I’ll admit that when I implored True Detective: Night Country to get its ass in gear by revealing some of the long-held plot secrets last week, I did not expect the next episode to be a full-on avalanche of narrative progress. Whether that’s a good thing is yet to be determined. We won’t have a sense of whether showrunner-writer-director Issa López was panicking to tie up loose ends with only one episode of the season left, or if this barrage of intersecting plotlines is part of her grand scheme, until next week. What I do know is that this episode’s final 10 minutes were this season’s most shocking yet, and my audible gasps were enough to make me suspend my simmering apprehension, at least for now.
Episode 5 opens at the Ennis morgue, where Navarro’s sister Julia (Aki Niviâna) is being cremated. The show has jumped forward to a week after Julia’s suicide, from Christmas to New Year’s Eve; there have been no new breaks in the cases of the frozen Tsalal Station scientists or Annie Kowtok, just a whole lot of grief.
The morgue employee scoops Julia’s ashes into an urn and hands them to Navarro, who requests to watch over the process despite it being against morgue protocol. “Careful, it’s hot,” the staff member warns. Navarro picks up the urn and brings her sister’s remains close to her chest for one final, warm embrace. I was so taken by how unexpectedly tender this moment was; a character feeling the physical heat of their loved one for the last time, in this way, is a rare, heartbreakingly beautiful sight.
While Navarro is saying her goodbyes, Danvers is saying hello to Otis Heiss, the vagrant whom she and Navarro tracked down inside the abandoned dredge at the end of last week’s episode. Otis is detoxing in the hospital after the two women found him strung out on heroin, rambling about the sole Tsalal survivor and primary suspect in the Annie Kowtok case, Raymond Clark, going to the “night country.” Now that Otis is a tad more coherent, Danvers tries to get some solid information out of her witness. She tries to ask just how he incurred identical injuries to the frozen Tsalal scientists, but Otis has no memory of the events. He only knows that, 30 years ago, he tried to save some men who were trapped in the ice drifts. He went to locate help in a blizzard, heard a screaming noise, and was in the hospital when he came to.
Danvers demands that Otis lead her and Navarro through what’s left of the collapsed ice cave system he was mapping, where Annie Kowtok met her demise. Otis tells her that he’ll only do it if Danvers gets him heroin. Reluctant but weighing her options, Danvers and Navarro leave to check out the cave entrance themselves, only to find that it has been sealed off—blown closed with dynamite.
Back in Ennis, there’s a different type of explosion about to happen at the Silver Sky mining offices. The Iñupiaq protestors and their allies have gathered at the entrance to demand that the mine answer for poisoning their water systems, the chemical effects of which have been resulting in stillborn babies across the region’s Native population. Danvers’ stepdaughter Leah (Isabella Star LeBlanc) and her girlfriend attend the protest together, only for Leah to get left behind when things take a violent turn. Leah is beaten by one of the riot squad sent in to “keep the peace” (some job they’re doing!), but Navarro arrives to pull her fellow officer away before the damage can get worse.
When things calm down (and with Leah in temporary police custody, at least closer to her stepmom at the station), Officer Pete Prior (Finn Bennett) tells Danvers that he’s done some digging on the Tsalal Station’s financial backers. The grants that fund the station trace back to Tuttle United, which has a multitude of international deals with Norbank Securities, a private firm that just so happens to be a founding partner in Silver Sky Mining. This means that the mine bankrolls Tsalal, and Tsalal was instructed to push the mine’s falsified pollution numbers. With forged records, the mine can keep making money at the expense of the Native population.
When Danvers brings this to Kate McKitterick (Dervla Kirwan), the mine’s owner, and Sergeant Connelly (Christopher Eccleston) at the Silver Sky offices, Kate has other plans. “Why are you and Trooper Navarro in a remote section of Silver Sky land?” she asks Danvers, showing them security footage of the two women at the sealed-off ice cave entrance. Danvers says that they’re simply following up on a lead, but Connelly tells them that there is no longer any need. The forensics testing of the Tsalal scientists who were frozen into the corpsicle came back without evidence of foul play. They died of a slab avalanche, a freak event that can suck someone into weak snowdrifts and, apparently, cause the same injuries the scientists had. But it’s too neat of an ending to her case, and Danvers knows it.
“It’s convenient, isn’t it?” Danvers asks. “The mine bankrolls Tsalal. The funding is for an independent outfit that verified your pollution numbers. You don’t think that’s a conflict of interest?” Kate plays naive and leaves Connelly and Danvers to their business. Connelly tells Danvers to let the case go and let him close it, but Danvers makes a last ditch plea to investigate further.
Connelly, however, isn’t asking. “Three years ago, you and your partner Angeline Navarro responded to a domestic violence call, William Wheeler,” he says. “A murder-suicide. Except there was no suicide, was there?” Danvers realizes that Connelly knows about the Wheeler case, which we finally get some knowledge on later in this episode. Navarro and Danvers shot Wheeler, who had become a violent nuisance but was never caught in the act, and made it look like a suicide. They even doctored evidence photos to accord with their plan. Now that Connelly knows, Danvers has no choice but to follow his instructions to drop the Tsalal/Annie Kowtok investigation.
Afterward, Kate and Officer Hank Prior (John Hawkes) meet in a remote location inside Kate’s car. “Danvers is not going to let this go,” she tells Hank. “She’s looking for the location of the Kowtok murder. She can’t find that cave. The engineer, Otis Heiss—he could take her there.” Suddenly, we realize that Kate and Hank have much more knowledge about these pending cases than they’ve ever let on before. Hank tells Kate to take her concerns back to Connelly, citing that he’s done being her lackey. “I did something for you. You broke your promise,” he says. “The money [you paid me] is gone, and you promised me chief of police.”
What this tells us is that Kate was indeed involved with Annie’s death, and possibly the death of the Tsalal scientists. She paid Hank to help cover it up, and swore that she’d use the mine’s money and power to cut through bureaucratic red tape and get him Danvers’ job, before Danvers was exiled to Ennis after her son’s death. Kate tells Henry to follow Danvers, who will lead him to Otis Heiss, and to kill Otis, staging it to look like he got lost in the ice while high.
Navarro gets a visit from her lover, Eddie Qaavik (Joel Montgrand), who tells her that he’s learned something about the stone with the spiral engraved on it, which she left at this house in a state of delirium after being beaten to a pulp in Episode 4. Eddie’s friend told him that people would leave the stones as a warning for hunters to mark places where the ice would swallow them whole and trap them in an underground ice cave. His friend’s grandmother called these caves “the night country.” Navarro rushes to Danvers’ house to implore her that they get Otis to lead them to the cave he mapped, but there’s something much more intense waiting for her.
Danvers has already scooped Otis out of detox, offering him some heroin to lead them through the cave. But Hank, having followed the two of them back, intrudes, telling him that he’s going to take Otis back into custody at the request of Connelly. Danvers suspects he’s lying, and Hank grabs his gun, pointing it at Otis. Danvers begs with Hank to put the gun down, leave, and do the right thing for once, but Hank holds firm. Otis, already high on the heroin Danvers procured for him, calls Hank’s bluff and tries to leave. Hank shoots Otis once in the shoulder, and then again in the head.
The younger Officer Prior, Pete, hears the commotion while looking for files in Danvers’ garage to close the Kowtok case. He enters her home, pointing his gun at his father, Hank. Danvers pleads with Pete to think about what he’s doing, while Hank tells his son to remember that blood is a far stronger bond than any of the love that Danvers has shown him—far more than his own father ever did. “You should know something,” Hank says amidst the tension, thinking he has the upper hand. “I didn’t kill Annie K., I just moved her body.” He tells Pete once more to remember that they’re family, and lifts his gun to shoot Danvers. In a flash, Pete pulls the trigger on his pistol and shoots his father in the head.
It’s the single biggest shocker of the season thus far. López writes these big finishes nicely, but after starting to work my way through True Detective Season 1, I can’t help but notice that the show’s first installment did a better job of weaving in these sorts of dread-laced moments, all at different times. Night Country has a habit of supplying us with cliffhangers each week, but hasn’t always been able to keep that tension flowing throughout the individual episodes. I’m nitpicking, but if there was ever a time to do that, it’s in the penultimate chapter of this saga.
Pete tells Danvers and Navarro to leave and investigate the ice cave, taking Hank’s truck with them. The incoming blizzard will help cover their tracks so they won’t be placed near the car. Pete will stay back and clean the scene, disposing of his father and Otis. And with that, the episode ends with a shot of the truck speeding down a blustery road, fading to black. The big question is if next week’s 75-minute finale can bring it all home to a completely satisfying conclusion, and finally wrap up all the loose ends that remain. (And there are a lot, even after this episode.) While I’m reluctant to think Night Country will be completely successful in that endeavor, I’m confident that the finale will be a rip-roaring ride either way.