clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘True Detective’ Is a Flat Circle: How ‘Night Country’ Connects to Season 1

The latest season of ‘True Detective’ is toying with tantalizing ties to the first, from Rust Cohle’s dad to Carcosa spirals

HBO/Ringer illustration

In the final scene of the iconic first season of True Detective, Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) are conversing outside the Lafayette General Hospital, not long after their climactic encounter with Errol Childress (Glenn Fleshler) ended their decades-spanning case and nearly got them killed. Under the darkness of night, Rust tells Marty what it was like to come so close to death—how he could feel his daughter and his father as his consciousness faded into the void of the afterlife. It’s a rare moment of vulnerability for Cohle, who breaks down into tears. Marty attempts to console him by mentioning that Cohle had once talked about how he used to look up at the stars and make up stories when he was growing up in Alaska. Marty asks Cohle what those stories were about.

“I tell you, Marty, I’ve been up in that room looking out those windows every night here, just thinking … it’s just one story,” Cohle says. “The oldest.”

“What’s that?” Marty asks him.

“Light versus dark.”

Marty looks back up at the stars and replies, “Well, I know we ain’t in Alaska, but … appears to me that the dark has a lot more territory.”

Almost 10 years after that scene first aired on HBO, True Detective has returned for a fourth season: Night Country. In an episode of The True Detective: Night Country Podcast, creator Issa López spoke about how Rust’s line about light and dark stuck with her. “I was curious about that,” she explained. “About secrets, using the environment as a reflection of what’s happening with the characters and with a town, and with a story and with a plot. There is more to what you can see. Very close to you, you can see very little around you, and then beyond that is darkness. And that creates a space where there is more happening, and discovering requires for you to venture into it.”

Fittingly, the latest chapter of the anthology series is set in the perpetual darkness of an Alaskan winter in the fictional town of Ennis. But the connections between the two seasons run much deeper than the Season 1 finale’s mention of Night Country’s setting.

In the second episode of Night Country, Rose Aguineau (Fiona Shaw) tells trooper Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis) the story of the last time she saw Travis Cohle (Erling Eliasson), Rust’s late father, on the day he took his life. The ghost of Travis had made quite the entrance in the season premiere, appearing before Rose while wearing little more than a plaid flannel and long johns to guide her to the discovery of the six frozen scientists from the Tsalal Arctic Research Facility. (He managed to work in a hell of an interpretative dance along the way, too.) Cohle may be dead in the story’s present timeline, but even the mention of his existence in Ennis, along with the fact that he was suffering from leukemia before he went into the ice, adds a new layer of context to the first season.

When Rust is being investigated by a pair of detectives in the first season’s modern 2012 timeline, he tells them that he took a personal leave of absence from the ongoing investigation in 1995 so that he could visit his survivalist father in Alaska, who was dying of leukemia. Yet during the detectives’ interview with Marty, they tell him that they know his former partner is lying to them: Not only were there no hospital records or any other evidence of Travis ever having leukemia, but “nobody in that town in Alaska’s seen Travis Cohle in more than 30 years.”

Of course, the viewing audience at the time already knew that Rust was lying to the detectives. In the fourth episode of the first season, we see exactly what Rust was up to during his “personal leave of absence” in 1995: He was going undercover to infiltrate a biker gang in East Texas as part of his and Hart’s hunt for Childress’s accomplice Reggie Ledoux. But as Season 4 informs us, like any good lie, Rust’s fabricated story had a few kernels of truth in it. Rust might not have returned to Alaska in 1995, but that doesn’t mean Travis—who probably wouldn’t have set his bare feet in a hospital in the first place—couldn’t have been suffering from leukemia.

Travis Cohle isn’t the only link to Season 1 that emerged in this week’s episode of Night Country. Rookie cop Pete Prior (Finn Bennett) tells police chief Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) that Tsalal is funded by a shell company that’s owned by Tuttle United, which does a little bit of everything: glass, tech, video games, shipments, palm oil, cruise lines. The Tuttle name is familiar to fans of the first season, as the Tuttle family was at the heart of the conspiracy that Rust and Marty investigated for more than 20 years.

The detective duo encounter many branches of the Tuttle family tree as they uncover all the ways the Tuttles used their deep-rooted power in Louisiana to perpetrate and cover up their horrific crimes and abuse of children through a pipeline of elementary schools and religious organizations. By 2012, several members of the Tuttle family had died, and the cult had mostly disbanded—Childress, the grandson of Sam Tuttle from an extramarital affair, seems to be one of the last cultists standing. After Cohle and Marty kill Childress and close their case, a news broadcast in the finale reports that “the state attorney general and the FBI had discredited rumors that the accused was in some way related to the family of Louisiana senator Edwin Tuttle.”

In Night Country, which takes place in 2023, the mention of Tuttle United comes in passing—Danvers dismisses Prior’s description of it as unhelpful, and that’s the end of it (for now, at least). But like the details about Travis Cohle, it reframes our understanding of the first season, suggesting not only that Edwin Tuttle and his family successfully escaped any connections to Childress and the cult at large, but also that the power and influence of the Tuttle family have grown over the preceding decade. The mentions of the Tuttles and Travis’s last name, like the sight of a Lone Star beer can—Rust’s drink of choice—in the Tsalal research station in Episode 1, are subtle enough that any first-time True Detective viewer likely wouldn’t think twice about them. But these Easter eggs, much like Season 3’s callbacks to Season 1, serve as reminders to longtime True Detective fans that the series’ four seasons exist in a shared universe.

Even though the fourth season is the first to be steered by someone other than series creator Nic Pizzolatto, as López steps in to make her mark on the True Detective franchise, Night Country is toeing the line between building on the hugely popular first season and creating a new narrative that can stand on its own. The show’s most pronounced tie to Cohle and Marty’s case in Louisiana has been the reemergence of the franchise’s recurring spiral symbol. The same emblem that was found on the back of Dora Lange, the woman whose death kicked off the first season’s investigation, was also tattooed on the back of Annie Kowtok, whose unsolved murder has emerged as a crucial missing piece of the ongoing Night Country mystery surrounding the frozen Tsalal scientists. In the second episode, the spiral is also found on the forehead of Tsalal founder Anders Lund, on the chest of Tsalal scientist (and primary suspect) Raymond Clark, and on the ceiling of Clark’s secret trailer. As Rose tells Navarro, the symbol is “older than Ennis … older than the ice, probably.”

Screenshots via HBO

In Night Country, López is pulling some of her favorite elements from the first season and blending them into a story with its own unique characters, environments, and mysteries. “One of the things that I loved most about that first season of True Detective was the cosmic horror angle of it,” López told The Ringer’s Chris Ryan on The Watch. “It had a Carcosa, and it had a Yellow King, which are references to the Cthulhu mythos with Lovecraft and the idea of ancient gods that live beyond the human perception. … That sense of something sinister playing behind the scenes, and watching from the shadows, is something that I very much loved.”

In Season 1, the Yellow King appears in the form of Childress, while Carcosa is the name of Childress’s spooky home base. But this haunting, supernatural imagery, as well as that of the wider cult, taps into something much more sinister that seems to go beyond anything as rationally explicable as a single serial killer or his disturbing hangout spots. Throughout the season, Cohle experiences sporadic visions that he explains away as mental health issues exacerbated by his years of heavy drug use while working undercover. But these visions often arrive in moments that hold deeper meaning. (Notably, in Night Country, Rose advises Navarro, “Don’t confuse the spirit world with mental health issues.”) In the season finale, Cohle sees some sort of vortex—that sure looks like a giant spiral—appear above him in Carcosa just before he fights Childress:

López is taking these surreal, supernatural moments—the cosmic horror of it all—and leaning into them even further, without limiting these occurrences to the perspective of a single character who has a history of drug use. “Same as with True Detective, you can decide at the end of the series to understand and interpret the events as completely rational and belonging in the real world, or you can go the route of Carcosa,” she explained on The Watch. “In this season, I never say ‘Carcosa,’ but the symbol of Carcosa is in this series. And what I believe is that that symbol marks the places where our world and that world beyond, where Carcosa is and the ancient ones walk, that’s where the spiral connects them.”

Through two episodes, Night Country has featured visions of a dancing ghost, a one-eyed polar bear, and a child’s hand reaching across Danvers’s body while she slept. There are whispers, muffled screams, and hushed voices in the quiet between scenes that may or may not be diegetic. These instances involve various characters, challenging the viewer’s judgment each time about whether they’re happening or are just products of an individual’s imagination or trauma. And the locals are well aware of this phenomenon: As Bill Wallis (Darren Foreman), the Tsalal supply guy, tells Pete about potentially seeing somebody at the deserted research facility, “This is Ennis, man. … You see people who are gone sometimes. It’s a long fuckin’ night. Even the dead get bored.”

As the long night of Ennis wages on, the town’s cosmic horrors appear to be growing as the mysteries of Night Country deepen, and as both the individual and collective traumas of the community emerge. And by embedding the themes and lore of seasons past into this new, haunting tale, López and Co. are enriching and expanding the True Detective brand while creating something that still feels, well, true to what Season 1 started.