‘True Detective: Night Country’ Just Gave the Series Its Best Finale Ever

This post contains spoilers for the finale of True Detective: Night Country, which is now streaming on Max.

“Some questions just don’t have answers.”

This is Liz Danvers, towards the end of the Night Country finale. In the moment, she is dancing around the questions of a pair of investigators looking into the whole mess involving Annie K, Silver Sky, and the dead Tsalal scientists. But it in some ways also feels like a commentary about True Detective as a franchise that has generally been better about asking than answering.

The finale to the inaugural Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson first season felt like a letdown, whether or not you were invested in the idea that the Yellow King references were meant to be literal. The conclusion to the Colin Farrell/Vince Vaughn story took all of that year’s flaws and magnified them, by letting each moment drag on for eons. And the bounce-back third season with Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff still relied on a plot so convoluted, the last episode had to grind to a halt so a relatively minor character could explain it all to us in a long expository monologue.

So in one sense, Issa López didn’t have a very high bar to clear in order to resolve the intertwined stories of Night Country. But because this season leaned harder into questions of fact versus fantasy, she made the task more difficult on herself than Nic Pizzolatto ever did. Simply explaining who killed Annie K, and/or the scientists, wouldn’t be enough on its own. The finale would need to find a satisfying way to reconcile how much of what happened had a wholly mundane explanation, and how much, if any, should be ascribed to the spirits that Navarro believes lurk all around Ennis.

From this vantage point, the finale soared over wherever the bar was set. It feels like the appropriate conclusion to these stories, and for these characters. It leaves some of its mysteries ambiguous, while at the same time does a far better job than the original season did in terms of distinguishing reality from otherworldly forces.

In many instances, there are wholly real explanations for what happened. Annie K found out that the Tsalal scientists were not only falsifying pollution reports, but actually encouraging Silver Sky to increase its output of pollutants, in order to aid this search for miracles hidden in the permafrost. She destroyed their preexisting samples, and was a danger to expose the entire operation. So Lund and the others attacked her, and poor, pitiful Raymond Clark finished the job, suffocating her to death with his undershirt. And it turns out that the scientists — other than Clark, who hid in the same underground ice cave where he murdered Annie — were marched out onto the ice at gunpoint by Beatrice, Blair, and the other Ennis women who were fed up by the story being told by Tsalal and Silver Sky. Beatrice argues that the women themselves didn’t kill the scientists, but simply sent the naked men out there for Annie K herself to decide their fate. But when you strand a bunch of people in such a climate without any protective clothing, without any light to guide them by, and with the threat of armed, righteously furious women waiting back from the way they came, a ghost isn’t necessarily required to offer a verdict, you know?

Yet even within this, López and company leave a lot of wiggle room for grander explanations. Beatrice not only denies leaving Annie’s severed tongue at Tsalal, but seems mystified by the question. Even if you buy the suggestion that Hank — who, working on behalf of Silver Sky, spirited the body away from the ice cave — cut out Annie K’s tongue, the delivery truck driver found it at the lab long before any cops arrived on the scene. More likely, the entity responsible for the tongue is the same responsible for Navarro constantly being taunted by oranges (a beloved snack of her mother and sister, and something where, if you peel it all in one go, resembles the spiral symbol); for the visions that put both Navarro and Danvers into peril out on the ice; and for all the other weirdness lurking on the periphery.

Maybe it’s all madness, brought on by the isolation, the darkness, the cold, and, yes, the abundance of garbage the mine was pumping into the ground and water. But the finale doesn’t seem interested in that notion. Instead, it’s Danvers the skeptic who is converted, glimpsing Holden as he calls for her from below the ice, then sobbing in grief(*) when she finally allows Navarro to reveal her son’s message: “He says that he sees you. He sees you, Liz.” And during that same perilous walk out on the ice, Navarro is rewarded by finally learning her Inupiac name, which Beatrice later translates as, “The return of the sun after the long darkness.”

(*) Danvers’ tearful embrace of her once and future partner is accompanied by Monica Martin’s sad acoustic cover of “Twist and Shout” (first heard a few episodes back), rather than The Beatles’ version that brought back so many painful memories of Holden.

It’s a really graceful balancing of possibilities and tones, generating huge emotion from both the real and surreal moments. After, for instance, Danvers and Navarro have captured and subdued Clark while all three are snowed in at the lab, their chief suspect refuses to talk with them. In seasons past, this would have been answered with threats of death, prison rape, or, in the Colin Farrell year, talk of doing unspeakable things with the headless corpse of Clark’s mother. Here, Navarro opts to torture this killer with evidence of his own crime, forcing him to listen to the looped recording of Annie K’s final moments as he weeps like the hypocritical baby that he is.

The season has been dropping small references to the Rust Cohle/Marty Hart story, and here the homages get foregrounded. When Danvers is interviewed by the other cops, she’s shot just like Rust and Marty were in Season One’s framing sequence. And when Clark finally opens up about his belief that Annie K’s ghost came back for him and his friends, he cites the franchise’s single most famous line, insisting, “Time is a flat circle. And we are all stuck in it.”

There’s a sense throughout the finale of history repeating itself, sometimes in worse variations, sometimes better. Once upon a time, Hank Prior frantically chopped at the ice to save the life of his drowning son. Now, that son deploys a similar axe to dispose of the corpse of his criminal father. Like her mother and her sister, Navarro walks out onto the ice, but appears to survive the journey, returning in the episode’s closing moments as a guest at Danvers’ lake house. (Though even this is presented with enough ambiguity that perhaps Danvers is being visited by her spirit in the same way that Rose periodically sees her late husband.)

Michele K. Short/HBO

Various ideas from earlier in the season have effective payoffs here. Beatrice and Blair were introduced near the start of the premiere in the wake of Beatrice hitting Blair’s abusive boyfriend; in hindsight, it’s only the second most-violent act of vengeance Beatrice committed that week. For once, it’s Navarro pointing out that Danvers isn’t asking the right question, instead of the other way around. And in the closing montage, we see Danvers and Leah laughing happily as Leah drives them around, the girl’s tribal markings no longer inspiring racist meltdowns from her stepmother.

Not everything feels properly wrapped up, or at least essential after the fact. (Why was Christopher Eccleston needed, again?) But in terms of the mystery, and in terms of the big emotional moments for these two characters — who were so well drawn by López, Jodie Foster, Kali Reis, and the rest of the creative team — it all landed beautifully.


When I interviewed Pizzolatto before the Cohle/Hart year began, he said his primary concern was “the narrative conceit of a story being told,” and that he didn’t necessarily envision the show being a police procedural, season after season. (“It could be somebody taking over a radio station” was among his suggestions.) True Detective has, in fact, become an ongoing cop anthology, even without his involvement. But the idea of stories being told remains palpable no matter the showrunner. Beatrice explains that the women of Ennis decided to write their own story, and Danvers and Navarro ultimately get to decide how that story is finished — including Danvers telling yet another variation on the story to these two new investigators. 

Is it a happy ending? It depends on how you feel about the lake house scene, and about whether Danvers and Navarro will get to see their loved ones again in a world beyond this one. But if we step outside the story and look at this as a television show, then it’s a happy new beginning, which has been greeted with both critical acclaim and ratings that make it the most-watched season of the franchise. There will almost certainly be another story, whether López tells it, or Pizzolatto returns, or someone new ends up in charge. Whoever it is, and whenever it comes, a new standard has been set for how strongly a True Detective case can be closed.