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True Detective: Night Country brings back the show’s best element: cosmic horror

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Kali Reis kneels in the snow in True Detective: Night Country episode 3.
Michele K. Short / HBO

When True Detective premiered on HBO in 2014, it wasn’t just the show’s crime procedural plot, Cary Fukunaga’s dreamlike direction, or Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson’s deeply lived-in performances that drew viewers in. The show’s first season carried with it a sharp edge of cosmic horror as well. Not only was it filled with Lovecraftian details and references, but a sense of unseen, supernatural danger also permeated all eight of its episodes. Its story seemed to contain more layers than viewers would ever be able to fully grasp.

In the end, many felt that True Detective season 1 failed to deliver the depth it often hinted at. Whatever your opinion about the season’s ending might be, though, its cosmic horror touches helped True Detective stand out from all the other crime procedurals that viewers had seen up to that point. That’s why it was disappointing when the show’s second and third seasons abandoned its initial supernatural horror tone. True Detective season 2 tried to replace it with a David Lynch-inspired uncanniness to varying degrees of effectiveness, while the show’s third season never so much as feinted at the kind of horror tone that made its first so alluring.

True Detective: Night Country doesn’t make the same mistake. The new, Issa López-helmed fourth season not only brings back the show’s original supernatural horror vibes, but it embraces them even more fully than its first.

A possessed scientist points a finger in True Detective: Night Country episode 3.
Michele K. Short / HBO

True Detective: Night Country didn’t wait long to announce itself as a full-blown horror show. Its cold open climaxes with a seemingly possessed scientist ominously announcing, “she’s awake,” just before all the lights around him shut off. In the minutes and episodes that have followed, Night Country hasn’t failed to live up to the promise of its opening minutes. Its first, second, and third installments have featured plenty of uncanny, grotesque visions, as well as ghosts and jump scares. Night Country’s second episode even opens with what might end up being the scariest moment of any Prestige TV show this year: A half-frozen, previously presumed dead scientist wailing in pain after an oblivious cop accidentally breaks one of his ice cold arms in half.

Its third chapter only commits even further to the season’s horror elements. Early on, Trooper Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis) is left confused and unnerved when the icy, seemingly lifeless Alaskan wilderness throws an orange back at her, while López chooses to directorially punctuate one particularly gruesome discovery with close-up images of the thawing, twisted bodies of the season’s central, dead scientists. These beats feel of a piece not only with Night Country’s larger tone and overarching story, but with the style and mood of True Detective season 1.

In the closing moments of its third episode, however, Night Country goes where no True Detective season has before. As Navarro stands in the waiting room of one of the only two surviving scientists from the Tsalal Research Station, the half-dead man rises from his bed, fully possessed, and gives her a foreboding warning. Once done, the scientist’s body begins to seize and he quickly dies — the force of his possession seemingly robbing him of the little life he had left. It is, purely and simply, a horrifying moment, one you’d sooner expect to see in an Exorcist or Conjuring movie than you ever would in an episode of True Detective.

Kali Reis and Jodie Foster stand by a shack together in True Detective: Night Country episode 3.
Michele K. Short / HBO

Throughout its first three installments, Night Country has demonstrated an excellent understanding of what made True Detective’s hit debut season so special. It hasn’t borrowed every trick from that season’s playbook (it has, for instance, ditched its split-timeline structure), but it has delivered the same, tangible sense of place and terrifying, yet enticing edge of unseen horror. At the same time, Night Country has shown that it isn’t afraid to go even further into certain genre spaces than its 2014 predecessor.

True Detective season 1 proved that the best crime stories shouldn’t just be judged based on their effectiveness as murder mysteries, but also for how absorbing they make their worlds of murder, death, and tragedy. So far, Night Country has constructed a reality that is full of both physical brutality and immaterial forces that linger just beyond the limits of its characters’ vision.

No one, whether it be Reis’ Navarro or Jodie Foster’s Liz Danvers, can seem to get their hands around Night Country’s frozen tundra. If its opening three episodes have proven one thing, though, it’s that it has a firm hold on them, and there’s something distinctly, beautifully terrifying about that.

New episodes of True Detective: Night Country premiere Sunday nights on HBO.