Review: ‘True Detective’ Season 4 off to intriguing start with Jodie Foster in Alaskan ‘Night Country’

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews Episode 1 of Season 4 of 'True Detective' (Part 1)
Kali Reis and Jodie Foster star in Season 4 of "True Detective." (HBO)

Season 1 remains one of the greatest TV seasons ever produced, created by Nic Pizzolatto, directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga and starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson all at the height of their powers in 2014.

Viewers were largely disappointed by the grimly complex Season 2 (2015) despite an all-star cast of Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams and Vince Vaughn, but the series thankfully rebounded with Mahershala Ali in Season 3 (2019).

Now, faithful fans can dive into a brand new crime mystery in Season 4, which premiered Sunday night with its first of six episodes televised on HBO and streaming on Max. Don’t worry if you missed the first three seasons, “True Detective” is an anthology series with a fresh cast and case each season for diehards and newcomers alike.

Subtitled “The Night Country,” the story opens on Dec. 17 during Alaska’s last sunset of the year before plunging into polar darkness for weeks. Located 150 minutes north of the Arctic Circle, the fictional town of Ennis, Alaska has a welcome sign that reads “the end of the world.” Here, eight scientists mysteriously vanish from the remote TSALAL Arctic Research Station, requiring Detectives Liz Danvers and Evangeline Navarro to investigate.

The biggest treat is watching two-time Oscar winner Jodie Foster back in the mystery-crime-thriller genre 33 years after her iconic role in “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991). While Clarice Starling was a trailblazing vegetarian feminist surrounded by male FBI agents, Danvers is a self-described “Karen” with throwback views, a widow grappling with her half-Native teenage stepdaughter Leah (Isabella Star LaBlanc) dating another girl.

Whatever you think of her personal views, her detective skills are unquestionable. Her character introduction is very well written, showing her miles ahead of the other detectives in figuring out how long the bodies have been missing based on the sights and smells of sandwich meats and wet laundry — like Marge Gunderson with “DLR” plates in “Fargo” (1996). She also knows what causes tongue scars to identify the ethnicity of the deceased.

The co-lead is buff star Kali Reis, a former WBC female middleweight boxing champion as well as a former WBA, WBO and IBO female light welterweight champion. Her ring nickname “K.O. Mequinonoag” was given by her mother, the Medicine Woman of The Seaconke Wampanoag Tribe. It means “Many Feathers” or “Many Talents,” previewing her shift to acting to earn an Independent Spirit Award in the thriller “Catch the Fair One” (2021).

When Danvers and Navarro finally collide, their banter reveals a familiarity that goes back years, suggesting a trauma they both carry over an unsolved case of a murdered Inuit woman. For such material, the series needed a female touch, thus Season 4 is the first without Pizzolatto as writer and show runner. Instead, it’s written and directed by Mexican filmmaker Issa López of the crime-fantasy-horror film “Tigers Are Not Afraid” (2017).

López’s love of magical realism continues here as Season 4 uniquely hints at the supernatural, nodding to John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (1982) with a wintry outpost for creepy shots down jumpscare hallways, not to mention a haunting figure leading to a very important clue. These paranormal elements are juxtaposed with gritty earthly details like a cut-off tongue echoing the severed ear in David Lynch’s masterpiece “Blue Velvet” (1986).

I’m still not 100% sold on the infusion of these fantasy elements in a “true-crime” tone such as “True Detective,” but overall the mystery of a crime against Native Americans recalls Taylor Sheridan’s “Wind River” (2017), which I placed in my Top 10 movies of that year before he created “Yellowstone” (2018-present). If you need something similar to watch before the next episode drops, go watch that gem starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen.

“Night Country” leaves us craving more after a brilliant final shot of slow disclosure that leaves us hooked and wanting to find out what’s going on. I’m already counting the days until next Sunday. We’re in for one hell of a ride between now and Feb. 25, the perfect way to continue the genre after Season 5 of “Fargo” ends this Tuesday.

WTOP's Jason Fraley reviews Episode 1 of Season 4 of 'True Detective' (Part 2)

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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