Column | Murder in really cold places

The latest installment of HBO’s renowned series, True Detective, wrapped up its seasonal journey with a finale that resonated deeply with fans and critics alike. The season, aptly titled Night Country, provides a seamless and compelling fusion of mystery and psychological terror, a testament to the exceptional craft of showrunner Issa López. Known for her integration of horror and detective elements in the 2017 standout film Tigers Are Not Afraid, López once again masterfully orchestrates this chilling dance of genres, but this time amidst the desolate backdrop of Ennis, a fictional town in Alaska.

As the narrative unfolds, viewers are introduced to the duo tasked with untangling the web of enigmas – local police chief Liz Danvers, portrayed by the eminent Jodie Foster, and trooper Evangeline Navarro, brought to life by Kali Reis. Together, they delve into the perplexing vanishing of a scientific team, a case that may be intertwined with the historic slaying of an activist from the indigenous Inupiat community.

Production of the series embraced the frigid realities of its storytelling with filming commencing both in Alaska and the icy plains of Iceland, pushing cast and crew to brave the biting cold, with temperatures plummeting to the -20 degrees Celsius range. Set in the darkness of the weeks following the winter solstice – heralding a fortnight devoid of sunlight – the show accentuates the isolation and icy grip of its Arctic-like environment, a sensation both Foster and Reis embody with unwavering conviction. Foster, in particular, impresses with her characterization of Chief Danvers – an “Alaskan Karen” as she wittily described in an interview, capturing her character’s nuanced persona.

Why does murder in frostbitten landscapes captivate the imagination of crime fiction aficionados? The phenomenon is widespread, with notable entries like Noah Hawley’s Fargo and its five successful seasons to its name, which makes the most of Minnesota’s relentless winter as a constant narrative force. This chilling theme permeates literature as well, with Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander novels setting their frosty stage in Sweden’s icy town of Ystad, and Arnaldur Indridason’s Inspector Erlendur series venturing into Iceland’s sub-zero realm. The cinema of the 21st century continues this legacy with films like Whiteout, In Order of Disappearance, and Polar.

Digging further into True Detective: Night Country, one can discern why this sub-genre remains in vogue and how it serves as a lucrative means to traditional whodunnit storytelling. A stark lack of resources punctuates these narratives; with the bone-chilling remoteness comes the expectation of less sophisticated forensic capabilities. This environment is ripe for a rudimentary approach to investigating crime scenes, one that is not reliant on cutting-edge technology.

The series showcases such resourcefulness when the discovery of three bodies, frozen within the ice, demands forensic expertise that Chief Danvers cannot access. Rather than admit defeat, she substitutes professional analysis with an initiative-driven approach, a sort of scrappy, yet endearing amateurism that enlivens the crime-solving process, having a veterinary friend of a junior officer confirm that death preceded freezing.

Apart from logistical limitations, the harrowing cold wreaks havoc on the human mind, magnifying grouchy dispositions and making sociopathic tendencies harder to conceal. This psychological disarray is palpable in Night Country, where one can witness the cracks in sanity—a scientist who mutilates himself in terror, a testament to the extreme mental states encouraged by such severe weather.

The tightly interwoven social fabric of these isolated places adds a further twist to the narrative. With privacy a rarity, personal lives invariably become tangled in the town’s collective consciousness. This contributes to a rich texture of interpersonal dynamics, with quips like Navarro’s to Danvers highlighting these complicated but poignantly human connections, “Is there anybody in this town you haven’t hooked up with?”

This formula of blending crime with severe climatic conditions has become an almost essential trope in television, with many series opting to include cold-themed episodes, as seen in Doctor Who, Castle, Monk, Psych, and Elementary. These inclusions underscore the draw of such narratives, and perhaps the acclaim received by True Detective: Night Country might prompt the addition of a ‘Murder and Extreme Weather’ category on streaming platforms.

Through the lens of the season’s enthralling storyline and the characters so vividly enacted by Foster and Reis, the series deftly explores the human condition in the face of nature’s bitter extremes, underscoring the perennial appeal of Arctic noir. The frigid, unforgiving landscape serves not only as a setting but also as a character in its own right, shaping both the narrative’s tone and tempo. As the characters navigate dark winter days and even darker secrets, the chilling essence of True Detective: Night Country weaves an indelible thread in the tapestry of crime fiction lore.

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