At one point in Sunday night’s episode of True Detective: Night Country, detective Navarro finds her sister out at a frozen shipwreck in the pitchblack ever-night, sitting in the freezing cold. Her sister, Julia, has been losing her grip on reality, spinning into some kind of schizophrenia. It appears whatever tenuous hold she has had up to this point is shattering.
So Navarro does the smart thing and takes her sister to the Lighthouse, a mental health facility that I’m honestly a little surprised the tiny hamlet of Ennis, Alaska even has. She checks her in, signs the paperwork and watches as her sister is led to her room. Then Navarro leaves and goes on to do her job. It’s Christmas Eve, and the case of the frozen scientists is still, well, cold.
Later, she gets a call from Julia who tells her that she’s fine, but we see Julia is back at the shipwreck out in the freezing waste. We watch as she strips her clothes off and walks out into the darkness, just like their mother did (and Travis Cohle, too, since apparently this is just the en vogue means of offing oneself up in Ennis—a troublingly romanticized vision of suicide).
Navarro finds out about her sister’s death hours later when she receives a call from the Coast Guard who found her body in the ocean. It’s the most preposterously stupid chain of events I’ve seen in a television show in a very long time, robbing the moment of any tragic impact it might have otherwise conveyed. Let me explain.
First of all, while Julia was voluntarily checked into the mental facility, that does not mean she can simply walk out any time she chooses. Voluntary admission to a mental health facility doesn’t mean patients can simply come and go freely. This is not how it works anywhere in the United States, at least. A patient in a mental health facility still has to undergo an evaluation before being discharged. This involves an assessment of one’s mental state. A psychiatrist would need to be certain that the patient posed no threat of self-harm or a threat to others. There would be a time period between checking in and discharge longer than a couple of hours. There would be tests and evaluations and communication with family.
There is no fathomable circumstance in which a patient as mentally ill as Julia would be allowed to leave on her own without any kind of supervision or contact with her sister. Again, voluntary does not mean free to come and go as you please. When Navarro goes to the Lighthouse and confronts the hapless desk nurse there, she’s rightfully angry. He just hand-waves it away like “hey no big deal it’s a voluntary facility” which, again, is total nonsense. Unless the people running that place have no fear of being sued or charged with criminal negligence, I’m pretty sure this would be a major incident.
I’m also trying to understand how the Coast Guard A) found Julia’s body so quickly in the dark frozen ocean in the middle of nowhere and B) was able to identify her and contact her next of kin so quickly when she was completely naked. This is another pretty significant detail that makes absolutely no sense.
This entire sequence was so badly bungled, it will now form the bulk of my criticism of this episode. It’s symbolic of all the other ways that this show is so unbelievably sloppy and lazy and detached from just the basics of plausibility.
Here’s an idea: Have Julia call Navarro from the shipwreck. Don’t have Navarro go there. Julia tells her that she’s fine, wishes her Merry Christmas and then walks off into the ice. Hank, who is still out searching for Raymond Clark, is the one who finds her frozen to death. He recognizes her and calls Navarro. You cut out a few unnecessary scenes, take out all the implausible nonsense, and leave us with a more emotionally charged revelation that includes her body being found by a character we know on-screen rather than off by some magic Coast Guard super squad that can find and identify Jane Does in the pitch black ocean.
This is the thing that drives me so crazy about the show. We’re just endlessly bogged down in scene after scene of redundant dialogue and extraneous details that draw us away from the mystery and the main characters. It’s all the worse because so much of it doesn’t make sense and isn’t very interesting.
But hey, we got another Billie Eilish needle drop, so the kids will love it, right?
Other stuff that happened this episode:
- They got a lead in the case, sort of. Danvers has Peter look up any records of people suffering similar injuries as the frozen scientists and in all of Alaska, apparently, only one dude pops up, a German named Otis Heiss. He’s basically a ghost with no paper trail but he does have a criminal record and they’re able to track him down to the dredges—old oil dredgers out in the ice—where apparently he’s been holing up with a generator-powered Christmas tree. Raymond Clark has been there, too, we learn, but he’s gone now “to the Night Country” Otis hisses, with his half-blind eyes. “We’re all in the Night Country now,” he intones, mysteriously, though if they’re all in the Night Country now does that mean Clark is just . . . here?
- Hank goes to the airport to pick up his totally real fiance but she doesn’t show. I feel bad for Hank. He’s not a pleasant person but he seems sad and lonely and this is a tough blow. Peter asks him later if he sent her any money and Hank avoids the question, changing the subject to stopping by for Christmas Eve.
- Well, that’s not going to go as planned since Danvers tasks Peter with lots of police stuff including joining Navarro on a trip back out to the nomads to talk with Oliver. This later leads to yet another argument between Peter and his wife Kayla, who for some reason can’t handle Peter working late during the investigation of what appears to be a mass homicide. I talked about how annoying this trope is in my review of last week’s episode. It remains super annoying in tonight’s episode.
- Danvers and Navarro visit the teacher Danvers talked to in a previous episode (and who she slept with, apparently having slept with every married man in Ennis) and he reveals that there is a cave system nearby where Annie could have filmed her little selfie-death-video. The skeleton is likely a whale, maybe a prehistoric one. They have to leave when an angry wife walks in, but now they have a location to investigate. They continue to mostly investigate Annie’s death rather than the scientists.
- Navarro visits Rose for a Christmas Eve meal. I think Rose is in here so she can act vaguely like Rust and say vaguely Rust-esque things. Mostly she’s in this show for the Travis ghost scene and to feed us that whole Easter Egg in the second episode. Other than that, I’m not really sure why her character is important. But then, this show has tons of characters that aren’t particularly crucial to the plot and mostly take up space. (Fiona Shaw is great but this character just seems like a waste of everyone’s time).
- Everyone drops lots of f-bombs and Danvers and Navarro argue a lot. Danvers tells Navarro that dead people are just dead and gone and that’s that right before Navarro reveals that her sister killed herself. Danvers has a moment where she realizes that maybe she should not be so horrible to everyone, but I doubt it sticks.
- Leah gets caught vandalizing the mine offices and when Danvers goes and gets her—and gets her out of trouble—Leah huffs and puffs and says “Why do you always take their side!?” as though it’s just totally fine to vandalize stuff and parents should be okay with it and my goodness teenagers are annoying sometimes! (I’m not saying Leah’s attitude is unbelievable here, but she seems a bit too old to be acting this way).
- Danvers drunkenly drives over to make a booty call with Ted who, like Hank in a later scene, is watching Elf. The running gag might be funny in another show; here, comic relief chokes on all the bleak self-seriousness of everything. On her drunken drive back, the polar bear appears again and Danvers goes off the road. I assumed the bear was just a vision Navarro had, but it seems to be real since I don’t think Danvers is suffering from the slow onset of schizophrenia. Or maybe it’s supernatural.
- Navarro, fuming, drives past the domestic abuser she arrested in a previous episode and picks a fight with him and his buddies. It goes as well as you’d expect.
Then off to the dredgers where they find Otis and Navarro has her visions and it all ends very ominously, kind of like last week, though we aren’t really any closer to finding out what happened beyond now knowing that Clark is in “the Night Country” (which everyone is also in?) and that there are caves nearby, handily mapped out by none other than Otis who can now serve as their guide to finding Clark or something. Though he’s in awfully bad shape. And is there really a screaming ghost lady out there? And does Otis just hang out with his Christmas tree trembling in the dark all the time? Is there some other question we should be asking at this point, like how did this show ever see the light of day?
All told, another messy episode bogged down in exposition, stilted dialogue and implausible circumstances. The final scene with Otis was certainly spooky and a little tense, but I’m not sure I like any of these characters enough to care what happens to them which doesn’t help with the suspense. They did Julia dirty, too, using mental health and suicide to create cheap drama and give Navarro a reason to go rogue and abuse her power as a police officer. Danvers also broke the law though for an even worse reason, driving drunk just like the woman she arrested in the season premiere. What a mess.
Final food for thought: A reader made a very astute point. We’re in Alaska in December and mostly it’s been clear skies and endless night. But then where are all the stars? Where are the Northern Lights? This pitch black is certainly oppressive, but shouldn’t this small, remote outpost in the middle of nowhere be atwinkle with glimmering lights in the night sky?
I’ve published a spoiler-free review of the entire season here if you’re curious to know my overall thoughts of where this all goes.
Check out my video review below:
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