Recap: True Detective (S4, Ep1) — Mystery Series Returns as Night Country in Solid Premiere After Five-Year Hiatus
If you ignore the murder, tormented police, and general unpleasantness, True Detective is a show about the mystery of its protagonists. Whether they are good or bad, nihilistic or hedonistic, kind or hateful, they've always been the key to understanding Nic Pizzolatto's anthology mystery series.
New show-runner Issa López has taken over to present a season entirely of her creation. Is this a good thing? Maybe. The dark and moody tone that crawls around the edges of True Detective is absolutely present in the season premiere, and now that darkness is also literal: season four takes place in an Alaskan mining town where, when the sun sets at a certain point in the winter, it doesn't come back for a while. The two main police officers in town—Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) and Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis)—are, in some ways, our typical troubled pair that both like and absolutely loathe each other, but the fact that they're both women (and the latter is Indigenous, which matters a lot in this story) creates new dynamics in the world they inhabit.
The case they're both following, where eight scientists vanish from a research station with only an Indigenous woman's severed tongue left behind, is a perplexing one. Aside from the aforementioned tongue and someone writing "we are all dead" on the station's whiteboard, there's no indication that anything is wrong. The case revives interest in another case—the tongue relates to a murder from over half a decade prior, where an Indigenous woman protesting polluting mining practices was killed and had her tongue removed. Navarro's obsession with this case got her transferred, and that obsession ties the two cases together when a photo of one of the missing scientists appears to show him wearing the dead woman's jacket.
"Part 1," like most True Detective premieres, aims to balance setting up both the central mystery and the new characters. Aside from Danvers and Navarro, there's generally unpleasant detective Hank Prior (John Hawkes, who I will always be happy to see on television) and his well-meaning officer son Peter (Finn Bennett), Navarro's mentally ill sister Julie (Aka Niviâna) who sees someone that isn't there in her house, and Danvers's adopted daughter Leah (Isabella Star LaBlanc), who has a veiled but clearly troubled past that has something to do with a car accident.
If this sounds like a lot, that's because it is. Season four's plotting isn't the loose, poorly presented stuff presented in True Detective's largely panned second season, but it's not nearly as tight and razor-sharp as seasons one and three. Having a broad focus isn't automatically a bad thing, especially for a mystery, but when True Detective is at its best, it can seamlessly characterize its protagonists and progress its mysteries at the same time. (Or if you're season two, you focus entirely on the mystery and don't bother with character progression...can you tell what my least favorite season of this show is?)
There's some good stuff near the end of the episode, where Navarro and Danvers argue about their failures in the case of the dead woman. Really, it's just Danvers' failure, as (I feel) Navarro is entirely in the right when she points out the police are only inefficient in investigating the murder because the woman was Indigenous. (It's almost like that's a serious problem in real life! If you want a very under-seen movie with Reis as the lead and has a similar tone and themes to this season, you should check this out.)
Danvers is quite unlikable here. She gets some racist jabs in at Navarro just because and her temperament only feels justified when she's taking shots at Hank. But True Detective is no stranger to intentionally ill-tempered protagonists, and Foster plays it very well. It took me a little bit to warm to Reis's performance with lines near the beginning that feel off in their delivery, but I liked her more as we're given time with her outside of police work. Peter seems pretty all right; Hank is somehow even more hatable than Danvers; and all the other characters are hanging around in the background so far. (I like the guy Navarro hooks up with, who was very concerned about her taking his SpongeBob toothbrush. He's all right in my book.)
There's some teasing of the supernatural here too, something that hasn't been present since season one. (Season three kind of has it, but it's more the product of the protagonist losing it as a result of his dementia. You know, fun season, happy times.) Navarro has a...hallucination? vision?...of a one-eyed polar bear in the road, which ties into Danvers holding a stuffed one-eyed bear toy. The ending of the episode (and the most major discovery so far in the case of the missing men) comes from an old woman seeing hallucinations of a dead man that leads her to the frozen bodies of three of the scientists.
So maybe the episode drags its feet a little and I'd like the storytelling and character development to intertwine more, but True Detective is back and that's not a bad thing. It's also well-directed and set up. I'm not a fan of the soundtrack choices, but that's a small issue. Above all, this largely feels like the same show despite being in new hands. I am a bit concerned about this season being six episodes instead of the typical True Detective eight But I think what we've got so far has made me want to see more.
This episode of True Detective is now available to stream on Max.
Sam Layton is a Chicago suburb native that's trying his best to make a career out of his (probably unhealthy) habit of watching too much television. When he's not working as the Third Coast Review's current sole TV reviewer, he's making his way through college or, shockingly, watching too much television.