True Detective: Night Country is a Return to Metaphysical Form

Dustin Waters
Dustin Waters is a writer from Macon, Ga, currently living in D.C. After years as a beat reporter in the Lowcountry, he now focuses his time on historical oddities, trashy movies, and the merits of professional wrestling.

The great tragedy of True Detective’s incredible first season is that it fell prey to the same thing as a lot of other pieces of fiction that focus on the hyper masculine. I’m talking about your Fight Clubs and your American Psychos. All feature incredible lead performances of severely damaged men that are often too captivating to not fall for their charm. Unfortunately, as a result these characters are seen as aspirational rather than tragic. 

That was largely the case for the pessimistic badass that was True Detective’s Detective Rust Cohle. You’ll have to recall that Matthew McConaughey was still playing very much against type at the time. And here in True Detective he hit the screen like a man possessed. 

While Rust and his partner Marty were captivating in their rugged, hard-boiled ways, the crux of that season’s story is that their own egos, urges, and emotional damage result in them failing to close the case. 

It’s only after they destroy their egos that they are able to reconcile with one another and capture the evildoer. But sadly, self-improvement isn’t badass. It’s difficult and humbling. 

So when it came time for the follow-up season of True Detective, the series doubled down. The characters were even more troubled, self-destructive, and badass. It was like everyone involved with season one realized that folks missed the message so they were going to make it clear that you should not idolize these characters. 

I could write a lot of words to prove this point, but instead I found this clip from season two that perfectly encapsulates my point. 

The less-than-stellar reception to True Detective’s second season resulted in a return to the basics of the series. Similar to the first season, season three focused on two estranged former partners resurrecting an old case. The third season played with the fragility of memory and masculine relationships. Incredible performances from Mahershala “The Hersh” Ali and Stephen Dorff elevated what was already a good detective story, but it was missing some of the magic of the first season. 

This point was really hammered home for me when watching the premiere of the series’ fourth season — True Detective: Night Country. Helmed by Issa Lopez of Tigers Are Not Afraid fame, this season features a hallmark from season one that was entirely absent from subsequent seasons. 

Season one leaned into the metaphysical concepts of evil that you find in a lot of Lovecraftian literature. Twin Peaks probably introduced many of these concepts to television, but the idea is that some things are so horrific as to exist beyond the boundaries of human perception and understanding. 

As a Twilight Zone fan, I was really struck by a recent Twitter thread from critic Matt Zoller Seitz. 

While Seitz is making a separate point about a show from 65 years ago, I think his comments overlap with what I’m saying. A big part of True Detective season one focused on the concept that there exists an evil in humanity that extends beyond what we can conceive. As a result, we look away rather than expand our understanding beyond ourselves. This ties in with Rust’s brand of pessimism. 

True Detective season four, titled Night Country, is the first return to this sort of metaphysical horror that made season one special. Our first hint of this is when the premiere episode begins with a line from The King in Yellow author Robert Chambers, whose work inspired much of season one’s more abstract components. 

The season is set in a remote Alaskan town on the cusp of a nightfall set to last several weeks into the new year. Without explanation, the inhabitants of a research post vanish from their facility surrounded by a harsh frozen wilderness. 

Night Country revives True Detective’s exploration of the metaphysical while also expanding on it. Season one focused on how man’s cruelty to man stretched beyond what the sane mind could fathom. In Night Country, it seems that the expanse of nature and man’s abuse of the environment is the focal point. And Mother Earth is mad.

There are several signs of this. The missing researchers are all experts in the mechanics of the earth and digging up deeply buried frozen cores of the planet to determine the “meaning of life.” At the start of the episode, a hunter sees a herd of caribou march off a cliff to their deaths. Later a polar bear is seen wandering into town, encroaching on the human population’s comings and goings. 

The cold case murder at the heart of the season is that of a murdered Indigenous woman and environmentalist protester who fought the mining operation that serves as the lifeblood of this town. Her body was discovered missing a tongue. The case is resurrected when a severed tongue is discovered in the abandoned research station — seemingly belonging to an Indigenous woman. 

Here’s a clip where showrunner Issa Lopez talks about how she sort of reverse engineered the magic of season one. Her mention of the Dyatlov Pass incident is especially interesting considering the missing researchers. 

The influence of an unexplained phenomenon and incorporation of themes from season one has me very excited about Night Country. It implies mystery beyond just a mystery. 

We can’t know everything. Some wrongs can’t be righted. But we can try to find justice when it seems too fleeting. And that’s what I want to see.

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