Column | On ‘True Detective: Night Country’ and murder in really cold places

There’s more than one reason why this sub-genre of crime and thriller TV and cinema is popular with audiences

Updated - March 01, 2024 07:01 pm IST

Published - March 01, 2024 11:45 am IST

Actors Jodie Foster and Kali Reis in ‘True Detective: Night Country’, set in Alaska. 

Actors Jodie Foster and Kali Reis in ‘True Detective: Night Country’, set in Alaska. 

The fourth season of HBO’s True Detective — subtitled Night Country — wrapped up last week with a stirring finale, one that underlined this season’s moody, atmospheric blend of whodunnit and psychological horror. Showrunner Issa López, who wrote/co-wrote and directed all six episodes, had previously mixed these two genres in her acclaimed 2017 film Tigers Are Not Afraid. Here, she picks the perfect setting for Night Country’s slow-burn, cold-case thrills: a fictional town called Ennis in Alaska.

The two detectives at the heart of the show are local police chief Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) and trooper Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis), investigating the mysterious disappearance of a crew of scientists. It may or may not be related to the cold case of a murdered activist from the indigenous Inupiat people.

The cast and crew shot the episodes in Iceland as well as in Alaska, both of which involved shooting in -20 degrees Celsius. The story is set in the two weeks immediately after winter solstice, i.e. a fortnight without the sun, amplifying the North Pole-adjacent vibe. Both Foster and Reis anchor the story with impressive performances — Foster in particular nailing the role of Chief Danvers, who she recently described as “an Alaskan Karen” in an interview.

Harsh conditions

Why is “murder in really cold places” such a compelling brief for crime fiction? We certainly seem to have a lot of them. Noah Hawley’s TV series Fargo (based on the 1996 Coen Brothers movie of the same name) completed its fifth season in January, and is going strong with both audiences and critics. The harsh Minnesota winter and the region’s snowy landscapes are constant fixtures in Fargo.

Author Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series of detective novels are all set in Ystad, Sweden, where the maximum temperature in winters is often 0 degrees Celsius or less. Arnaldur Indridason’s Inspector Erlendur mysteries are set in super-cold places in and around Iceland. 21st century cinema also has an impressive line-up of this sub-genre: Whiteout (2009), In Order of Disappearance (2014), Polar (2019), and many others.

A closer look at True Detective: Night Country tells us the reasons behind the sub-genre’s popularity, and why it offers a technically sound route to classic whodunnit storytelling. One of the most important factors from a storytelling perspective is the lack of resources. Cold, remote places are unlikely to have high-tech crime labs, or prompt forensic professionals to hurry the investigation along. It’s much more likely that some hand-hewn version of crime scene investigation is in play.

Wholesome amateurism

We see an example of this in Night Country after the first three bodies are discovered frozen solid in the ice, a ‘corpsicle’ that’s melting slowly and needs the attention of a proper forensic scientist.

Sadly, Chief Danvers doesn’t have one at her disposal and so, she asks one of her juniors to call in his veterinary doctor friend to come take a look. To his credit, he is able to confirm that the cause of death wasn’t freezing; the people were killed before they froze (“I’ve seen dead animals in the sun, and they don’t look anything like this, this is all wrong”). This wholesome amateurism adds a fun dimension to the crime-solving.

Another factor is the havoc the extreme cold plays on the human psyche. Grouches become even grouchier, sociopaths find it extremely difficult to hide their preferred behaviour patterns. People of all descriptions and persuasions find it difficult to hold on to their sanity. In Night Country, Chief Danvers notes that a couple of the corpses show self-inflicted wounds, including one scientist who had clearly scratched his own eyeballs out in horror. When Navarro tells her that these men must have witnessed something truly bone-chilling, Danvers says that’s not necessarily the case, that “around these parts” it doesn’t take much to push a man over the edge.

Everybody’s business

Finally, in cold and remote towns like the kinds seen in Fargo or Night Country, there is very little by way of privacy and the social circles are deeply intertwined, to put it mildly. This spices up the interpersonal relationships amidst the characters. “Is there anybody in this town you haven’t hooked up with?”, says Navarro to Danvers at one point when Danvers confirms that the woman they were interrogating minutes ago was surly and sarcastic because her husband once had an affair with Danvers.

We see further evidence of this when a woman Danvers locks up for drunken driving starts yelling extremely personal obscenities about her and her colleagues (because they wouldn’t let her out before she sobered up). Everybody’s up in everybody’s business — it’s just how things are in towns where social isolation is simply not a realistic option.

So popular is the extreme-cold gambit that virtually every long-running TV show finds some way of introducing this concept as a standalone episode or pair of episodes. The superhit sci-fi show Doctor Who did it, as did police procedurals CastleMonkPsych, and most recently, Elementary. Perhaps the success of True Detective: Night Country will convince streamers to create a new tab that says, ‘Murder and Extreme Weather’.

The writer and journalist is working on his first book of non-fiction.

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