Where did True Detective: Night Country go wrong?

Despite high expectations and a great cast, the fourth season of the hit US crime drama has been something of a letdown. After a deflating series finale, Louis Chilton looks at the big reason ‘Night Country’ failed to connect

Monday 19 February 2024 07:07 GMT
New detective: Jodie Foster in the series finale of ‘Night Country'
New detective: Jodie Foster in the series finale of ‘Night Country' (HBO)

Where did True Detective: Night Country go wrong? The fourth season of HBO’s gritty, cerebral crime drama certainly had all the right ingredients. It had a timeless premise: two jaded cops investigating a missing persons case in Alaska. It had a great cast, including two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster (taking on what was billed as her meatiest role in years), plus Kali Reis, Fiona Shaw, Christopher Eccleston, and John Hawkes. And it had the production values to make it all shine. But even though it got some warm early reviews, the response to Night Country over the past six weeks has been one of mounting disappointment.

There were a lot of factors behind this, of course. The pacing was part of it – despite running for just six episodes, two fewer than the previous three True Detective seasons, it often felt like it was simply treading narrative water. For all the anticipation surrounding her role, Foster’s character also failed to convince: her flinty local police chief Liz Danvers came across as too one-note. Add in some painfully misjudged needle-drops and frankly preposterous twists, and it’s no wonder that the end product was so disliked. And yet, with the series having bowed out last night (on HBO/Max in the US, and Sky/NOW in the UK), hindsight may require us to cut it some slack.

The biggest issue with True Detective: Night Country is that it isn’t True Detective season one. The first season of True Detective, built around the “odd couple” relationship between a strung-out, monologue-spewing Matthew McConaughey and philandering straight man Woody Harrelson, has proved impossible to live up to. While it was an absolute sensation at the time when it was released in 2014 (and was, as many claim, responsible for winning McConaughey his Dallas Buyers Club Oscar), the original True Detective has also proved to have a rare shelf life. To this day, social media abounds with people discussing the series, saying they’re rewatching it, and sharing GIFs of McConaughey’s Rust Cohle.

True Detective Trailer

Such was the gravity of True Detective’s success that all subsequent seasons have been unable to wrench themselves free. The second season – an unwieldy four-hander starring Colin Farrell, Rachel MacAdams, Taylor Kitsch and Vince Vaughn – was a deliberate zag away from the first, and was slated for its differences (though, truth be told, there is much to enjoy in Farrell and MacAdams’s characters particularly, and one or two truly brilliant set pieces). The third, starring Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff, was more of a less-memorable imitation of the first. Night Country has sort of split the difference, borrowing some of the cosmic horror of the original, and dropping in direct allusions to the season one mythology. Nothing major, of course – contrary to some of the wilder predictions out there, McConaughey and Harrelson never resurfaced for a cameo – but small references, such as the recurring, sinister spiral pattern.

These illusions drew the ire of Nic Pizzolatto, who created the first three seasons of the show, but handed the reins over to writer-director Issa López for the fourth. On Instagram, Pizzolatto described the cross-pollinated series as “stupid”, writing: “I certainly did not have any input on this story or anything else. Can’t blame me.” López, meanwhile, defended the choices in an interview with Vulture, arguing that the series was “different” and a “reinvention”.

“I believe that every storyteller has a very specific, peculiar, and unique relation to the stories they create, and whatever his reactions are, he’s entitled to them. I wrote this with profound love for the work he made and love for the people that loved it,” she said.

Ultimately, the kind of nebulous but insistent relationship that Night Country had with its predecessor would prove its undoing. The crossovers were never substantial enough to make it truly feel like a continuation of the original – but it served to repeatedly remind viewers of a series they would probably rather be watching. Take the True Detective brand off the title, and Night Country would immediately become a more palatable series for many. Still flawed, but flawed on its own merits. Time is still a flat circle, after all – and Night Country could never get out of 2014.

‘True Detective: Night Country’ is available to watch now on Sky and NOW

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