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Ahead of the Finale, What‘s Really Going on in 'True Detective: Night Country'?

kali reis and jodie foster in true detective night country
What's Going on in 'Night Country'?Michele K. Short/HBO

Spoilers below for True Detective: Night Country.

Whenever Jodie Foster’s prickly Chief Liz Danvers scolds her colleagues for “not asking the right questions” in HBO’s eerie, enticing True Detective: Night Country, her advice seems intended to address the audience, too. Even after the penultimate episode of this Issa López-led season, it’s still difficult to separate the vital information from the red herrings, or the meaningful symbolism from the spooky set dressing. To cop a phrase from another HBO favorite: Do “all the pieces matter”? Or are we simply not asking the right questions?

The show has taken us deep into the dark heart of a mystery in Ennis, Alaska, one involving the Tsalal Arctic Research Station, the employees of which disappeared without warning...only to turn up frozen in a block of Arctic ice. (Danvers coins this block the “corpsicle,” and hauls it back through town to thaw at the local ice rink.) But how those bodies got there—and what their deaths have to do with the murder of an Iñupiat woman named Annie K, whose six-year-old case Danvers’ ex-partner Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis) is still determined to crack—is as mysterious as the creepy spiral symbol tattooed on her back.

In the second-to-last episode, a few revelations make themselves known: Deputy Hank Prior (John Hawkes) covered up Annie K’s death on the orders of Kate McKitterick, owner and operator of Silver Sky Mining. Navarro killed the abusive William Wheeler, and she covered it up with Danvers’ help, a fact that regional chief of police Ted Connelly (Christopher Eccleston) hangs over both their heads. And in the final moments of the episode, junior officer Peter Prior (Finn Bennett) kills Hank, his own father, in an attempt to save Danvers—and in response to Hank’s confession that he helped cover up Annie K’s murder.

But these insights, however startling, don’t answer a few key questions: Who actually killed Annie K, if Hank only moved her body after the fact? What do the Silver Sky Mines have to do with the Tsalal corpsicle? And, really, what is the deal with that spiral symbol?

Let’s walk through some of our thoughts and theories based on the clues that have popped up so far.

[table-of-contents] stripped

Are the Tuttles Behind It All?

If you watched the first season of True Detective, the mention of the name “Tuttle” might’ve sent a few shockwaves down your spine. If you missed the reference: After digging into the history of the Tsalal facility, Pete informs Danvers that an NGO funds the station, but he ultimately traces the NGO’s cash back to Tuttle United, a shell corporation working across sectors including “glass, tech, video games, shipments, palm oil, cruise lines.” Huh. The Tuttle family is a Louisiana institution, one that Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) chases after in the first season while investigating its members’ connection to a dangerous pedophilic cult. There’s basically zero chance that “Tuttle United” isn’t connected to the Louisiana Tuttles, or to the horrifying “worship” performed by their cult.

One other important note: In the season 1 finale, Rust Cohle tells his former partner, Marty (Woody Harrelson), that—even though they successfully apprehended one of the Tuttle descendants, the scar-faced Errol Childress (Glenn Fleshler)—they “didn’t get ’em all.” That implies the Tuttles are still out there, and they could be connected to the crime in Ennis.

But even if Night Country ultimately decides not to wade too deep into the Tuttle lore, the name drop is still of note. In episode 5, we learn that Tuttle United orchestrates business deals with Norbank Securities, itself a founding partner of Silver Sky Mines—the same mines responsible for polluting Ennis. Translation: The company funding Tsalal also breaks bread with the company funding the mines, a major conflict of interest given that Tsalal “independently” verifys the mines’ pollution numbers. It’s altogether likely that Tuttle and Norbank are working together to cover up Silver Sky’s deadly practices. Danvers deciphers this much for herself, but where that ultimately leads her and Navarro in the finale could (at last!) reveal the corpsicle’s twisted origins.

What’s the True Meaning of “Tsalal”?

Time to dig into some linguistics. First off, “Tsalal” is an unlikely name for a research station, owing largely to the fact that it’s a Hebrew term with translations including “growing or becoming dark,” “sinking” or “submerging,” and “shade” or “shadow.” In brief: red flags all around.

The word is also a possible reference to acclaimed horror writer Edgar Allan Poe, whose novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket includes an Antarctic island named Tsalal. As some fans and writers (including Jen Chaney over at Vulture) have already pointed out, Poe’s work influenced the creation of a short story named “The Tsalal” by modern horror writer Thomas Ligotti (whose own work was connected to True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto during season 1. Time is truly a flat circle.)

In Ligotti’s story, the characters occupy a “skeleton town,” “a place where the sun had passed from view.” (Sounds rather like Ennis, hmm?) One of these characters professes an ideology similar to Rust Cohle’s in season 1: namely, that “everybody’s nobody.” Ligotti himself quoted the German philosopher Julius Bahnsen in his work: “Man is a self-conscious nothing.”

What all of this deep-diving really means for True Detective: Night Country is likely less literal than symbolic. The Tsalal facility seems to be a place of dark, deep discoveries—of things that should never have been made conscious or known. Interpreted with the Tuttle and Norbank information mentioned above, it’s a key indicator that Tsalal is hiding something sinister. But whether scientific or supernatural (or both) is for the finale to answer.

jodie foster as liz danvers in true detective night country
HBO

Is the Spiral Significant?

The spiral symbol—a recurring motif throughout multiple True Detective seasons, particularly the first—has found its way into Night Country. In past seasons, it’s been a harbinger of foreboding and evil, but Night Country’s relationship with the spiral might prove more complex still. First seen in season 1 on the body of Dora Lange, a victim of the so-called Yellow King, the symbol was later connected to the Tuttle cult and is now forever tied to the Tsalal crew. (Danvers and her crew first discover the mark etched on the forehead of one of the scientists.) Later, it shows up again on the chest of Tsalal employee Raymond Clark, who had it tattooed there only a few days after the death of Annie K, the now-deceased Indigenous woman Navarro’s hell-bent on avenging. Annie herself had a similar tattoo, which doesn’t seem coincidental.

Eventually, Danvers and Navarro explore a trailer belonging to Clark, one that he filled with creepy paraphernalia invoking prior seasons: cornhusk dolls, animal bones, feverish scribblings on the doors and walls, and the ritualistic temple of Carcosa. It’s to this trailer that Clark seems to have brought Annie K, as Navarro discovers the woman’s cracked phone discarded amongst the debris.

In the penultimate chapter, Navarro learns from her off-again, on-again lover Qavikk—or, rather, from his friend—that the spiral symbols were used as warning signs amongst hunters while he was growing up. They were indicators, not entirely unlike cairns, of where the ice around Ennis grew thin and precarious.

There’s a chance Night Country merely intends to use this symbol as metaphor: another sign of the collapsing membrane between the Alaskan ice and the caves underneath, between the realms of the living and the dead. But I suspect there’s a larger narrative purpose behind its usage. Earlier in the season, Ennis local Rose (Fiona Shaw) tells Navarro that the spiral is definitely “older than Ennis” and perhaps “older than the ice” itself. That’s a telling remark, given the Tsalal researchers themselves were drilling for ancient microorganisms in the ice, hunting for the means of a cure for cancer. If Tsalal was searching for long-buried creatures (“dark” discoveries in the “deep”) and the spiral itself is older than the ice, might the spiral be connected to those microorganisms? What if the Tsalal-ers found something they were never supposed to find?

Do the Missing Fingers Matter?

Pay close attention to the cast in Night Country, and you’ll realize that a few of the seemingly minor characters keep popping up at intriguing junctures. One of these characters is Blair (Kathryn Wilder), a crab factory worker whose abusive partner gets his ass handed to him by Navarro in the season opener. The first time we meet Blair, one of her eyes is covered by an ice pack—a direct reference to the one-eyed polar bear that’s a recurring motif in the series. Importantly, she’s also missing two fingers.

Why does that matter? In episode 2, Danvers learns that a handprint was discovered on one of the Tsalal researcher’s shoes, and that handprint had two missing fingers. You know who else had missing fingers? The Inuit goddess Sedna. (More on that later.) In short: Yes, the missing fingers simply must matter somehow.

What’s Really in the Water?

The mines are the infrastructure of Ennis. Many of town’s inhabitants make their living in the aforementioned “dark” and “deep.” Others—many of whom are Indigenous, like Annie K—despise the mines’ impact on their home. Annie herself was a frequent protestor, condemning the mining runoff that, as we learn in episodes 2 and 3, seems to be producing stillborn babies and turning the local tap water black. Annie’s protesting might have been what ultimately got her killed, as Navarro suspects. But her connection with the Tsalal team (and Clark in particular) seems just as suspicious. Likelier still, these factors are all related—the mines and Tsalal, the Tuttles and Ennis, the water and the ice. We just don’t yet understand the full picture.

At the end of episode 3, Navarro and Danvers discover a video on Annie’s phone, one in which she tells the front-facing camera she’s “found it” seconds before the camera glitches and her screams fill the air. She’s in an ice cave, one Danvers and Navarro make it their mission to track down. But what exactly did she find? Whatever it was, it must have been enough to indict both Tsalal and the Silver Sky Mines, right?

Here’s where a strange but compelling theory comes together, fed by multiple fan observations I’ve seen on Reddit and comment sections: Was Tsalal actually working on a biological agent? A cancer cure-turned-accidental weapon? If such an agent were (inadvertently?) dropped into the water supply, might it explain all the unusual behaviors and hallucinatory visions experienced by multiple characters this season? If the townsfolk of Ennis are experiencing some sort of mass infection—stick with me here—there’s a chance they might also be experiencing mass psychosis. And if mining was necessary to dig up the microorganisms the Tsalal team needed to create their “cure,” there’s a solid argument that the mining runoff and the supposed “agent” are all mixed up together. Plus, that would further explain how Tuttle, Tsalal, and Silver Sky are all in bed. Does such a hypothesis really explain the corpsicle? Or Annie K’s death? Not exactly. But it feels like the inkling of something that could actually account for all this season’s haunting accoutrements.

Okay, So are the Ghosts Real? And Who is “She”?

One of the biggest questions looming over Night Country is whether or not the show’s spiritual elements are as they seem. Is there a true evil supernatural force at work here? Or are the polar-bear sightings and whispering voices a figment of imagination, or of mental health issues? Might the answer lie somewhere between those two poles? A biological agent, perhaps?

The entire season is marked by utterances of “She’s awake.” Raymond Clark spoke the words first in the premiere, moments before the Tsalal station went dark, and the phrase is echoed all the way through episode 5. But who is “she”? The ghost of Annie K? Another long-slumbering spirit? The dormant microorganisms unearthed at Tsalal?

We’re given ample additional examples of would-be supernatural phenomena: Danvers sees a one-eyed polar bear on the road. Navarro tosses an orange onto the ice, and it rolls back to her. She slips on that same ice, hits her head, and wakes to find a little boy—apparently, Danvers’ deceased son—clasping her shoulder. She visits the hospital where a survivor of the Tsalal corpsicle, Anders Lund, has awakened from his coma. After screaming in agony for multiple minutes, he suddenly grows calm, his voice seeming demonically possessed as he growls, “Hello, Evangeline. Your mother says hello. She’s waiting for you.” Navarro’s mother was herself haunted by visions, as was Navarro’s sister, who dies by suicide in episode 4. But what Night Country has yet to make clear is what’s instigating and compounding these effects.

So far, the most convincing argument in the “it’s all supernatural” camp is that the mythological Sedna has awakened. As showrunner Lopez herself has confirmed, the girl-turned-goddess does indeed play some part in Night Country. In Inuit lore, a girl named Sedna is tossed into the ocean by her own father; her severed fingers become sea animals, and she herself becomes a goddess. (See: the missing fingers’ relevance above.) In an early episode this season, Pete discovers that his son, Darwin, has drawn a picture of Sedna—a fact one fan pointed out back in January, and which Lopez validated. If the “she” Clark references in the premiere is actually Sedna, what does that mean for the rest of the season’s more frightening fare? And will she make her grand entrance in the finale?

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