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Who Done It? Breaking Down the Premiere of ‘True Detective: Night Country’

The fourth season is underway in the darkness of Ennis, Alaska, where a grisly discovery is made on the ice

HBO/Ringer illustration

After four years away, True Detective returns for a new season with a sinistrous subtitle. We’re in Night Country now, and we’ll be following along each week to try to piece together, with the help of police chief Liz Danvers and detective Evangeline Navarro, who perpetrated those gruesome crimes in Ennis, Alaska. Read along for a breakdown of Episode 1.

Who Done It?

Well, let’s just take a general stock of what’s going on here: Caribou are jumping off cliffs to their deaths; a woman is hanging out with barefoot dead people in the freezing snow; a polar bear with one eye is roaming the streets; a rogue severed tongue is connecting cases past and present; and scientists are frozen solid with their mouths still wide open from screaming. That’s quite a lot to get a handle on. So, yeah, I hate to be anticlimactic, but this won’t be an easy case to solve.

What we do know is that Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) is already deep in her bag. She and Hank Prior (John Hawkes) arrive at the empty Tsalal Arctic Research Station to assess the scene after a delivery driver notifies the police in Ennis, Alaska, about a severed tongue on the floor. Hank’s son and Danvers’s protégé, Pete (Finn Bennett), is also there, already in the midst of compiling research. Danvers is the only one of the three who can manage to shut off an on-loop DVD of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. She’s also the only one able to tell that the tongue on the floor is at least two days old and that it belongs to a Native woman, recognizable by the marks left by a fishing wire. Danvers also calls out the odor of the wet clothes in the washer; she knows the syrupy mayo on a leftover sandwich—not the cold cuts themselves—is a key piece of evidence. It all signals that the station has been empty for at least two days.

Danvers quickly registers that the tongue might be related to an older, unsolved case from years back, on which Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis) still has a deep fixation. The cold case involves a Native woman, Annie Masu Kowtok, who had a lot of enemies because she protested the local mine—a massive economy driver in small-town Ennis. Navarro found her brutally murdered with 32 stab wounds and her tongue removed, but Navarro was “bounced off the case” and is now (very classically) a former detective turned state trooper with a haunted past. The connection to Danvers’s case at the research lab? Danvers knows the eight missing scientists from the Tsalal facility are all men because Pete read each of their names off of one of the facility computers like he was announcing the starting five of an NBA team at the arena. And Annie’s tongue was never found …

What does all of that tell us? A lot, actually. We know the town and even Ennis cops were out to get Annie. Her brother, Ryan, recalls telling her, “If you kill the mine, you kill Ennis.” We also know Tsalal was funded by a non-governmental organization and, well, something else—Pete is trying to explain when he and Danvers are interrupted by a drunk lady screaming in the station’s jail. That “something else” feels important, as do other scattered moments throughout the episode—Danvers’s interactions with a 15-year-old girl who lives with her but isn’t her child; the flashbacks Danvers has when stepping on the icy road while arresting our drunk-tanker; the dead guy without shoes whom Rose Aguineau (Fiona Shaw) is following without question; and, oh yeah, the one-eyed polar bear. So let’s start connecting some of the dots.

1. Detective Hank Prior

Yeah, I’m on his ass early. I don’t like him. I don’t trust him. Hank has a bad attitude. He also was of no help when Danvers and his son hunted down clues at the Tsalal research center. He was quick to call out that the ham on the sandwich was fresh, but he didn’t notice the runny mayo. He tried to stop Danvers from calling in a full-fledged search party out of fear of upsetting the families in case the missing scientists were actually out on some “geek expedition.” Hank was also adamant he didn’t have the old Annie case files at his house, yet he did, and Danvers had to ask Pete to sneak the box out of his dad’s place just to keep the work going.

Could Hank have hated Annie for protesting the mine? As I mentioned earlier, cops were after her because of her active demonstrations. It’s certainly possible. After all, he did raise a child in Ennis—if he understands the value of the mine to their home, maybe he’d go out of his way to protect it. As for the scientists, they were researching climate change. Hank definitely gives off some anti-vaxxer, climate-change-is-a-myth vibes.

The reasons against suspecting Hank are twofold: He gives off the worst energy of anyone in the premiere, making him almost too obvious of a suspect. That, and he has this new fiancée from Vladivostok, Russia—Alina—whom he can’t stop bragging about and painting walls in his house blue for. She’s coming to Ennis to get married on Christmas. Wait a second.

2. Alina

Who is this shadowy Russian? She’s coming to freezing Ennis eight days after the last sunset of the year to marry some curmudgeon on Christmas? I don’t like it. Alina doesn’t pass the sniff test.

3. Ryan Kowtok

We first meet Ryan with his face covered in dirt from working in the aforementioned mine. One of the first things he says when Navarro starts probing him about Tsalal and his sister’s case is that he doesn’t think they should rehash everything. Ryan also mentions that he and his sister got into “some shit fights” and were barely speaking in the last year she was alive. It would be completely fucked for Ryan to stab his own sister 32 times and cut out her tongue, but it’s so early. Every probable suspect has to go on the list at this point. (I’m sorry, Ryan.)

4. Stacy Chalmers

“Is that fucking Stacy Chalmers again?”

That’s how we’re introduced to the town drunk. Chalmers lands in jail after she nearly hits Danvers’s car and crashes into a pole. She stumbles out of the vehicle crying and a bit hysterical, landing herself in the drunk tank for the night. Hank, whom Chalmers occasionally, um, gives fellatio to (according to Danvers), tries to let her out early because she’s wailing from the confines of the cell, but Danvers shuts it down.

Could Chalmers have been aiming for Danvers with her car? Is the drunk crying all just an act? I don’t hate the theory. She’s obviously not a sound decision-maker if she’s widely known for her antics and for getting down and dirty with Hank.

5. Someone we don’t know

We still don’t know where all of the funding for Tsalal comes from because of Chalmers’s loud interruption. We still have no idea how to connect the polar bear, caribou, Danvers’s flashback on the ice, and the constant “She’s awake” whispers. We also don’t have our clear Beatrix Bourbon, the person we most medium suspect, quite yet. It’s a pretty polarizing list right now.

We just need to let Danvers cook. She already connected the tear in Annie’s jacket to Tsalal before she even found the scientist popsicles. We’ll need more background on her and Navarro, too, before we can connect all of the clues; the first episode followed the Dark Past Playbook (flashbacks, hard-to-understand relationships, cold attitudes) practically line by line.

Galaxy-Brained Theory of the Week

Hear me out now: Alina is a hired assassin. Hank is asking her to kill anyone threatening Ennis; his payment is marrying her in the U.S. to help her with a green card. He didn’t tell Danvers she was coming to Ennis to get married on Christmas as a brag or a veiled invitation. It was a threat.

Oh, and Chalmers is in on it too. I don’t know how yet, but it’s fucking Stacy Chalmers. How can she not be?

(This is obviously not it, but it’s too early for even the most out-there theories, and can we not dream anymore?)

Vikram’s Alaska Corner

True Detective: Night Country takes place in the cold fringes of the Last Frontier, otherwise known as Alaska. (Never mind that the season was filmed in Iceland.) The Ringer’s own Vikram Patel is a former resident of the state who still spends his winters there. Each week, we’ll pose a question to Vikram about his second home as we look to learn more about the local geography and culture.

Austin: Vikram, after watching the premiere of Night Country, I’m left with so many questions about this strange place depicted. The only place I can start is by asking what would be more mysterious to a real-life Alaskan: a severed tongue, dive-bombing caribou, a one-eyed polar bear, or seeing dead people dancing in the dark? Seems like any of them could be shrugged off by the locals, honestly.

Vikram: I can’t answer for every Alaskan; there are nearly three-quarters of a million people here. (Did you know that Alaska has the lowest population density of any U.S. state, at 1.3 people per square mile? New Jersey is about a thousand times more crowded.) But I can venture a guess.

A severed tongue is not mysterious, human or otherwise. Alaska is full of hunters. I once went to a Halloween party where the main food item was tongue tacos—the host had prepared tasty options from inside the mouths of a moose, a bison, and an elk. I realize you might be asking me about a human tongue, but even then, people in Alaska have freak accidents more than they do in L.A. (where I live now). Bears attack your friends, that sort of thing. I’d cross severed tongues off the list.

We can also eliminate dive-bombing caribou. Animals get to ride on planes here more than in most places. During the annual Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, when dogs get dropped from the team for illness or just for being a little slow that week, they hang out at a checkpoint and eventually get flown back home to Anchorage to meet up with their handlers and siblings. Look, I’m not saying I’ve ever seen a dog falling out of a plane, but it’s not like Alaska Airlines has a great track record of keeping its door plugs attached. X on the flying caribou.

Next: a one-eyed polar bear. I think this is the easiest cut, to be honest. Many years ago, I spent a few days at the McNeil River bear sanctuary, and one thing you learn from watching 40 grizzly bears hang out over a long weekend? Not all bears are created equal. There were a few fully healthy, king/queen-of-the-hill apex predator types, but the rest slotted into the various rungs of the hierarchy. It was like the high school cafeteria in Mean Girls. And down the line, the bears had a lot of fighting injuries—a lot of scars. There was one bear that had a tapeworm, the effects of which I won’t describe here, but our readers are free to Google. That’s all to say: A bear with a missing eye doesn’t seem shocking.

That leaves our winner: dead people dancing in the dark. I lived in Alaska for only 10 years; I suppose I have a lot left to see of the Great North yet.

Iconic True Detective Looks of the Week

Underneath the true crime mysteries at the forefront of each season, True Detective is admirably devoted to capturing the aesthetics that define each of its many eras. With that comes some pretty incredible costume and makeup work, which we’ll be highlighting throughout the season.

Navarro in the long, blue snow jacket with the understated V-neck sweater is a great change of pace from the trooper outfit. Staying warm and fashionable can be a grind, I’m sure, so it’s nice to see Navarro is still able to get fits off.

I’m not leaving Danvers off this list. I can’t do it. The Minnesota Vikings sweater (coupled with the fantasy football side plot) is iconic.

OK, you can’t say my guy Travis—the dead person Rose says leads her to the iced-out Tsalal bros—isn’t fitted. The plaid flannel; clean, white undershirt; gray, tight-fitting long johns; and bare feet as a true separating piece of the drip?! People are saying he’s dead, but my guy is alive and well.