True Detective: Night Country review – Jodie Foster is electric on her first return to TV in 50 years

For those in the mood for a little post-Christmas bleakness, True Detective: Night Country is the show for you.

Far from the close humidity of the Louisiana swamps or the dusty heat of California of previous series, in the fourth chapter of the anthology show, writer-director Issa López (taking over from showrunner Nic Pizzolatto) has relocated the series to one of the most freezing and remote places on Earth: Alaska.

It starts as the sun dips below the horizon for the last time that month (in the Arctic circle, it won’t rise again for 30 days) plunging the fictional town of Ennis – home to 200-odd people and the occasional polar bear – into unrelenting darkness, paranormal mystery and, of course, murder.

Eight scientists at a research facility have gone missing, seemingly vanishing into thin air (one of the inspirations for this series was the infamous Marie Celeste disaster) – and on the case to track them down is Detective Liz Danvers, played by the great Jodie Foster, making this her first starring role in a TV show since 1975’s Paper Moon.

Hasn't the small screen missed her. As Danvers, Foster is electric: a woman with an undisclosed but traumatic past, trapped in Ennis after being exiled by her bosses. She’s distinctly unlikeable, shoving everybody around with much the same levels of disdain – including but not limited to: her boss, whom she’s sleeping with, her resentful stepdaughter and the town drunk – but man is she magnetic. And this is a world away from her iconic turn as fresh faced FBI trainee agent Clarice Starling in 1991's Silence of the Lambs.

Christopher Eccleston as Ted Connelly (© 2023 Home Box Office, Inc. All rights reserved. HBO® and all related programs are the property of Home Box Office, Inc.)
Christopher Eccleston as Ted Connelly (© 2023 Home Box Office, Inc. All rights reserved. HBO® and all related programs are the property of Home Box Office, Inc.)

It's no surprise that Foster is great and so the real revelation is her partner on the force, Evangeline Navarro. Played by former boxer Kali Reis in only her third screen credit, Navarro is equally damaged, and Reis plays her to perfection. For one, she’s trying desperately to solve the cold case of murdered Indigenous woman Annie K. For another, she’s being haunted by the ghost of her dead mother.

When I say haunted, I do mean that literally. Like previous series, season four flirts with the supernatural, but this time it’s seen through the lens of native Iñupiaq traditions and beliefs. This is where the show is at its most compelling: the idea that the long night allows the dead to speak to the living. It also covers the Indigenous people's fight against the mining companies in Ennis, the disconnect many of the show's women, Navarro included, have with their own culture. López has spoken about the show being "cold and dark and female" and it is definitely all those things, to refreshing, fascinating effect.

On top of that, there’s also some murders to solve. In this, True Detective is like a gorgeous, baroque puzzle box, laying mystery on top of mystery and serving it with more spine-chilling moments than most horror films.

Adding another layer of spice is the uniformly excellent cast, with the welcome inclusion of Brits Fiona Shaw (as a kind of mad/wise woman on the edge of town, uttering zingers while puffing on an ever-burning cig) and Christopher Eccleston (doing a nice number as Danvers’ boss).

It’s also helped massively by the ultra-creepy setting: Ennis is a town where old cars line the sides of the road like tombstones and people sometimes just… walk off into the ice and never come back.

So are the disappearances supernatural? Are they the work of an especially dedicated killer? Will we ever find out? Does it matter? This is excellent TV that conjures an atmosphere thicker than the polar ice cap, and bleaker than a polar night. Just make sure to wrap up warm.

True Detective: Night Country is streaming now on Sky Atlantic and NOW