Saturday, April 13, 2024

What Exactly Is Going on in True Detective: Night Country?

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Whenever Jodie Foster’s prickly Chief Liz Danvers scolds her colleagues for “not asking the right questions” during the early episodes of HBO’s eerie, enticing True Detective: Night Country, her advice seems intended to address the audience, too. After only a couple hours of this Issa López-led season, it’s already difficult to separate the vital information from the red herrings, or the meaningful symbolism from the spooky set dressing. To cop a phrase from another HBO favorite: Do “all the pieces matter”? Or are we simply not asking the right questions?

So far, the show has taken us a few steps into the dark heart of a mystery in Ennis, Alaska, one involving the Tsalal Arctic Research Station, the employees of which disappeared without warning…only to turn up frozen in a block of Arctic ice. (Danvers coins this block the “corpsicle,” and hauls it back through town to thaw at the local ice rink.) But how those bodies got there—and what their deaths might have to do with the murder of Annie K, whose case Danvers’ ex-partner Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis) is determined to crack—is still as mysterious as that creepy spiral symbol. More on that later. Let’s walk through some of our thoughts and theories based on the clues that have popped up so far.

The Return of the Tuttles

If you watched the first season of True Detective, the mention of the name “Tuttle” might’ve sent a few shockwaves down your spine. If you missed the reference: After digging into the history of the Tsalal facility, junior officer Peter Prior (Finn Bennett) informs Danvers that an NGO funds the station, but he ultimately traces the NGO’s cash back to Tuttle United, a shell corporation working across sectors including “glass, tech, video games, shipments, palm oil, cruise lines.” Huh. The Tuttle family is a Louisiana institution, one that Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) chases after in the first season while investigating its members’ connection to a dangerous, pedophilic cult. There’s basically zero chance that “Tuttle United” isn’t connected to the Louisiana Tuttles, or to the horrifying “worship” performed by their cult.

One other important note: In the season 1 finale, Rust Cohle tells his former partner, Marty (Woody Harrelson), that—even though they successfully apprehended one of the Tuttle descendants, the scar-faced Errol Childress (Glenn Fleshler)—they “didn’t get ’em all.” That implies the Tuttles are still out there, and they could be connected to the crime in Ennis.

A “Tsalal” Literature Lesson

Alright, time to dig into some linguistics. First off, “Tsalal” is an unlikely name for a research station, owing largely to the fact that it’s a Hebrew term with translations including “growing or becoming dark,” “sinking” or “submerging,” and “shade” or “shadow.” In brief: red flags all around.

The word is also a possible reference to acclaimed horror writer Edgar Allan Poe, whose novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket includes an Antarctic island named Tsalal. As some fans and writers (including Jen Chaney over at Vulture) have already pointed out, Poe’s work influenced the creation of a short story named “The Tsalal” by modern horror writer Thomas Ligotti (whose own work was connected to True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto during season 1. Time is truly a flat circle.)

In Ligotti’s story, the characters occupy a “skeleton town,” “a place where the sun had passed from view.” (Sounds rather like Ennis, hmm?) One of these characters professes an ideology very similar to Rust Cohle’s in season 1: namely, that “everybody’s nobody.” Ligotti himself quoted the German philosopher Julius Bahnsen in his work: “Man is a self-conscious nothing.”

What all of this deep-diving really means for True Detective: Night Country is likely less literal than symbolic. The Tsalal facility seems to be a place of dark, deep discoveries—of things that should never have been made conscious or known.

jodie foster as liz danvers in true detective night country


Beware the Spiral

The spiral symbol—a recurring motif throughout multiple True Detective seasons, particularly the first—has found its way into Night Country. In past seasons, it’s been a harbinger of foreboding and evil, but Night Country’s relationship with the spiral might prove more complex still. First seen in season 1 on the body of Dora Lange, a victim of the so-called Yellow King, the symbol was later connected to the Tuttle cult and is now forever tied to the Tsalal crew. (Danvers and her crew discover the mark etched on the forehead of one of the scientists.) Later, it shows up again on the chest of Tsalal employee Raymond Clark, who had it tattooed there only a few days after the death of Annie K, the now-deceased Indigenous woman Navarro’s hell-bent on avenging. Annie herself had a similar tattoo, which doesn’t seem coincidental.

Eventually, Danvers and Navarro explore a trailer belonging to Clark, one that he filled with creepy paraphernalia invoking prior seasons: cornhusk dolls, animal bones, feverish scribblings on the doors and walls, and the ritualistic temple of Carcosa. It’s to this trailer that Clark seems to have brought Annie K, as Navarro discovers the woman’s cracked phone discarded amongst the debris.

Still, this evidence doesn’t prove Clark is or was connected to the Tuttles. (Although, given the Tsalal funding, that’s a solid hypothesis.) The Tuttles themselves might have simply stolen the spiral motif for their own purposes, hijacking a symbol that—as Ennis local Rose (Fiona Shaw) tells Navarro—is definitely “older than Ennis” and perhaps “older than the ice” itself. That’s a telling remark, given the Tsalal researchers were drilling for extinct microorganisms in the ice, hunting for the means of finding a cure for cancer. If Tsalal was searching for ancient creatures (“dark” discoveries in the “deep”) and the spiral itself is older than the ice, might the spiral be connected to those microorganisms? What if the Tsalal-ers found something they were never supposed to find?

Daddy Cohle

One of the biggest signs that season 4 seeks to bind itself with season 1 is this week’s revelation that Rose’s former lover, Travis, was actually Travis Cohle. (In season 1, Rust mentions moving to Alaska with his dad, who “had some very fucking strange ideas.” Rust eventually headed back to Texas, while Travis remained up in Ennis.)

As Rose informs Navarro, Travis had leukemia, and eventually he headed out into the ice to take his own life rather than wait for the sickness to subdue him. In the present day, Travis’ ghost occasionally appears to Rose; we witness one such instance in the premiere episode, when Ghost Travis directs Rose to the Tsalal researchers huddled in their corpsicle.

What Travis flitting between the spiritual realm and our earthly one actually means for Night Country is still one big question mark. But it’s definitely important. As Rose tells Navarro: “The thing about the dead, some come because they miss you; some come because they need to tell you something you need to hear; some of them just want to take you with them. You need to know the difference.”

Into the Mines

Ennis is a mining town. Many of its inhabitants make their living in the literal “dark” and “deep.” Others—many of whom are Indigenous, like Annie K—despise the mines’ impact on their home. Annie herself was a frequent protestor, condemning the mining runoff that, as we learn in episode 2, is turning the local tap water black. Her protesting might have been what ultimately got her killed, as Navarro seems to believe. But her connection with the Tsalal researcher Raymond Clark seems just as suspicious. Likelier still, these factors are all related—the mines and Tsalal, the Tuttles and Ennis. We just don’t know how. Thankfully, we’ve got Danvers and Navarro asking the right questions, even if they’re currently preoccupied with turning the local ice rink into their personal morgue. At least the Christmas lights are up to lighten the mood.

Headshot of Lauren Puckett-Pope

Lauren Puckett-Pope is a staff culture writer at ELLE, where she primarily covers film, television and books. She was previously an associate editor at ELLE. 

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