At the Max-ness of Madness

True Detective — Night Country leans the streaming series ultra Lovecraftian

By Zach Hagadone
Reader Staff

Look no further than the first lines of H.P. Lovecraft’s 1931 novella At the Mountains of Madness to get a decent grip on the opening of the fourth season of Max neo-noir streaming series True Detective — Night Country:

“I am forced into speech because men of science have refused to follow my advice without knowing why. It is altogether against my will that I tell my reasons for opposing this contemplated invasion of the Antarctic — with its vast fossil-hunt and its wholesale boring and melting of the ancient ice-cap — and I am the more reluctant because my warning may be in vain.”

Substituting the North for the South Pole, that might as well be the nutgraf of every review of the show. Here’s the setup: A bunch of “men of science” are working in a laboratory outside the fictional town of Ennis, Alaska (based on the real-life North Slope Borough, in the very far north of the state). We don’t know what they’re doing, exactly, but when one of their number experiences a strange fit of derangement, we know their labors may be ill advised.

Jump forward 48 hours into the long polar night, and the delivery guy brings the scientists their supplies only to find that no one’s home. 

Kali Reis and Jodie Foster star in season four of True Detective.
Courtesy photos.

Enter the cops. Specifically, Chief Detective Liz Danvers (played by no less than living legend Jodie Foster, summoning all the exasperation and low-key rage in the cosmos), who shows up on the scene along with her super-suspicious-and-obvious-slimeball colleague Hank Prior (John Hawkes) and Prior’s super-trueblue-but-kind-of-dopey-yet-lovable son, Peter, who’s a junior officer being cantankerously mentored/mothered/tyrannized by Danvers.

They suss out the sussy scene and find a human tongue on the floor of the kitchen. And the game is afoot (or atongue)!

If there are still fans of True Detective after its disastrously bad second season and only marginally better third installment, then they will know the basic vibe of the series: Psychologically damaged and morally conflicted detectives confront crimes so deranged and awful that they verge on (and maybe even spill into?) the supernaturally evil. Think of it as X-Files if it had aired on Cinemax.

The first season of True Detective streamed in 2014 and starred Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConoughay as “bad lieutenants” in the bayous of post-Andrew/pre-Katrina Louisiana. It is no hyperbole to say that not only was TD Season 1 one the best things ever put on what passes for “TV” these days, but at or near the pinnacle of both actors’ careers.  

This season is shaping up to be a worthy successor to that first fabulous hellbroth of swampily cosmic terror. Writer, director and showrunner of the fourth season of the True Detective series Issa López has clearly read her Lovecraft; pity that the “men of science” didn’t, meeting with a fate as grisly as it was icy and bearing clear throughlines to HPL’s oeuvre. (For evidence: A VHS copy of The Thing — the 1982 film adaptation of At the Mountains of Madness — is visible on the shelf behind Danvers in one of the first scenes. Oh, and “Danvers” is the name of the psychiatric hospital to which several of Lovecraft’s characters were shuttled off after their mind-shattering encounters with the ineffable, and served as the inspiration for his invented Arkham sanatorium, which itself inspired the Arkham Asylum of Batman fame.)

What were the scientists trying to find in their ice core samples? What events precipitated them winding up as a “corpsicle”? (As the internet has gleefully termed the condition in which their bodies were found. Look it up, but only if you’re on the hunt for spoilers.) 

More than that, what deeper forces are at work in the long arctic darkness, where caribou inexplicably jump to their deaths at the dying of the light, one-eyed polar bears wander the desolate streets of Ennis and visions of the dead appear to the locals with such regularity that their presence is explained with a shrug: “It’s Ennis.”

Even more central to the mythos: What are the connections between the occult trappings of the murders in Season 1 and the hints and facts surrounding the season four deaths of the scientists and the earlier murder of an Indigenous woman — a cold case pursued with furious zeal by the obviously damaged Army veteran Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis), who has a yet-to-be-explained relationship with Danvers that went so bad that the former was busted down to trooper and neither intended ever to work together again… until their cases (and maybe stars?) aligned.

For real, True Detective — Night Country has it all, and we’re only up to two episodes as of this writing. Stream it on Max every Sunday. I know I will be.

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