Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO
This week’s episode of Night Country is as information-dense an hour of TV as I’ve ever seen, and it’s tempting to jump straight into logging the evidence (evidence that points in so many directions that police are still unsure a crime has definitely been committed against the researchers at Tsalal Station).
But Night Country’s second chapter is just as much about establishing the series’ thematic fault lines as it is about the scattered search for leads. There’s Liz, the small-town police chief, versus Connelly, the captain who wants big-city cops in Anchorage to take over the case from here. There are the resentful miners whose labor props up Ennis versus the hard-done-by townsfolk, mostly Iñupiat, who live so close to the mine’s runoff that their tap water runs black. And, with chilling insistence, there’s the vanishing line between the living and the dead.
As Rose sagely explains, the relationship between those past and present is more fraught north of the Arctic Circle, where the living have come to occupy the dark hours normally reserved for the dead. Are all these ghosts real? As Liz might say, that’s the wrong question. The right question is, “Why are ghosts appearing?” Rose tells Navarro there are only three possibilities: Sometimes the dead miss the living, sometimes the dead need something, and sometimes the dead just want to take you with them. Doubting your ghosts is a mistaken line of inquiry; the key is to decipher your ghost, as Rose did when she followed her dead lover to the Tsalal scientists. Maybe Travis knew where to find them because he died on the same ice plain, taking his own life rather than waiting for an end hastened by cancer.
Julia claims to see the dead, too; she sees her mother calling for her across that invisible line. Rose warns Evangeline not to confuse mental illness with the spirit world, but Evangeline sees their mother, too. When she searches the floor of her car with her hand, she finds the cross pendant her mother used to wear on a long gold chain. Has it been sitting there stuck between the cushions for years, or can ghosts leave clues behind, just like criminals? Liz would disdain the notion, and yet that character may turn out to be the most haunted. As she sorts through tangled Christmas decorations, the same grimy, one-eyed stuffed polar bear from episode one finds its way back into her hands, prompting memories of a younger Liz playing peekaboo with a boy who looks like he could be Leah’s half-brother. They’re listening to “Twist and Shout,” the same song Liz couldn’t bear to hear when she first stepped into Tsalal. There’s the foreboding sense that the root cause of Liz’s irritability isn’t rottenness but grief. When she mistreats her stepdaughter, when she forces Pete to spend another evening at work away from his family, when she pushes Navarro away from a case that clearly means so much to her, Liz isn’t putting more misery in the world but unburdening herself — however unjustifiably — of her own share.
When the episode opens, police haven’t made much progress separating the scientists from the tundra. They’re dusting snow from the bodies with paintbrushes like they’re uncovering prehistoric fossils and not human beings whose faces are still stained red with blood. While Pete and Liz catalogue their peculiar injuries — ruptured eardrums, burnt corneas, eyes scratched out, fingers bitten off — the wider cast of Ennis PD hooligans take distasteful selfies among the dead, corroborating Connelly’s suspicions that the local police aren’t up to the task of solving this crime without creating a PR nightmare. Only on Night Country could a cop accidentally breaking off a victim’s frozen forearm feel like comic relief.
And really, I should say they were taking selfies among the almost-dead. Dr. Lund, who was in charge at Tsalal, starts to scream from the gelid morass, his mouth black as tar. Later, we learn he’s in an induced coma, about to have surgery to amputate a leg. If there was a crime committed on the ice that night, Lund might be the only witness. Meanwhile, Evangeline is forced to watch proceedings from the sidelines, where she discovers the men’s clothes arranged in carefully folded piles, as if they’d be coming back for them.
Now, there are physical challenges to transporting a group of seven men frozen into a pyramid. Even if Connelly — who, depending on who you ask, either banished Liz to Ennis’s backwaters or promoted her to police chief of a uniquely demanding jurisdiction — wants to take the case to Anchorage, forensic guidelines require the bodies to be thawed first to preserve physical evidence. It’s Pete who has the idea to move them on a trailer bed and Liz who dreams up the perfect-size fridge: the town’s ice rink. It’s low-key one of the most fucked up tableaus I’ve seen on TV: five heads and nine legs protruding from a very slowly disappearing block of ice in a morgue with stadium seating. Imagine the crawling sinners of Van Eyck’s Last Judgment if the painting were turned upside down like, well, a snow globe.
To get access to the rink, Liz has to ask the permission of Kate McKitterick, a senior exec at the mining company, which happens to own the rink and, it’s implied, most of central Ennis. It’s an awkward ask because Liz slept with Kate’s husband back when he was still Kate’s husband. In fact, one effective way to organize this review would be according to Liz’s body count. When she wants to understand what the “reclusive” Tsalal scientists were up to — they were trying to save lives by harvesting DNA from ancient microorganisms that have been preserved on ice for millions of years — she visits Adam, the high-school geology teacher she used to fuck. To keep the case in-house, she squares off against Connelly, a guy she’s been sleeping with sporadically for almost 20 years, throughout both of their marriages, including when Liz and Leah’s dad, Jake, were on “breaks.” The faces Connelly makes when they screw in his motel room this week are bound to cause more nightmares than the pile of deads; instead of postcoital sweet nothings, Liz and her boss exchange threats and recriminations about what will happen if the Ennis PD botches the case.
In between assignations, Liz compiles, with the help of Pete and Navarro, a comprehensive and confusing list of things she knows about the men who worked at Tsalal and what happened the night they were … murdered? Walked onto the ice? What exactly did happen to those men?
We know that Lund was found with a spiral symbol on his forehead. Rose tells Navarro the symbol is older than Ennis, but Navarro has seen it before: tattooed onto the skin of Annie K.
Early forensic testing proves a bust. The team recovers one full handprint on one of the men’s boots, but it has no matches in the database, and even if it did, it’s a long walk from being guilty of touching a man’s shoe to proving that person chased a man and his naked colleagues into an Arctic desert. Similarly, digging into Tsalal’s financials produces inconclusive results. The lab is funded by an NGO that can be traced back to a shell company that belongs to an international conglomerate with diverse interests such as harvesting palm oil and manufacturing speedboats.
Few people in town have interacted much with the station, but Liz interviews the bimonthly cleaning crew, mostly Iñupiat women — including the women involved in the domestic dispute at the crab-processing plant Navarro was called in to control in the pilot. Like Adam, who calls the scientists “mad men,” the women don’t paint a flattering portrait. Lund was testy and obsessive; he never spoke to the women except to correct their work. One lady remembers Clark as a loner, crying in his room while the others ignored him. None report seeing Annie or her tattoo — reminiscent of the spirals in previous series of True Detective — at the station.
Pete fares a little better with the supply guy, who was the first to discover Tsalal was abandoned. They were all weirdos, but lately Clark had grown extra weird, walking around naked and talking to himself. The supply guy has seen the spiral symbol before, in the form of a tattoo on Clark’s chest.
Clark’s credit card records lead Liz to call a Fairbanks tattoo parlor. She learns Clark cried when he got the tattoo a few days after Annie’s death. She learns the reference photo he brought with him to the shop was a photo of him hugging a half-naked Annie in the mirror. This is the kind of police work Liz prefers: methodical, Socratic. Ask the right questions — not why did Raymond get the spiral tattoo but when — and the answers link up like falling dominoes.
Pete, too, gets a chance to make his mark on the case file, even if impressing Liz is costing him with his family. Kayla is irate that her husband would break a bedtime promise to Darwin to babysit the “corpsicle,” and Hank swings by the ice rink to deck Pete when he discovers that his son jacked Annie’s records from his den. “Blood is blood.” Pete may be a disloyal son and a rookie cop, but he’s also got that Gen-Z savvy. He’s the one to hold an iPhone with face recognition enabled up to one of the thawing bodies to discover the video of a guy vlogging the construction of his sandwich until Clark wanders into the frame, shivering before he declares, “She’s awake.” Exhibit A.
Undeterred by Liz’s hostility, Navarro keeps digging into her cold-case file. Annie’s brother doesn’t recognize the photo of Raymond Clark she brings around to Qaavik’s bar, but one of his buddies from the mine does. Chuck, who has a poster for the K-pop band Ive on his wall, later tells Navarro that Clark bought an old trailer off his cousin years ago. A reluctant disciple, Navarro shares Liz’s belief that good policework is a matter of posing the right questions, and yet she knows there’s more to what’s happening in Ennis. Rose seemed implausibly and frustratingly mystic to me in this episode, but Navarro seems to take every morsel of her supernatural wisdom onboard, so much so that she asks Julia to reconsider visiting the local mental-health center — a place Julia’s sworn off after a previous bad experience being overmedicated by doctors. Navarro may throw her mother’s crucifix out the window of her moving car, but she knows you can’t outrun the dead. It’s why she can’t give up the search for Annie’s killer either.
After seeing the photo of the mad Irish scientist and his local protester girlfriend cuddling in the mirror, Liz can no longer deny the connection between whatever happened at Tsalal and Annie’s unsolved murder. She drives out to Navarro’s cabin and confesses that the tongue they found at the station was, of course, Annie’s tongue. But the most interesting thing Liz says as she unpacks Navarro’s groceries and invites her aboard the investigation is, “Did you change where you put the cans?” There’s a world of history between these women — an intimacy that was previously hinted at only by the force of their antipathy. Liz and Evangeline didn’t just work together. They were friends. Liz is capable of friendship. And man, could she use an ally right now.
Her other body count, as it stands by the end of episode two: Hank despises her. So do Kate and Adam. Connelly doubts her. Leah — whose wild teenage rebellion has been to draw a washable Inuit tattoo (kakiniit) on her face and to run afoul of her girlfriend’s mother — can’t stand her stepmom’s guts. At work, Liz may be cool and calculated, but with Leah, she’s always asking the most wrongheaded version of the question. Instead of wondering why her daughter is hanging out with someone else’s grandmother for companionship, she assumes Leah’s out to make her life difficult. It should go without saying that Kayla and Kayla’s kindly grandmother hate Liz, particularly after she goes ballistic on them for letting Leah play with Magic Markers. Pete doesn’t hate Liz, but it’s easy to imagine it heading in that direction.
And yet, Liz still holds Navarro at arm’s length, refusing to get into “the Wheeler thing,” whatever that is, when Navarro seems poised to make amends. For all their shared toughness, though, Navarro can still be astonishingly gentle. She takes her little sister shopping and sends her a voice note when “Wannabe” comes on the radio. Rose seems to have adopted her as a lost daughter. And with Qaavik, whose affection for Evangeline only gets more endearing this week, we see she can be teasing and playful. She lets her guard down with Qaavik just a little. She lets him get to know her a bit, which means getting to know Annie’s case. Lonely Liz sits at home staring at notebooks of Raymond Clark’s deranged scribbles, taken from his room at Tsalal, while a nice man makes Evangeline Navarro pancakes and bounces ideas around with her. Why do you hide a romance? No. How do you hide a romance?
In a deserted-looking RV park called the Nook, Navarro finds the trailer Clark bought off Chuck’s cousin, and it’s like she’s stepped directly into his cluttered mind. There are doodles and scratches on the cabinets, the same as in his notebooks, but the trailer is also crammed with animal bones and hanging dolls. Annie’s phone is there, alongside a makeshift, life-size stuffed mannequin wearing Annie’s clothes. The spiral motif that adorned Annie’s back and Clark’s chest is drawn into the ceiling. Is this place an altar? Is it a crime scene? What drove Clark so insane? No, wrong question. What was this insane man capable of?
No, wrong again, it seems. The question isn’t what was he capable of, but what is he capable of. Navarro, Pete, and Liz reconvene at the rink, where the block of ice has thawed sufficiently to reveal Raymond Clark’s body isn’t among the dead scientists. He’s still out there, somewhere, on the same ice he devoted his life to digging up. A case of eight missing persons that may also be a murder has now become a manhunt set against the disorienting polar night. I keep having to remind myself that even though it looks like zero dark thirty outside, every scene could just as easily be taking place at 9 a.m. or noon. When Liz and Navarro learn Clark is alive, it could be the tail end of a very long day or the daybreak of the next long night.