True Detective: Night Country - Isn’t an Irish person an odd choice as a metaphor for western colonialism?

Television: Long-awaited fourth season is a compelling thriller, supercharged by hints of the supernatural

True Detective’s long-awaited fourth season takes place in Alaska, where Oscar-winner Jodie Foster teams up with professional boxer-turned-actress Kali Reis. Strictly speaking, then, this moody and, at times, terrifying serving of new year noir should be the least “Irish” show of the year. What could be further removed from Ireland than Jodie Foster in a parka backlit by the alien fireworks of the Northern Lights?

But Night Country’s showrunner Issa López has a different perspective. She provides a steady drip of Irish references across a gripping six-episode thriller (debuting on Sky Atlantic on Monday, January 15th, at 9pm). For starters, the setting is the remote, entirely fictional settlement of “Ennis, Alaska”. Of all the names in all the world, why riff on Clare’s county town? What next? Star Trek reboot Deep Space Nenagh? A Succession spin-off in Athlone?

It gets weirder. One of the more significant characters is Dubliner “Raymond Clarke”. He’s sort of the villain, embodying the imperialism of western corporatism and the disaster it brings to the native Inuit of Alaska.

López’s point about big corporations asset-stripping native communities is well made. However, isn’t an Irish person an odd choice as a metaphor for western colonialism? Clarke could have been British, French, Belgian or Dutch. Instead, López makes him Irish. That said, he gets the most meme-worthy moment when he says “the line”. To go further would be to spoil. Suffice to say, fans of the original Matthew McConaughey-Woody Harrelson True Detective from 2014 will know what I’m talking about. They will be able to quote the dialogue in question as if they heard it just yesterday.


Clarke isn’t the only Irish person to feature. Night Country has Cork’s Fiona Shaw as an eccentric academic. She is cast alongside Dervla Kirwan, last seen in muddled RTÉ drama Smother – set, as it happens, in the actual county Clare and not far from the non-frozen version Ennis. In 18 months, she’s gone from RTÉ to HBO. As early 21st-century philosopher Ronan Keating might observe, “life is a rollercoaster”.

Night Country began life as a stand-alone project by López, a respected director and showrunner in Mexico, whose output regularly tops the ratings. But when it was suggested her first English-language undertaking be rebranded as the fourth True Detective, she tweaked it so that it chimed with TD’s signature quasi-supernatural tone, as evoked by the always-night setting of Alaska in midwinter (in reality, suburban Reykjavik). It is even possible that Raymond Clarke is a wink towards “Randolph Carter” – alter ego of cosmic horror founding father HP Lovecraft.

The series arrives in advance of the 10th anniversary of the original True Detective, in which McConaughey and Harrelson partnered as Louisiana detectives battling a cult with Lovecraftian overtones. In later years, TD steered away from the uncanny. López, however, brings it back to the source with a chilly tale of murder and environmental catastrophe that evokes John Carpenter’s’ classic shocker The Thing and Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness.

There is lots of madness to go around. The story begins at a remote research station where the entire crew, including Dubliner Clarke, mysteriously vanish. Enter Foster as Chief Danvers and the excellent Reis as Detective Evangeline Navarro – two former police partners with a complicated history and dark secrets. We are also introduced to Shaw, a fruity professor who has moved to the Arctic. Kirwan, for her part, plays a local business leader who may not be quite as upstanding as she’d like us to believe.

True Detective: Night Country is visually stunning. López floods the screen with unearthly blue and yellow lighting and gives us a sky that pulsates like an inky void. She has described Night Country as a “negative image” of the McConaughey and Harrelson two-hander. True Detective 1.0 was bathed in the swelter of Louisiana. Night Country, by contrast, is a halogen hellscape hemmed by an infinite darkness.

One of the criticisms of the original True Detective was that it exalted sulking machismo, its women characters reduced to glorified plot points around which McConaughey and Harrelson steered. López rights that wrong by foregrounding the action in the experiences of the native Alaskans and of Danvers and Navarro. She zeros in on the mistrust and misunderstandings between the Inuit population and outsiders such as Danvers, played with weary verve by Foster (don’t be surprised if, 10 years after the “McConaissance”, there is chatter of a Foster-naissance).

That tension between tradition and capitalism drives the story. But this is, above all, a compelling thriller, supercharged by hints of the supernatural. There is at least one jump scare that will have you leaping behind the couch. In so doing, it restores to True Detective the funereal pizazz that was a defining characteristic of season one. Yet for Irish viewers, the real mystery will inevitably be: why set it in a town called Ennis?