In the Realm of the Dead

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Editor’s note: The below contains spoilers for True Detective: Night Country Episode 3.


The Big Picture

  • The use of supernatural elements adds an eerie atmosphere to True Detective: Night Country, but the show fails to make us care about the characters’ personal lives.
  • Episode 3 offers few clues about what happened at Tsalal as the theory that fear killed the researchers sparks renewed interest in the mystery.
  • The episode focuses on building the character of Annie Kowtok, highlighting her role as a giver of life and the connection between death and the mine in Ennis.

The promise of the supernatural has been present in True Detective: Night Country since before the show even dropped. Early remarks about the then-upcoming season of the HBO show were quick to point out the possibility of something otherworldly hiding beneath the snow of the long Alaskan night, while reviews praised the series’ blending of the supernatural and the mundane. And, indeed, the use of horror elements — ghosts, mysterious killings, unexplained sightings — is one of the greatest things about this new season of True Detective. But, then again, with a past so firmly rooted in horror, we didn’t expect anything less from writer and director Issa López.

However, not all appeals to the supernatural are cut from the same cloth. Sure, the creepy atmosphere and the visits from the spirit realm help create a sense of uneasiness that is essential to the mystery of what happened to the men of Tsalal station, while also lending new layers to the murder of Annie Kowtok (Nivi Pedersen). And, as new information regarding what happened to the researchers comes to light, the all-encompassing sensation that there is something wrong intensifies. But, alas, True Detective: Night Country isn’t as skilled in its use of the supernatural when it comes to its characters’ personal lives. In Episode 3, we take a couple of trips to the world of the dead in scenes that feel tepid and, honestly, a bit predictable.

True Detective

Anthology series in which police investigations unearth the personal and professional secrets of those involved, both within and outside the law.

Release Date
January 12, 2014

Creator
Nic Pizzolatto

Main Genre
Crime

Seasons
4

Studio
HBO

Streaming Service(s)
Max


‘True Detective: Night Country’ Continues to Fail to Make Us Care for Its Characters’ Personal Lives

Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that True Detective: Night Country has, since its very first episode, been continuously failing to make us care for the personal lives of its characters. This problem became clearer in Episode 2, in which stories such as Danvers’ (Jodie Foster) parental issues with Leah (Isabella LaBlanc) and Navarro’s (Kali Reis) somewhat reluctant affair with Qavvik (Joel Montgrand) stopped being mere exposition and gained plot status. Only tangentially connected to the core mystery of the show, these stories fail to captivate as the characters at their center are just not that interesting. Let’s face it, there’s just so much we can stand of Danvers and Navarro’s non-stop, humorless bantering without getting tired of it, and Episode 3 doesn’t seem to be aware of these limitations.

The supernatural elements that pop up in Episode 3 of True Detective: Night Country are almost all tied to the stories of its main characters. The first pertains to the child Danvers seems to have lost, the little boy who owned a one-eyed polar bear plushie that she briefly sees in Episode 1. It all happens after she and Danvers find a picture of Annie and Raymond Clark (Owen McDonnell) that seems to have been taken by someone else. The photo is tainted with a smudge of blue ink the same color as the streaks on Annie’s hair, which immediately points Navarro to Susan (Bridie Trainor), the local hairdresser. Upon asking why Susan never told her about Clark while she was investigating Annie’s murder, Navarro finds out that she did tell Hank Prior (John Hawkes). She also learns that Susan was, much like Annie, having a fling with a Tsalal man, someone by the name of Oliver Tagaq (Lance Karmer). There is only one problem: Tagaq is not listed among the staff at Tsalal, nor does anyone know where he is.

Now, Navarro’s findings from her chat with Susan are extremely interesting, particularly the part about Hank not telling anyone about Annie’s relationship with Clark. What is his end goal here? Is he trying to protect the mine and thus believes Annie’s murder was for the best? Or is there something even more insidious about his actions? Well, we don’t know, and we won’t find out so soon, because Episode 3 focuses on the Oliver Tagaq thread — a thread that doesn’t exactly lead anywhere.

Navarro is the one who uncovers Tagaq’s whereabouts. She goes to Qavvik for help, asking him to do some digging among his customers, and he agrees to do so in exchange for some backstory. Navarro tells him about her mother, how she was a local who eventually moved to Boston and then came back, but none of that is of any consequence to us. It does seem like it will come back later, what with all the talk about Navarro not knowing her Inupiaq name, but, so far, it just feels like unnecessary exposition. Still, it proves fruitful in the series’ universe, as Qavvik does come back with information about Tagaq. But, before Navarro can do anything about it, she falls and hits her head on the ground. Temporarily transported to another realm, she briefly comes in contact with a young boy who, judging by the bear plushie in his arms, seems to be Danvers’ son.

This is the first instance in which True Detective: Night Country has transported us to a world that exists beyond the veil that separates the living from the dead. But though the series has told us before that said veil is thin in Ennis and though we have seen Danvers’ son in Episode 1, it’s a scene that falls flat because the show doesn’t give us enough of a reason to actually care for Danvers apart from the fact that she is the story’s main character. She’s not charming in her grumpiness for us to like her, nor is she hateful enough for us to wish her harm. She’s just there, a detective who serves as a means to solving a mystery that is much more captivating than her.

‘True Detective: Night Country’ Episode 3 Gives Us Few Clues About What Happened at Tsalal

With the mystery being at the crux of the show, one would expect True Detective: Night Country to focus its narrative energy on offering us clues that might help us crack the case or even some red herrings. Episode 3, however, gives us little in that sense. Navarro and Danvers find out nothing from Tagaq, an openly hostile witness who’s left his job to live in a nomad camp somewhere in the tundra. Speaking of the icy wilderness, Clark continues to be missing, and Hank’s strategy for finding him proves to be way too dangerous: his idea of putting together a search party involves enlisting trigger-happy civilians that might cost the case a valuable witness or even a perpetrator.

The sole clue that actually points somewhere comes from Pete’s (Finn Bennett) veterinarian cousin, Vince (Vilhelm Neto). Afraid of losing her case to Anchorage because the bodies are nearly finished thawing and unable to get an expert on the scene due to the stormy weather, Danvers accepts Vince’s help in trying to figure out what on Earth killed the Tsalal men. Upon taking a look at the corpsicle, Vince quickly diagnoses that they were not killed by the cold, as freezing to death is a relatively peaceful demise, incompatible with their expressions of terror. His theory is that the scientists were actually killed by fear, something that he has seen happen to many animals.

It’s a disturbing possibility and one that renews our interest in a mystery that is largely forgotten throughout the episode. It’s also a theory that seems to be confirmed by Lund as he wakes up from his coma screaming bloody murder, unable to form a cohesive sentence as Danvers tries to interrogate him. The failed questioning is cut short by a fight breaking out in the hospital’s foyer. Danvers moves to help the nurses bring a stop to it, and Navarro is left behind as the sole witness to Lund’s (Þorsteinn Bachmann) only words: something about her dead mother waiting for her. Immediately after delivering this message, Lund collapses and dies.

It’s a creepy scene, but one that doesn’t hit its target because, again, why should we care about Navarro’s mother? In a way, the moment parallels another scene that happens earlier in the episode, in which we are offered a flashback explaining what happened to drive Danvers and Navarro apart. Telling the story to Pete, Danvers says that Navarro failed to get herself back together after a murder-suicide involving a violent man and his teenage girlfriend. The images, however, show us the man laughing as Navarro and Danvers arrive at the scene to find the dead girl on the ground. The implication is that Danvers killed the suspect and framed it as something else. The man’s giggle echoes as we are left to ponder the truth behind Danvers’ words. It’s chilling, but does it really matter? Do we really care enough about Danvers and Navarro to actually give the scene the weight it was supposed to have?

‘True Detective: Night Country’ Episode 3 Tells Us More About Annie Kowtok

Image via HBO

But while True Detective: Night Country fails to create something around its two main characters, it does succeed at building on one of its supporting roles. The real star of Episode 3 is Annie Kowtok, who appears in the first scene, another flashback, delivering a baby whom she also coaxes into breathing. It’s a scene that stands in sharp contrast to the one in which Leah goes to a meeting of anti-mining activists and learns about the birth of a stillborn child, a direct result of the heavy pollution that surrounds Ennis.

In a not-so-subtle, but still effective parallel, the show paints Annie as a giver of life, while the mine, the thing that she fought so hard, is a harbinger of death. At the same time, though, mine supporters claim that it is the only thing keeping the town of Ennis’ alive. It’s a nice way of bringing the town’s connection to the realm of the dead to the mundane, creating a direct link between what kills and what brings life.

This focus on Annie in the early scenes of the episode also helps us give more significance to her case, which, so far, stood in the background of the Tsalal affair. It also creates a nice parallel with the final scene of the episode in which Navarro and Danvers, now in possession of Annie’s working phone, bear witness to her death. Or, at least, to the sound of her death. You see, the video, in which Annie claims to have found something bizarre in a place that looks a lot like a mine, doesn’t show her dying, but it sure captures her screams. It’s a tragic ending for Annie, as well as for an episode that kicked off with life being brought into our world. It’s also an ending that makes Annie more palpable and part of something bigger — which is more than we can say for Navarro and Danvers,

A poster for True Detective: Night Country.

True Detective: Night Country Episode 3

REVIEW

The season’s third episode jumps headfirst into the supernatural, but fails to make us care for its characters.

Anthology series in which police investigations unearth the personal and professional secrets of those involved, both within and outside the law.

Pros

  • Episode 3 builds on Annie Kowtok and makes her part of something bigger.
  • The Tsalal mystery continues to enthrall, despite its secondary role.
Cons

  • The Tsalal case takes a backseat in favor of personal stories that aren’t that interesting.
  • The show still fails to make us care for its main characters.
  • The episode offers no clues that might help viewers figure out what happened at Tsalal.

True Detective: Night Country Episode 3 is available to stream on Max in the U.S.

Watch on Max



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