Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Review: True Detective Season 4

The dark and icy fourth season of True Detective is the first deserving follow-up to the incredible first season, and Jodie Foster & Kali Reis help showrunner Issa Lopez stick the landing in the finale. (Spoilers abound below.)

It's been a cold winter here in Georgia, and my six Sunday night journeys to Night Country have felt strangely similar to True Detective season 4 as it explores the dark and frigid world of Ennis, Alaska. There are no one-eyed polar bears or months-long night in Atlanta, of course, but isolation, cabin fever, and icy winds give you a taste of what life at the edge of the world would feel like — basically microdosing Alaska.

And that claustrophobic and cold weather-induced feeling is such an important part of this season. Arctic horror has a long and storied history in the popular imagination, starting with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and progressing along to tales of Franklin's lost expedition (Shout out to Dan Simmon's The Terror, a book that I think about at least once a week) and John Carpenter's The Thing. Why is Arctic horror so effective? Because cold, icy dark is inimical to life. Because it's inescapable, unforgiving, and just damn uncomfortable. And maybe, just maybe, because the kind of chill that months of dark and damp and ice make you believe that anything could be possible, even monsters on the frozen sea. 

A brief recap

This season starts with the death of a team Arctic research scientists who, for reasons unknown, ran out into a blizzard, undressed, and froze together into a corpsicle. Chief Liz Danvers (played with incredible aplomb by Jodie Foster) and Trooper Evangeline Navarro (the divine Kali Reis) work to unravel the mystery, tied up as it is with the local pollution-generating mine, a prior cold case concerning the murder of local Iñupiaq protester, and possibly even her vengeance-seeking spirit. 

Along with the plot-driven elements, we also get fascinating character studies of the people who choose to live in Ennis, and the things that haunt them. 

Danvers is a cold, brusque and no-nonsense detective — she's also utterly unliked by most of her coworkers and a good chunk of the town's residents. Try as I might though, I just couldn't bring myself to dislike her. Jodie Foster is too intelligent, too charming, and too damn competent to truly be an Arctic Karen, despite her best efforts. 

Navarro is the opposite. While she's tough, intelligent, and good at her job (and a military vet), she really cares about people. It's why she hasn't given up on the Annie K. cold case from six years prior. She threads the needle delicately with her Iñupiaq heritage, turning to it sometimes while also trying to stand apart as an officer of the law. 

There are tons of other fascinating characters, from the monk-like scientists at Tsalal research station to my favorite character in the show, Rose Agineau (played by Fiona Shaw). 

She lives on the outskirts of town, butchers wolves, listens to Tim Buckley, and throws elaborate Christmas dinners for herself. She's a former professor but also the kind of person you call when you need to hide a body (she knows you have to puncture the lungs so a body won't float under the ice). I would watch an entire season of Alone with her as the star (and yes, she would absolutely win it all). 

The finale, explained

We get a super-sized episode to tie everything together, and it's fairly safe to say that nobody guessed this one. It turns out that 6 years ago, Annie K. was killed in a fit of rage by the scientists at Tsalal when she broke in and destroyed their years of research. The scientists knew that the mining company was polluting Ennis, and they encouraged this since it was melting the ice faster and helping their tests. Hank Prior disposes of the body for the mine bigwigs, and then her case is closed with no further investigation. 

So, who killed the scientists, then? Eventually, we find out, the cleaning ladies and local worker women discover what happened, and they barge into Tsalal and drive the men out onto the ice. It's an interesting turn of events, because in the first episode we learn a little about these scientists, and they seem like quiet, intellectual milquetoast types. Danvers goes through their belongings and sees a Wilco t-shirt, a Cormac McCarthy novel, and Ferris Bueller appears to be a station favorite. The scientists appear to be the liberal kind of men that are nice dads, that wouldn't dream of hurting a woman. 

But when their precious research (and years of hard work) are destroyed, they killed Annie K. in a riotous rampage, stabbing her dozens of times. 

We learn the truth in a powerful scene where the detectives question these women about the events that transpired. The viewer gets to witness individuals who are usually voiceless (native women) being given the power to enact justice when the law can't — or won't. 

Seeing a group of women like come together gives me the same rah-rah feeling I got from the Vuvalini in Mad Max: Fury Road. Action movies and revenge stories aren't usually the realm of older women and minority characters. When we get to see it, it's revelatory. 

A brilliant choose-your-own-adventure of supernatural belief

In this fantastic interview with showrunner Issa Lopez, she talks about her intentions with the mythological and supernatural elements of this season. Every single thing that happens in the show has a reason grounded in reality. But just how far you want to take it depends on your point of view, and what you want to believe. In a setting as spooky as Night Country, you can really lean into it. Over the past few weeks, I watched countless TikToks of people speculating on all sorts of conspiracy theories and supernatural bit-parts that people believed where actually happening. My favorite was idea that Rose was a ghost à la Sixth Sense

We get callbacks all throughout to the first season of True Detective, from the swirled line imagery and Rust Cohl's Alaskan-born father to the infamous "Time is a flat circle" line. It's never completely explained what all of these things mean, but they add up to create a spooky vibe that can make you start rabbit-holing into various ideas.

Adding to the supernatural timbre of the show are certain aspects of the Iñupiaq folklore, specifically Sedna, the goddess of the sea. Peter's son is drawing a picture of her way back in episode one, which is our first introduction to her. In the myth, she angers her father and he cuts off her fingers and throws Sedna off the side of his kayak. She falls to the water below and becomes the ruler of the monsters of the sea, her fingers becoming sea creatures like whales and walruses.

At the end of the day, though, the show isn't focusing on the supernatural — it's about people. The first season was the same way, too (though people may argue this point). Homicide detectives, the focal point of each season of True Detective, see the absolute worst parts of humanity. They have to do their job while not crumbling inside when faced with rage, torture, anger, racism, misogny, everything that contributes to and leads up to one person killing another. Rust Cohle in season one takes a nihilistic, pessimistic approach. In this season, we see a different approach. Danvers is haunted by the death of her family, but she still is a mother at heart and continues to keep trying to make a difference.

Navarro loses everything, and while the show is ambiguous about her destiny (Does she die? Does she leave? Is she on a walkabout away from Ennis?), we learn that her Iñupiaq name means the "return of the sun after a long darkness” — I choose to believe she settles with her past and looks to the future, and lives.

Unanswered questions

  • Where has the tongue been for 6 years? 
  • Has it been in a freezer like a piece of wedding cake?
  • What happens to Navarro at the end?
  • Will the mining company ever face justice?
  • Did Hank ever have a real mail-order bride?
  • How did that polar bear lose his eye?


The Math

Baseline Score: 8/10

Bonuses: Stellar performances by the lead actors; a feminist twist ending; coldness is personified in the icy, blizzardy city of Ennis

POSTED BY: Haley Zapal, new NoaF contributor and lawyer-turned-copywriter living in Atlanta, Georgia. A co-host of Hugo Award-winning podcast Hugo, Girl!, she posts on Instagram as @cestlahaley. She loves nautical fiction, growing corn and giving them pun names like Timothee Chalamaize, and thinking about fried chicken.