True Detective: Night Country’s Dark Night of the Soul

Joe George

For days on end, Police Chief Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) had been investigating a grisly crime, an unexplained event that ended with seven scientists, all nude, frozen to death in the Alaskan Arctic. When she finally gets a break in the case, Danvers lies down to rest, first removing her cross necklace. She stares a moment at the icon, disgust and bewilderment crossing her face, before tossing it aside.

This scene from the finale of HBO’s True Detective: Night Country isn’t the first time that the fourth season of the anthology crime series, written and directed by Issa López, has dealt with matters of faith. Throughout, Danvers squabbles with her reluctant partner, Trooper Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis), about prayer, God’s intervention, and the afterlife. In almost every case, Danvers treats these topics in the same way that she does the cross and chain: she pushes them aside with distaste.

Even the most devout among us have sympathy for Danvers’ reaction. True Detective: Night Country includes all manner of horrible events and human suffering—beyond the aforementioned “corpsicle.” A mine pollutes this area of Alaska, the murders of Indigenous women go unacknowledged, and Danvers is still haunted by the death of her son. Time and again, these characters cry out for justice. And the response is silence, nothing but the dark.

Driving with Navarro to question a person of interest in the fourth episode, Danvers reluctantly explains her aversion to matters of faith. “When my mom died, my dad told us to pray,” she reveals. “He told us to pray with our hearts and she’d be fine.” Foster spaces out her words, pursing her lips and darting her eyes from side to side before each new bit of information, as if hoping to uncover the remnants of hope that still persist beneath her disappointment. “I prayed from the bottom of my sorry-ass little broken seven-year-old heart. I prayed so hard day and night, my knees turned black.”

López and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister shoot the conversation in deep darkness, letting only the headlights and the console of the vehicle illuminate the actors’ otherwise shadowed faces. The darkness is an extension of the natural environment of this northern town, where the sun will not rise for 30 days, locking the citizens in an endless night. For Christian viewers, the darkness surrounding Danvers and Navarro also has a theological resonance. Danvers is experiencing what the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross called “the dark night of the soul.” St. John described the apparent separation from God as a necessary purging, a process of negation through which God teaches the soul to focus her attention and desires. “When they are going about their spiritual practices with the greatest enthusiasm and pleasure and it seems to them that the sun of divine favor is shining most brightly upon them, God suddenly darkens all light,” he writes. “He slams the door shut. He cuts off the source of the spiritual waters they had been drinking from in God as often and as deeply as they desired.”

St. John writes from the perspective of one whose soul has gone through the darkness and has been reunited with God. “How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? / How long will you hide your face from me?” cries the poet of Psalm 13. “How long will my enemy triumph over me?” The words recall those of Job, who says of God, “But if I go to the east, he is not there; if I go to the west, I do not find him. / When he is at work in the north, I do not see him; / when he turns to the south, I catch no glimpse of him.” Jewish philosopher Martin Buber puts it another way when he writes, “He who knows God knows also very well remoteness from God and the anguish of barrenness in the tormented heart.” However, Buber also insists, “He does not know the absence of God: it is we only who are not always there.”

For Christian viewers, the darkness surrounding Danvers and Navarro also has a theological resonance.

Whether it’s God who moves or us who moves, all of these poets agree that losing and finding God is a necessary process of developing faith. A God who remains stagnant calcifies into an idol, a profanity that fails to match the infinity of the living God. And yet, as demonstrated by the ongoing sorrow in Danvers’ voice, that doesn’t make the process feel better for those within the darkness.

López and her collaborators capture the beauty and power of this process with the image of headlights moving through the darkness. Each episode returns to this imagery, including in the opening titles. Sometimes we see the light through a car’s windshield, stretching out onto a dimly lit road. Sometimes we see the light from a birds-eye-view shot. In both cases, we see how little the light penetrates the depths of darkness. And yet, López never lets her characters succumb to the darkness. Navarro continues to search for the Indigenous women’s killer, while Danvers’ daughter Leah (Isabella LaBlanc) joins others in protesting the mine. Despite the forces stacked against them, despite Danvers’s cynicism and self-destructiveness, despite the darkness, Leah, Navarro, and eventually Danvers herself continue to seek justice.

The process isn’t easy. Those of us holding to our faith in the dark will recognize the look of disappointment and anger that Danvers gives her cross. But we also recognize the peace that passes understanding, something reflected in a sequence that occurs throughout the season. In what might be a dream or another world, Navarro walks through a desert space. It isn’t idyllic–the ground is dry and we notice burning cars in the background—but it is bright, so very bright, with not a shadow to be found. It’s there that Navarro encounters a child’s hand, one that recalls Danvers’ lost son.

In those moments of light, Navarro refreshes the faith she needs to make it through the darkness. It’s an inspiring image for Christian viewers, one that reminds us that the existence of darkness does not mean the total absence of light, but is instead a temporary trial.

Topics: TV