True Detective: Night Country episode 5 solves one mystery and opens up a few more

There’s nothing on television quite like the moment in a thriller when a character finally breaks and does something even they didn’t know they were capable of. For True Detective: Night Country, that moment arrives late in episode 5, and it hits just about every character at the exact same time.

Night Country’s fifth episode mostly follows Danvers (Jodie Foster) and Navarro (Kali Reis) as they continue their investigation. Danvers, having sussed out the mine’s connection to the whole affair, suddenly has a target on her back by harboring the missing scientist, and Hank Prior (John Hawkes) is revealed to be the mine’s go-to problem solver. On its face, this all seems to clear up a question or two about Annie’s death, but the show refuses to let the answer be that simple.

While it’s clear that all of this is pushing the season’s action to a head, it isn’t until Pete Prior (Finn Bennett) gets kicked out of his house and has to move into Danvers’ shed that we really get a sense of just how much the season is contracting in on itself, bringing all of its major players into one place and applying pressure until something pops. And boy, does it pop.

But any show can bring its characters to an explosive head. What makes the climax of “Part 5” so exciting is how much you can feel the tension: No character in the scene wants to be there, or knows what to do next. Hank is standing in the kitchen, backed into a corner by Kate McKitterick (Dervla Kirwan) and the mining company, Pete is literally forced to choose which mentor figure will live and which will die, and Danvers would always rather hold the gun than have it pointed at her.

But every choice we’ve seen in the series so far has pushed these characters to this one spot. This is what TV does best. We’ve spent almost five full episodes with these characters, and we know them better than to think that this situation would explode into violence right away. But we also know that they’re each stubborn and resolute in their own ways, too. During every second of the entire standoff, it’s perfectly clear all any of them wants is a way out — some way to defuse the situation that doesn’t end with blood splattered all over the walls of Danvers’ house. And yet, by the end, they all know that’s not possible, and that’s when the shooting starts.

Any show can end its penultimate episode on a major character death, though. The fun of True Detective — any season, really — is watching reality set in the minutes after the explosive moment arrives. Danvers, Navarro, and Pete, standing around a kitchen island figuring out how to dispose of a body, is a quiet scene packed with residual adrenaline.

Kali Reis as Evangeline Navarro shining a flashlight in a dark room filled with animal skins in True Detective: Night Country. Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO

If TV is, at its best, about spending time with characters and watching them change, it doesn’t get much better than seeing Pete volunteer to clean up the blood of the father he just killed. It’s an unmistakable shift, and one that Bennett plays perfectly, all his cop discipline and commitment showing through in an instant, pushing down any reckoning with the ways his life or his psyche may be changed forever by this. Suddenly, it’s all business, and a body’s a body.

Night Country is, among other things, a show devoted to exploring the ways people live with decisions, and how they reconcile with the past. For some characters, that means literally seeing the past as visions or ghosts. For Danvers it means hating The Beatles and denying your pain, while for both her and Navarro it means committing to a lie about William Wheeler but finding different ways to move forward with Annie’s case. All of these pivotal moments happen long before the show begins, so it would be a waste for the show to end without letting us witness one of those impossible decisions. This time, it’s Pete’s. The slow unfolding of that scene is a beautiful illustration of Pete’s point of no return. In the context of the show, it’s easy for us to imagine all the ways that particular night, and that particular gunshot, are going to haunt him. But in keeping with the show’s themes, living with that decision starts immediately for Pete: He volunteers to clean up the mess almost the instant he makes it.

To do all of this in one episode runs the risk of losing momentum. But Night Country smartly skirts that pitfall by giving Hank Prior one final detail to add to the Tsalal case before he’s gone for good: He only moved the body. It’s an admission that feels both small, revelatory, gross, and desperate all at once — Hawkes delivers the line like he’s both convinced himself he did nothing wrong and begging for forgiveness at the same time. It’s a perfect end to the show’s saddest character, but it’s also a tremendous set up for the finale that finally seems ready to reveal what this whole season’s mystery has been leading to.