.

The central mystery in True Detective: Night Country seems easy when the credits roll on episode 1. It’s not that viewers already have the answer, but it at least feels like we can see all the puzzle pieces in front of us. That is, until episode 2. The second, even better episode of Night Country deepens the season’s central mystery with clever world-building and the most disgusting and disturbing ice sculpture on television.

If True Detective: Night Country is about anything so far, it’s about Ennis. More than a little town in Alaska with the nighttime that lasts days, Ennis is a place that’s simultaneously peaceful and terrifying. Rose’s (Fiona Shaw) description of the town to Navarro (Kali Reis) seems close to perfect: a place where the universe comes apart at the seams. It’s a description that takes the strangeness of this world head-on but hints at the softer side of the town, too: The dead find their way back in Ennis (sometimes because they want you to join them). But Ennis is also the kind of town that feels careful and handmade; the seams are wearing like a well-loved toy, not tearing like cheap stitching from a factory.

It’s a beautiful and layered description, but it’s also one that clues us in to what the show is doing. Things here are supernatural, sure; something’s clearly afoot. But that doesn’t mean that zombies roam Ennis or that a quick seance will clear this whole mess up. The dead in Ennis are like the ice: It’s always there, but sometimes it shifts a little, so you’ll notice it. And neither one is giving up its secrets easily.

Episode 2 opens by unveiling the season’s central mystery: a frozen pile of the corpses of the Tsalal scientists, an introduction that comes with some pitch-black comedy involving a grisly hand-breaking that you have to laugh at just to break the tension. True Detective has a grand history of gruesome crime scenes that are gorgeous in their own dark-hearted way, but this is easily the series’ masterpiece so far. The frozen corpsicle is as grotesque as it is beautiful. It’s disfigured and horrible, each body with its own bizarre self-inflicted wounds, equally inexplicable and begging for some detailed reveal that might show us how any of this could have happened. The whole thing, sitting in the middle of an ice rink, a triumph of set dressing and design, looks like it could contain an infinite number of secrets and details, if only you had the misfortune to look at it for too long.

The corpsicle — still, partially frozen bodies all writhing in terror — sits in the middle of an ice rink while two cops walk around it Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO

One of the show’s most brilliant and subtle strokes, though, is one that comes outside of the newly forever-cursed ice rink when Danvers (Jodie Foster) interrupts a classroom to ask her former booty call what exactly it is that Tsalal does. For the deaths of these scientists to merit something as extreme and seemingly otherworldly as their frozen remains would indicate, it seems perfect that their investigation was into something as utopian as the description Danvers gets. A cure-all, hidden away under millions of years of ice. A perfectly solvable puzzle, if only the ice would reveal its mysteries. The explanation makes perfect sense to Danvers; it’s her new burden too, after all.

And fittingly, she too turns to science to sort out her frozen puzzle. She and Pete (Finn Bennett) trot out all the classics that scientists have used for the Dyatlov Pass incident: paradoxical undressing, wild animals, some kind of invisible but natural force like gas or radiation. Not a single one sticks.

But the show’s too smart to let not having an answer defeat Danvers. She’s stubborn enough to stick to the case, and fight for it, but she’s not too stubborn to admit she needs Navarro’s help to figure it out. And with mysterious tattoos of spirals older than the ice, and a trailer full of creepy dolls, the show finally lets its two main detectives team up.

Technically, True Detective: Night Country’s second episode is mostly just table setting, getting our detectives together, laying out the facts and their complications, the oddities and their halfhearted explanations. But the show plays all this setup like Ennis finally boiling over. It’s a town at the edge of both the spiritual and physical worlds, and now it’s breaking open, little by little, under the weight of poison water and mine protests. And True Detective: Night Country is clearly eager to show us the secrets under the fragile ice of Ennis.

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