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‘True Detective: Night Country’ Needs to Do More Detective Work

‘Night Country’ started strong, but with one episode left, most of its mysteries still don’t seem close to satisfying solutions

HBO/Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

The fifth episode of True Detective: Night Country had no shortage of drama. Silver Sky Mining owner Kate McKittrick emerged as a prime suspect, and Hank Prior was killed by his own son, Pete. But the mysteries surrounding the deaths of the Tsalal scientists and the murder of Annie Kowtok remain unsolved, and additional crucial questions are still unanswered. With just one episode left, Night Country has a lot of work to do to reach a wholly satisfying conclusion.

In the first two episodes of the season, the outlines of our case in Ennis, Alaska, took shape: The reclusive scientists at the Tsalal Arctic Research Station were found frozen under strange and disturbing circumstances, and one member of the research team was still missing. The lone absent scientist, Raymond Clark, had ties to the unsolved murder of Kowtok, who was killed six years earlier; Kowtok’s tongue was even found at the Tsalal facility when the scientists were discovered to be missing. It all had the makings of a fascinating mystery to be unraveled by a host of compelling characters with tortured pasts and complicated relationships. Yet three episodes later, progress in solving the main Tsalal case has been slow—and time is running out.

Night Country’s scope is ambitious, and at times—particularly in the season’s early episodes—that ambition has led to great results. The show has featured a number of rich characters, including the detectives Liz Danvers and Evangeline Navarro, whose backstories seemed to promise intriguing (and depressing) reveals that would complement the development of the mystery at the center of the season. But as those individual histories and interpersonal relationships have been explained in bits and pieces across five hour-long installments, they’ve become part of a wider issue: The show has juggled too many characters and story lines as the (true) detective work has taken a back seat.

The show’s dual leads are carrying a lot of individual and shared baggage, and it’s only getting heavier with each passing day of Ennis’s long night. The losses of Danvers’s son and partner, which have yet to be explained in full, have haunted her in ways that have pushed her further and further away from the living people she cares about, particularly her daughter, Leah, who’s becoming more involved in the community’s fight against Silver Sky and the environmental issues the company is causing. Navarro and her younger sister, Julia, had a traumatic childhood with their mother, whose mental health declined as she suffered from disturbing visions before she was murdered by an unknown killer. That’s taken a toll on Navarro, but an even greater one on Julia: After experiencing similar visions, Julia took her own life in the fourth episode. Now Evangeline is mourning the loss of her sister while wondering whether her own troubling visions will continue to worsen as her family “curse” is passed on to her. And on top of the detectives’ individual problems, there’s also the matter of the Wheeler incident, the supposed murder-suicide case from years earlier that, thanks to Danvers and Navarro, was really a double murder.

While a great deal of the show’s focus has understandably centered on Danvers and Navarro, along with rookie cop Pete Prior, certain supporting characters have had to forgo screen time that’s been distributed instead to the many other occurrences in Ennis. As a result, those characters have come to feel less like three-dimensional figures than mere extensions of the primary characters they’re there to support.

Pete’s wife, Kayla, for example, is primarily in Night Country to reflect the cost that the Tsalal case—and working for Chief Danvers—has inflicted on Pete in his capacities as a husband and father. Kayla is angry at Pete (or Danvers) virtually every time she’s on-screen. She has more than enough reason to be upset, of course, given that Pete is abdicating his responsibilities to their son, Darwin, and skipping Christmas Eve with the family while Kayla balances being a parent and a student (in addition to helping out her grandmother at the laundromat). But it’s hard to empathize with a minor character who is only ever annoyed in her rare appearances, whereas the audience has a disproportionate amount of time to understand Pete’s side of the story as he dutifully obeys his obsessive boss amid a high-stakes case despite his pleas to Danvers for time to see his family. In the abstract, the dissolution of Kayla and Pete’s marriage seems like an intriguing plotline, especially positioned in contrast to the gloomy lives of Danvers and Navarro—older cops who represent what’s in store for Pete’s future as a tortured detective. But without the proper room to flesh out this narrative, it’s fallen flat as just another family-focused distraction from the central murder mystery.

Even Julia, whose institutionalization, death, and discovery were compressed into a single day, served as little more than a mirror to reflect Evangeline’s humanity and the ghosts of their shared past as their trauma bleeds into the present day. In the end, Julia’s story was less a meaningful exploration of a character’s mental health issues and generational trauma than it was an attempt to enrich Evangeline’s own complexities.

Many of the show’s character developments have fostered powerful drama throughout the season, even if those payoffs have been unevenly distributed. (Navarro quietly watching as her sister’s remains are cremated at the start of the fifth episode is one of the latest examples that shows Night Country can successfully land one of its emotional beats.) But the bigger problem is that few of these story elements have much to do with the pursuit of the case at the heart of this detective story.

Since the case came together in the first two episodes of the season, Night Country’s creators have shown that they’re more interested in the lives of the main characters than they are in exploring who killed the Tsalal scientists and Kowtok. By the end of the second episode, Clark had emerged as the prime suspect in the dual Tsalal and Kowtok cases—and he’s stayed that way for the majority of the season. While we learned a bit more about Clark’s secret relationship with Kowtok and some of the story behind their shared spiral tattoos in the third episode, Danvers and Navarro have yet to find him. Meanwhile, little has been uncovered—or even investigated—about what the Tsalal scientists were actually researching and why anyone would want them killed. The deeper into the season we go, the less Night Country seems concerned with the inciting incident that brought us here in the first place.

The latest breakthrough in the case happened in the fifth episode, when Kate McKittrick and Hank Prior’s involvement in the Kowtok murder and the Tsalal mystery were at least partially revealed. McKittrick—also known as “that mine bitch”—has hardly played a role in the season aside from a few brief appearances, including her introduction in the second episode when Danvers decided to borrow the local hockey rink (which is owned by McKittrick’s Silver Sky Mining company) to thaw the corpsicle. Her power and influence were at least hinted at ahead of Episode 5, given her connections to the mine and the economic value it holds for Ennis, but the sudden reveal that McKittrick paid Hank to move Kowtok’s body out of the ice caves feels clumsy since there was so little development leading up to it. It’s hard not to wonder why McKittrick hasn’t been featured more prominently in the season if she was to become this crucial to the outcome of the case, and why Night Country chose to spend time on more trivial subplots, such as Hank getting catfished by his fake Russian fiancée.

At the outset of the season, it seemed possible that Night Country could return the True Detective franchise to the heights of Season 1, but the show has slowly succumbed to the strain of its many moving parts and its lack of concentration on its main function as a detective series. (I haven’t even addressed the seemingly supernatural phenomena in Ennis, another mystery that has yet to be explained and likely never will be.)

Perhaps the biggest challenge Night Country has faced has been clock management, as it’s struggled to properly pace its dispersal of relevant information regarding the primary Tsalal case. At just six episodes, Night Country is the shortest season of True Detective to date; each of the previous seasons featured eight installments. Night Country certainly could have benefited from additional screen time. It’s fair to question whether this story should have conformed to the traditional True Detective anthological format or whether it should have been a part of the True Detective brand at all; maybe Night Country would have been better suited to a multi-season series (or a movie) of its own.

There’s still a lot to like about what showrunner Issa López and Co. have done with some of their characters and the way that they’ve made Ennis—and its perpetual nighttime setting—feel like a character in itself. But the show’s shortcomings have grown more glaring as it’s become increasingly likely that there won’t be satisfying answers to many of the questions that the season has raised. Even a 75-minute finale may not be enough to make up for some of the uneven storytelling and pacing throughout the season, but Night Country will at least have one last, extended opportunity to weave everything together in time to finish strong.