The complaints about True Detective: Night Country have mostly had to do with the pacing and the show’s focus on interpersonal drama, which may have come at the expense of the storylines that one typically expects of a series centering on a murder investigation.
But even the harshest critics would have to agree that showrunner Issa Lopez has made some bold and impactful visual choices, and the opening scenes of True Detective Season 4 Episode 5 featured some of her most memorable flourishes yet.
From the beginning of its pilot episode, this show has leaned heavily on its primary aesthetic motifs — namely, coldness and darkness.
Yet we begin this episode with flames and fluorescent light, ironically in service of one of this season’s bleakest storylines (not that any of the subplots here are rays of sunshine).
After battling mental illness and being haunted (perhaps literally) by the ghosts of her past, Navarro’s sister, Julia, took her own life in True Detective Season 4 Episode 4.
The news prompted an uncharacteristic violent outburst from Navarro, who appears to have moved on to a more subdued stage of grief as she picks up her sister’s ashes from a bright and sterile crematorium.
Less composed is a strung-out and distressed Otis Heiss, the injured, addicted Mysterious German who’s now been checked into a detox center after the detectives found him cowering in the divisive conclusion to the previous episode.
If you’re a fan of this season’s forays into the realm of supernatural horror, then you might’ve felt a chill run up your spine when Heiss hissed, “We’re all in the night country now.”
If you think Lopez’s series has overcommitted to spookiness at the expense of the gritty realism the franchise is known for, then you might still be rolling your eyes at that titular line.
Apparently, Raymond Clark took an interest in how Heiss survived his mysterious injuries, which he claims to have sustained during a blizzard.
Heiss also reveals that Clark was on the run from a mysterious “she,” who had recently awakened.
So, in the fifth episode of this six-episode season, some questions are finally being answered — at least sort of, in a vague way.
Otis followed a sound and woke up in a hospital with injuries similar to the ones that killed the Tsalal scientists.
Hey, by this show’s standards, that’s a veritable fountain of information! We’ll take it!
The lack of interrogation scenes — before the Heiss interview, the detectives had only grilled one person, a local hairdresser with a tangential connection to the case — has been one of viewers’ main gripes about Night Country.
After all, previous seasons of True Detective delivered some of the most memorable verbal confrontations between cops and suspects in recent memory.
Something tells us the brief interaction in which Heiss sputtered some more scary movie cliches before begging for heroin won’t do much to scratch that particular itch.
On the way to the cave entrance, Danvers and Navarro have a tense conversation about the mine and its effects on the local water supply.
Yes, once again we’re returning to the theme of that which is buried underground, and the question of whether or not it should be left there undisturbed.
When the detectives arrive at the mouth of the cave to find it blasted shut, the image speaks volumes about the resistance to their investigation, the power of small-town secrets, and the lengths people will go to to avoid uncomfortable truths.
The townspeople who support the mine are drinking the same poisoned water as everyone else, but they would rather die than admit they’re at fault.
The theme of reticent men struggling in the face of uncertainty continues in the next scene, as Peter and Hank Prior lie to one another in the wake of their respective romantic setbacks.
At that point, for some reason, Navarro steps away from her multiple murder investigation to help break up a strike at the mines.
(The confusion over her job duties — state troopers don’t usually moonlight as local homicide detectives — has prompted some of the more legitimate complaints about this season’s lack of concern for believability.)
Storylines intersect yet again as Navarro has an Annie K. sighting at the protest and protects Danvers’ stepdaughter, Leah, from a violent cop.
The plot continues to thicken as Peter Prior reveals that the Tsalal station was funded by the mining company, possibly in exchange for the research center publishing “bogus pollution numbers.“
Mark it down, folks! About a third of the way through True Detective Season 4, we feel like we finally have a sense of where this story is headed!
Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with a detective series keeping its audience in the dark (quite literally, in this case).
But the concern now is whether Lopez and company will be able to solve the mystery, wrap up the remaining plot threads, and continue with their valiant efforts to tie this story back to the events of True Detective Season 1 in some satisfying way.
We hope to be pleasantly surprised!
With that, we return to the world of fluorescent lights and shiny chrome for another ironically bleak scene, as Kate McKittrick affirms her place as the season’s tertiary villain by attempting to convince Danvers — with Connelly’s help — that the Tsalal men died in an avalanche.
After hilariously putting McKittrick in her place, Danvers utters the words that were anathema to her in True Detective Season 4 Episode 1.
“The two cases are linked. We’re almost there,” she tells Connelly.
Now we’re really rolling. In fact, after four and a half episodes of nuance and innuendo, suddenly, things are made very explicit.
First, Connelly accuses Danvers of offing that creep Wheeler.
Then Hank Prior meets up with Kittrick, who basically confesses that she’s pure evil and offers him Danvers’ job in exchange for dispatching Otis Heiss.
And then some dude explains to Navarro that the infamous crooked spiral symbol is a warning sign alerting hunters to areas where thin ice might cause them to plummet into a vast underground cave system, aka the Night Country.
We get the obligatory “they’re shutting down the investigation” conversation between Danvers and Navarro, followed by two unexpectedly complementary scenes.
First, Hank (displaying his humanity for the first time — his conversion to the dark side might’ve had more of an impact if we’d seen some of this earlier) shares a memory with Peter of a near-tragic ice-skating accident that occurred when the latter was a child.
That’s followed by Navarro committing her sister’s ashes to the sea via a hole in the ice hacked by local badass Rose Aguineau.
It’s not the first time that Lopez juxtaposed the life and decisions of bad cop Hank with those of good cop Navarro.
And once again, the contrast serves to make a profound but subtle statement about the very different ways in which these two people have been affected by their hard lives in this desolate place.
But coming so soon after Danvers and Navarro’s confrontation in the office and Hank and McKittrch’s exposition-heavy plotting, these scenes also underscore the extent to which this season nails the interpersonal drama while struggling with the procedural stuff.
During an unexpected confrontation with Peter, Danvers repeats her catchphrase a lot while beefing with her protege over — the Wheeler case?
That storyline sort of felt like a dead end from the moment it was introduced in True Detective Season 4 Episode 3, and at the time, it seemed that its main function was to serve as Danvers’ flimsy pretext for her falling out with Navarro.
But Wheeler’s death ends up bringing about our first satisfying interrogation scene of the season, as Prior the Younger grills his boss and arrives at the conclusion that she and Navarro murdered Wheeler.
As the newly emboldened Peter tells off his dad, we begin to feel that against all odds, these disparate storylines might really be coming together in a compelling way.
That said, we still question the wisdom of making such a big deal out of the Wheeler case this late in the game, especially given how much this show already has on its plate.
Speaking of Danvers’ shaky ethics, she nabs a large quantity of heroin out of the evidence locker for the purpose of bribing Heiss, and he’s in her bathroom getting high when Hank shows up pretending he has orders to deliver the sketchy German to Connelly.
From there, it’s one shocker after the next, as Hank murders Heiss, and the gunshot attracts the attention of Peter (who has taken up residence in Danvers’ shed), who proceeds to point his own gun at his dad.
After the elder Prior confesses (for some reason) to helping cover up the Annie K. murder, he makes a move to shoot Danvers, prompting Peter to paint the wall his dad’s brains.
It’s a gasp-inducing moment, to be sure, but it’s also the only feasible conclusion for the Prior vs. Prior conflict.
And bringing that storyline to such a violent conclusion seconds after Danvers assures Hank that Peter still loves him is a bit on the nose.
Danvers reluctantly agrees that Hank’s body should be disposed of, and with that, we’re back in the most familiar True Detective territory:
Once again, it’s the classic conflict of ethical cops vs. a corrupt system — but this time, there’s a feminist twist, as the young dude is left behind to clean up the crime scene while the experienced women set off to explore a dangerous cave system.
The stage is set for a finale that seems certain to go one of two ways:
Either the True Detective franchise will be restored to its former glory with Issa Lopez as its undisputed savior, or the spelunking expedition will lead to new depths of melodrama and pseudo-spiritual mumbo-jumbo that will serve as the nail in the coffin of this famously inconsistent anthology series.
It’s tough to imagine that Lopez will be able to tie up so very many loose threads in the time that remains, but her deftness has left us pleasantly surprised several times, and we’re hoping she has at least one more trick up her sleeve.
At this point, the question of whether or not she can pull this off is far more interesting than that of what happened to those frozen scientists.
Tyler Johnson is an Associate Editor for TV Fanatic and the other Mediavine O&O sites. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, cooking, and, of course, watching TV. You can Follow him on X and email him here at TV Fanatic.