Throughout its first three episodes, HBO’s True Detective: Night Country has kept its exposition to a minimum. Consequently, viewers have only gotten small glimpses into the personal backstories of its two leads, Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) and Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis), over these past few weeks. Brief flashbacks, hallucinations, and references have hinted at tragedies in both their pasts, but Night Country wisely hasn’t slowed down too much to explore them all that extensively.
In its third episode, though, the season does pause for a conversation between Liz and her protégé, Peter Prior (Finn Bennett), about the case that broke up her and Navarro’s partnership several years before Night Country begins. The scene in question includes a quick flashback that suggests that Night Country has brought back one of True Detective’s earliest and most effective tricks: The Unreliable Narrator.
When Prior asks Danvers about the last case that she and Navarro worked together, she tells him a story about William Wheeler, a repeat criminal offender who started dating an 18-year-old girl that he repeatedly beat. One day, after months of trying to get his girlfriend to press charges against him, Danvers and Navarro showed up at Wheeler’s house to find both of them dead of a purported murder-suicide. “They were both dead when we got there,” Danvers tells Prior, before revealing that Navarro was so traumatized by their failure to protect Wheeler’s girlfriend that her partnership with Danvers fell apart.
While Foster’s Ennis Police Chief is telling this story, Night Country director and creator Issa López cuts to a wordless flashback of Danvers and Navarro making their way into Wheeler’s house to find him sitting over his girlfriend’s dead body. As Danvers and Navarro look on, Wheeler turns to them, grins, and tauntingly whistles. From this image, López cuts back to Danvers asserting that both Wheeler and his girlfriend were dead when she and Navarro arrived on the scene. It’s a lie — one that calls back to a similar moment from True Detective Season 1.
That season’s fifth episode famously features the initial, anti-climax to Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart’s (Woody Harrelson) investigation into the crimes of the Tuttle Cult. After searching for Dora Lange’s murderers, Marty and Rust manage to infiltrate the compound of two Tuttle Cult members, Reggie (Charles Halford) and Dewall Ledoux (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), and Marty executes Reggie in a fit of rage after discovering two children locked in a cage on his property. When Dewall subsequently blows himself up with one of his own landmines, Rust and Marty cover up their crimes — making their infiltration look like a gunfight that escalated out of control.
The sequence in question serves as a major pivot point for True Detective Season 1. Not only does it bring the first part of the season’s story to an end, but it also marks the moment when the show manages to fully weaponize its split-timeline, narration-led structure. Viewers realize that Marty and Rust are unreliable narrators who will knowingly lie to protect themselves, and that knowledge injects new uncertainty into everything they say throughout the rest of the season.
The importance of Danvers’ lie about William Wheeler’s death remains to be seen. Even if it doesn’t ultimately carry as much weight within Night Country’s greater story as Rust and Marty’s cover-up does in True Detective Season 1, though, its inclusion nonetheless adds a lot to the icy, Alaska-set season. Not only does it establish yet another stylistic and thematic link between Night Country and its 2014 predecessor, but it also reveals an unexpected edge of idealism within Foster’s Danvers.
Her willingness to cover up either her or Navarro’s murder of Wheeler proves that, no matter how uncaring she may pretend to be, Danvers does believe in her protecting her friends and going outside of the law to make bad men pay for their crimes. That tells us a lot about her interest in solving the brutal murder of Annie K., and it adds a layer of unpredictability to what she may or may not be willing to do across True Detective: Night Country’s remaining three installments.