The supernatural side of True Detective: Night Country is crucial to its success

The ambiguity of what’s real or not real underlines the idea that these are characters constantly haunted by their pasts.

Why True Detective Night Country's supernatural element is crucial to its success

The following article contains spoilers for True Detective: Night Country, through to episode three.

We’re three episodes into True Detective: Night Country, and three things are clear. Firstly, that frozen mound of corpses – cutely dubbed the “corpsicle” – must be making the town ice rink stink more than a gone-off box of fish fingers. Secondly, you do not want to get on the bad side of Jodie Foster, especially when she’s in character as the capricious, stoney Chief Danvers. Thirdly, Ennis is a place where all kinds of spooky shit goes on. Like, what the hell is this stuff with oranges? What’s with all the ghostly whispering? And how in the Mike Flanagan has this show made me terrified of fruit?

While there was a presiding creep factor to season one – with its Flannery O’Connor-inspired infusion of the Southern Gothic, no better embodied than its haunting opening track — True Detective: Night Country has leant even further into the supernatural. And it’s all the better for it.

The ghost-y element isn’t just genre seasoning. It’s essential to the disappearance of the Tsalal researchers: from the very beginning, when one of the men said “she’s awake!” before the lights shut out in the station and the scientists’ doom promptly followed, a malevolent presence has been suspect number one. And sure, we can expect a rational explanation for that to come as the season bears out (unless they were actually murdered by a vengeful ghost). But the supernatural has echoed further than just the researchers’ disappearance.

Ennis, being shrouded in perpetual midnight – a real-world phenomenon called “polar night” – is like Halloween Town in The Nightmare Before Christmas. You might call it purgatory; a place where the spiritual realm collides with the physical (spiritualism is central to the culture of the Indigenous townsfolk, after all). Demonic polar bears roam the darkness. Navarro (Kali Reis) watched a frozen amputee wake in his hospital gurney, Exorcist style, who then taunted her with a jibe about her dead mother, also very Exorcist style. And local hermit Rose (Fiona Shaw) was lead to the corpses of the Tsalal men by… a ghost.

There’s every chance that the uniquely brutal conditions of Ennis are forcing hallucinations, and pushing everyone over the edge, psychologically. After all, it’s an isolated place; a frozen nightmare where broken people go to die. But this ambiguity – of what’s real or not – feels crucial to our understanding of the characters. This is an ensemble haunted by their pasts. Danvers, for example, is hardy for a reason, tormented by the death of her son. By episode three, it seems clear that Danvers and Navarro had a more active role in the death of serial abuser William Wheeler than the record suggests, and it weighs especially on the latter. As for Captain Hank Prior (John Hawkes)? He’s your classic broken man, hanging onto the dream of a Russian mail order bride (who is very obviously scamming him out of his life savings), though what it is exactly that hangs on his shoulders we’re yet to establish.

Some critics have suggested that this undercurrent of supernatural spookiness doesn’t work for the show because it doesn’t feel very True Detective. And there is something of a sense that Night Country in pre-production was an original script subsequently stamped with the True Detective branding to be green-lit for HBO. But it doesn’t feel entirely not-True-Detective, either. Take the aforementioned point about psychological haunting as a presiding theme. What was Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) if not a man haunted, and subsequently broken, by the horrors he witnessed on the beat?

Ultimately, this is a series that has needed a thrilling zhuzh since the first season. Even if you have to divorce Night Country from its predecessors to enjoy it, isn’t it just that: eminently enjoyable, thrilling TV? It’s like The X-Files and The Silence of the Lambs had a frozen baby, and frankly, I cannot imagine a world in which that log line couldn’t bear fruit. In this case, spooky fruit — like oranges that we throw into the pitch-black chasm of Alaskan night, only to slowly roll back to us.

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