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True Detective: Night country shows the post-Christian imagination is bleaker than ever

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It’s unfair to compare True Detective: Night Country to the show’s sublime first season. But it’s impossible not to, if only to show how much bleaker the post-Christian vision has become in the last decade. Image: Press shot
It’s unfair to compare True Detective: Night Country to the show’s sublime first season. But it’s impossible not to, if only to show how much bleaker the post-Christian vision has become in the last decade. Image: Press shot

In a world without God, in which human consciousness is just an evolutionary accident, what’s the point of justice? The first season of True Detective, back in 2014, was unique among “post-Christian” horror, because it dared to give a hopeful answer: even if humans are a mistake, now that Homo Sapiens is on the scene, violence and blind chance are no longer the only forces driving evolution.

Human agency means that faith, hope and love can change the course of the world, even in the absence of God. The nihilist can become an agent of good, if he learns loyalty. By the end of the show, Matthew McConaughey’s detective Rust Cohle goes through a profound dark night of the soul, survives a terrifying brush with death, and emerges a mystic.

Season one was so perfectly realised, it’s almost unfair to measure other shows against it. It’s especially unfair to compare season one with the recently-concluded season four, True Detective: Night Country. But it’s impossible not to, if only to show how much bleaker the vision of showrunner Issa López is by comparison.

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To be fair, Night Country began well. All signs pointed to a return to form after True Detective seasons two and three fell flat.

The casting: Jodie Foster as grizzled police chief Liz Danvers, which immediately teased a reprisal of her star performance as Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs.

The setting: a remote Alaskan mining town in the permanent winter night, riven by protests over pollution from a local mine. The perfect foil to the lush, sun-drenched decay of season one’s Louisiana.

The crime: a scientific research centre out on the ice goes dark, with the scientists seemingly murdered, their bodies found frozen into a solid block out on the ice. The severed tongue of an Inupiat woman is found at the murder scene, which is traced to an unsolved murder six years previous. Who killed the scientists… and who left the tongue?

The twist: Danvers and her hothead partner Evangeline Navarro, an indigenous woman, are crooked cops, having murdered a criminal in cold blood in a previous case, and covered it up.

All lights are green. Even the “woke” themes—environmentalism, gender, indigeneity—seemed to be set up for tense, complex exploration.

As the six episodes unfold, López plays with her premise in an ambiguous way that tends to run down the viewer’s goodwill. The plot oscillates unsatisfyingly between the poles of each of the show’s binaries: white vs indigenous, male vs female, industry vs environment, rationality vs the supernatural, police vs criminals, living vs dead.

The back-and-forth stifles the dread and flattens the show’s emotional tone. And it’s left open right up until the final episode whether the show’s supernatural interruptions are “real,” or tricks of the mind caused by the endless night. Like a lot of post-Christian horror, metaphysical ambiguity strips the plot of a major source of tension. Who cares if the cops are being haunted, if ghosts aren’t real?

Likewise, the sense of marginality and unreliability that’s built up throughout the show—everyone’s a bit woo-woo out on the dilapidated fringes of the world—is squandered. When they have to thaw the frozen scientists out on the town’s hockey rink and get a veterinarian in to do the autopsy, you know these cops are out of their depth. Their main lead is a bombed-out addict living in a shipwreck on the ice. The picture is bleak overall.

Danvers’ investigation has some legitimately compelling moments, with the two leads in real danger. But Night Country seems uncomfortable with its own complex setup, resolving everything neatly in its immensely unsatisfying final episode. Except the tongue…

Police procedurals need to move from ambiguity, to certainty. They need a victim, a murder weapon, an investigation, a denouement. They also need a kind of faith. Faith that the case can and should be solved.

In Night Country, the post-Christian horror begins with the realisation that the cops are faithless. Without faith, the “substance of things hoped for,” why try to crack the case? Navarro has the strongest motivation: indigenous women are having miscarriages from pollution, losing their sanity, being murdered to protect the mine’s profits. She could easily be next. Problem is, she thinks her fellow cops are racists who don’t care if indigenous women get murdered. (She’s right.)

But Danvers has only resentment to go on; Foster’s performance ranges from stoic to downright burned-out. Loss and guilt have white-anted her soul to the point where she barely believes in anything, gracelessly going through the motions. Her trademark is to bark, “Wrong question” until the investigation progresses.

The real figures of faith in this show are the victims, the scientists who are drilling out on the ice to extract prehistoric DNA they believe could cure all disease. The Inupiat women, also victims, are likewise faithful to their spiritual traditions, which keep them together as the mine poisons their world. Both “tribes” are deeply compromised in their own way.

But Danvers has no tribe, and like the mine her isolation and resentment slowly poisons the lives of all those around her, including her stepdaughter Leah, and rookie cop Peter Prior (Finn Bennett). To drive the bleakness home, the plot is set at Christmas time. “I’ve got no mercy left in me,” she tells Navarro late in the season; she has no love left in her either, and is almost androgynous in her hardness.

While Foster’s performance carries the whole show, it’s impossible for an actress this charismatic to play anti-hero this charmless. As a result, at times she veers into Fargo and Twin Peaks territory, giving Danvers a comic streak verging on goofiness. But the character doesn’t deserve it. It cons the audience into sympathising with a husk of a woman who, unlike Cohle in season one, is not on a redemption arc, but in a death spiral.

So when the killers are discovered in the show’s final episode, and Danvers is absolved and redeemed by directorial fiat, you can’t help but feel cheated for having stuck with her. Without spoiling the resolution, there was never a case for her to solve, no injustice to correct.

Lopez is ultimately trying to say that all Danvers’ striving was in vain. The real crime is simply her presence, as the androgynous avatar of alienated white womanhood and the failure of patriarchal Western rationality rolled into one.

The mine and the murders, racism, whiteness and false scientism can’t be solved. Only outlasted and ultimately banished, like evil spirits. Where season one was premised on the idea that humankind was an evolutionary mistake, season four reserves that judgment for the West.

And instead of a hopeful way forward from despair, season four goes backwards: away from faith in the possibility of justice and shared values, back into the “night country,” the gloom of resentment punctuated by violent revenge, tribal solidarity, and mystique of the esoteric.

It’s prestige TV well worth watching, with the usual warnings for profanity, violence and sex. But Night Country serves mainly as an artefact of how bleak the post-Christian imagination has become, even compared to a decade ago.

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