At first glance, a person can be forgiven for mistaking Ennis’ police department as a family operation upon meeting police chief Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) in “True Detective: Night Country.” She treats her junior officer Peter Prior (Finn Bennett) less like a subordinate than the son in line to inherit the ice kingdom, a familiarity that rubs Prior’s father Hank (John Hawkes) the wrong way.
Only when Hank implies their working relationship might be inappropriate might we realize they’re not related. Peter, whom everyone calls Prior, views Liz as a mentor, following her orders with the grudging duty one reserves for a parent. He has little such respect for his abusive father, and that only amplifies Hank’s resentment toward both.
“Who’s Mrs. Robinson?” Prior asks. Danvers doesn’t grace him with an explanation, which keeps the joke sharp and ensures the trust she’s built with Prior remains intact. Their working relationship benefits both. He badly wants to be extraordinary at his job, restoring some of the glory he enjoyed as his high school’s hockey champion. Danvers enjoys pushing the kid around as she molds him into a – you can say it out loud– true detective.
But Prior’s tragedy is his willingness to sacrifice everything to please his boss/mother, regardless of the damage that does to him and his marriage. He’s more concerned about being a good employee/son than a present father to his young child, in the same way that Danvers is more devoted to her job than paying attention to her stepdaughter Leah (Isabella Star LaBlanc).
Not long after Prior’s wife Kayla (Anna Lambe) kicks him out, forcing him to move in with Hank, Leah moves in with her out of anger with Danvers, who views Leah’s involvement with the local protests of Silver Sky Mining Company as mere adolescent rebellion.
Leah’s in no position to judge Prior, bonding with him while she’s in lockup after participating in a protest that got ugly and forced Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis) to stop a fellow state trooper from beating her.
Isabella Star Leblanc in “True Detective: Night Country” (HBO)From her holding cell, Leah lets Prior know that both she and Kayla see the thoughtful boy beneath the mask of the hardnosed cop he’s trying to be. “Don’t let Liz ruin that guy, OK?” Leah says, offering him her hand. “She’s not good with people she cares about.”
The way of “True Detective” is to show how everything is connected.
“True Detective: Night Country” juggles several subplots as Danvers and Navarro get closer to linking the main mystery to the years-old murder of Annie K (Nivi Pedersen), a community activist. With the story’s culmination looming the secondary themes also take on a sharper focus.
Along with the central case, “Night Country” interrogates facets of womanhood. And it’s impossible to do that realistically without integrating parenthood into that conversation.
Navarro is tortured with concerns that the psychological malady that claimed the lives of her mother and sister is taking hold of her, too. She finds comfort in bonding with Rose Aguineau (Fiona Shaw), a mother figure guiding her in dealing with loud spirits.
Danvers, meanwhile, poorly navigates her fractured relationship with Leah, her bond with Prior, and her refusal to properly grieve her young son’s loss, which seems recent enough for those who know her to wonder why she doesn’t talk about it.
The damage by Silver Sky mine relates to this journey, too. Danvers has a mother’s reasons for punishing Leah for her vandalism. Professional ones too; the police chief’s stepdaughter painting “Murderers” across the doors of the town’s largest employer doesn’t reflect well on her.
Viewing your boss as a parental figure is an awful idea.
But in the three months leading up to the murders, Leah tells Liz, there were nine stillbirths in the villages. The mine is poisoning the town’s water. Annie, a midwife, was close enough to a Tsalal scientist and to the community’s heart to make the circumstances of her death in those ice caves Danvers and Navarro are searching for suspicious, at least.
Leah and Danvers’ relationship stumbles the outskirts of this, with Danvers unable to explain why she doesn’t want Leah to get the traditional facial tattoos that are her birthright, or how that also connects to her memories of Anna and other lost women – or, perhaps, her own harrowed relationship with motherhood.
The way of “True Detective” is to show how everything is connected, even that which can’t be explained. We now know that those recurring spirals have a non-mystical meaning. They’re warnings to stay away from places where the ice threatens to swallow you whole.
Issa Lopez and her “Part 5” co-writers Katrina Albright, Wenonah Wilms and Chris Mundy also convert this into a metaphor for another threat to Danvers and Navarro. They’re very close to figuring out what drove a group of scientists stationed at the Tsalal research facility onto the ice in subzero, dead-of-winter weather, unclothed.
They’ve also discovered that the missing scientist romantically linked to Annie, Raymond Clark (Owen McDonnell), is hiding in some ice caves that aren’t officially mapped. But when they head out to the entrance, which is on Silver Sky land, they find it’s been sealed shut. How convenient.
But it’s not the ice threatening to devour them. Another case dating back to when Danvers and Navarro were paired on the same force suddenly resurfaces, a three-year-old domestic violence call to the Wheeler household that Danvers deemed as a murder-suicide. Except there was no suicide, as several key characters unearth – including Danvers’ work son Prior, and her boss with benefits Captain Connelly (Christopher Eccleston).
Sky’s top executive Kate McKittrick (Dervla Kirwan) summons Danvers to the mine’s offices, where Connelly is waiting, to show her video footage of her and Navarro trespassing on the mine’s property. Danvers explains they were following up on a police business which, of course, McKittrick doesn’t want.
What the executive doesn’t know is that Prior has discovered a direct financial tie between a founding financial partner of Silver Sky and Tsalal, which means that the mine is bankrolling the research station and compelling them to generate false pollution data. Instead of listening to her, Connelly throws the Wheeler case in Danvers’ face as a warning to go no further.
Since Connelly knows, that means Hank Prior knows – which means Prior has been digging, and Hank broke into his son’s computer.
Kali Reis, Finn Bennett and Jodie Foster in “True Detective: Night Country” (HBO)In the end the bond Danvers forged with Prior at the expense of her relationship with Leah saves her life. Viewing your boss as a parental figure is an awful idea but when your co-worker is your abusive, bitter father, a person might understand why Prior would trust Danvers more than his own parent.
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And McKittrick is unaware of that when she bypasses Connelly to offer Hank Danvers’ job if he kills Otis Heiss. Once Danvers figures out that Hank snooped into Prior’s work, she hands Prior the key to the shack behind her house, cognizant to avoid any Mrs. Robinson implications, and tells him he can’t stay with his dad anymore.
By then Danvers has made a deal with Heiss to show her Clark’s alternate entrance to the ice caves in exchange for a heroin fix he can fulfill at her house. But Hank follows them there, talks his way inside, takes Danvers’ gun, and shoots Heiss twice.
The gunshots bring Prior into the living room through the back door, in time for him to see Hank turn his gun on Danvers.
Danvers tells him to lower the gun, advising “Prior . . . think.”
Hank, meanwhile, advises Prior to help him. “Blood is blood,” Hank says, moving to shoot their boss. But Prior is faster on the trigger because he did think, as Danvers taught him.
Navarro shows up moments after the tragedy, and the three agree that Danvers needs to head out with her at that moment. A winter storm is raging, which means nobody will be watching them. Prior takes it upon himself to clean up and follow Navarro’s instructions to take Heiss and Hank’s bodies to Rose, trusting her to help him make them vanish. Because these mothers can’t help but protect their children, including the surrogates who return the favor.
New episodes of “True Detective: Night Country” air at 9 p.m. Sundays on HBO and stream on Max.
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