True Detective always secretly wished for a happy ending

So what is True Detective, really? Before this year, it felt like a collection of aesthetic trappings. Two cops played by prominent actors. A crime spanning multiple timelines. Some kind of weird fiction/supernatural horror bent. Thematically, the anthology’s concerns shifted from season to season, their strongest throughlines being heavy ruminations on masculinity. But in its final, stunning hour, True Detective: Night Country tries to buckle down and answer, once and for all, what True Detective is really about — by going back to where it all started.

This isn’t about lore, or Easter eggs. Sure, Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) talked about being in Alaska a bit in True Detective’s debut season. And yeah, maybe he spent some time in Night Country’s Ennis, looking up at the stars without a TV, the town’s permeable relationship with the boundary between this world and the next soaking up his subconscious, its Uzumaki-esque penchant for spirals setting his mind off-kilter just so. There are plenty of connections for those looking for them.

While Night Country is happy to haunt viewers with the same cosmic horror trappings as the original series, the real full-circle moment, the thing it posits that True Detective is all about, is in how its characters respond to that cosmic horror: with hope. Rust Cohle’s last line in the first season of True Detective is a simple statement of the bleeding heart at the core of True Detective, almost hilariously so following eight episodes of nihilistic pablum.

“The light is winning,” he tells his partner Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) as they stare up at stars in the night sky.

[Ed. note: The rest of this post contains spoilers for all of True Detective: Night Country.]

Eventually, the light wins in Night Country too. The Long Night ends, and the sun finally rises, as Navarro (Kali Reis) and Danvers (Jodi Foster) follow the spiral of the Tsalal station mystery to its horrific center. The riddle posed by the corpsicle of researchers has its answer in the solution to the other case that has haunted Navarro and Danvers, the murder of Anne Kowtok. In an Agatha Christie-style twist, Annie was ultimately murdered by all of the men working at the Tsalal station, after she discovered a conspiracy between the researchers and the Silver Star mining corporation to increase the pollutants churned into the environment to benefit their research.

Everything cascades from there in a propulsive denouement that neatly ties all of Night Country’s themes together into an astonishingly cohesive whole. Danvers finally concludes that she has been asking the wrong questions: Not merely who would want Annie dead, but who knew who those people would be. The answer was hiding in plain sight: The Indigenous women of Ennis, always present, always ignored, always watching. In cleaning crews and in factories, a community formed in the shadow of men’s ignorance, deciding to remind the world they are more than just passive victims in the story of Ennis.

Across its six-episode run, Night Country has contemplated memory: of individuals, yes, but also of places, cultures, and the land beneath its characters feet, bones spiraling through the ice. Cut through the story with a knife, and those who remember will fall on one side, and those who forget will be on the other: the women who remember an abusive man’s history in the premiere, those at peace with the dead, those who run from their past.

Danvers (Jodie Foster) sitting at a table with a mug Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO

Navarro, Danvers, and poor Petey Prior all have to wrestle with the fallout of running from their past and the history of Ennis around them, but it’s Navarro who lies at the crux of Night Country’s concerns. Severed from her Indigenous roots when we meet her, Navarro has spent years running, ditching her Indigenous name and worried her family’s spirituality will lead her to madness, like her sister. Her law enforcement career served as a vector for the rage she nursed in lieu of remembering, of connection — rage towards men who hurt women, who had no checks on their passions and no respect for anything outside of themselves. Separate from her history, Navarro is incomplete.

In Navarro’s story, Issa López and her collaborators plant the quietly optimistic kernel of True Detective season 1 in the permafrost of Ennis, Alaska, and watch it beat the odds and grow in spite of the horror. The night doesn’t break until Navarro takes her own name — Evangeline Siqiññaatchiaq Navarro, meaning “the return of the sun after the long darkness” — and accepts who she is, and what it means to be a part of this place. In doing so, she decides to become someone else. No longer a cop, but part of something greater, something she hopes to find out in the ice.

Night Country ends with its most overt homage to its predecessor yet, as Captain Danvers sits for a recorded questioning about the events of the series sometime in the future. It’s another aesthetic garnish, another way the show looks back to acknowledge where it came from. Things are different this time, though. Where the original series’ interrogation scenes were ominous moments of dread, there’s hope here. The woman in front of the camera knows the light is winning, and knows how to make sure it stays that way. It involves not running, in pulling close to the pain. To stare dead into the abyss, and keep walking until you see the stars.