NIGHT COUNTRY’s Finale Fixed TRUE DETECTIVE Season 1’s Biggest Mistake

True Detective‘s first season is one of television’s best ever, but it’s not perfect. While the show more than delivered on its emotional promise, it failed to deliver on its plot’s. The finale revealed the series’ supernatural elements, so important throughout the first seven episodes, weren’t real. Rust Cohle’s visions were only figments of his imagination, and Carcosa was merely a house of human horrors rather than the realm of an evil god. It was a disappointing development because that paranormal aspect was a big part of what had made the show special. Abandoning that entirely and without warning at the very end was a mistake. That’s a mistake True Detective: Night Country did not repeat. Its finale delivered on season one’s promise by embracing True Detective‘s most powerful ideas about life while still leaving open the possibility there truly is “something out there.”

A woman sits on her outdoor porch while another woman stands away from her on True Detective: Night Country

Time might be a flat circle, but True Detective is not. Night Country‘s conclusion gave us something previous seasons hadn’t. It leaned into its mystical side rather than rejecting it. Until its fourth installment, True Detective always ended by ultimately rooting every resolution and mystery in the terrestrial plane. The show frequently teased the presence of supernatural forces, but everything that took place always had an entirely normal, human explanation to explain it.

That isn’t inherently bad. It actually stands as one of the series’ best recurring themes. It would be easy, even comforting, to blame paranormal forces for our actions. Putting the onus for our own atrocities entirely on us forces us to face what we’re capable of. That’s brutal and unforgiving, yet honest. It’s also an idea that is inherently better than the alternative. If the Yellow King or the “she” of Ennis aren’t real, we don’t have to fight them to make things better. We also don’t need to rely on their opposites to save us. The only evil we need to triumph over is our worst selves, and we’re a much less imposing enemy than a supernatural being. We’re also much more loving and forgiving than they could ever be.

A woman in a green winter hat holds another sick woman's head on True Detective: Night Country

True Detective: Night Country didn’t abandon that powerful idea. The finale revealed the scientists of the Tsalal station killed Annie Kowtok. An amoral CEO and desperate cop then covered up that heinous crime for their own gain. And the women of Ennis got justice for Annie K. when they drove those same men out into the snow. It wasn’t an evil god in the permafrost directing the townsfolk, it was their own conscience (or lack thereof). The only forces at work in the darkness were entirely human forces. Ambition, anger, greed, and vengeance are the realm of mankind.

What made Night Country‘s finale different than its counterparts is what also made it the show’s most satisfying ending yet. It did all of that without closing the door on the chance there’s more to existence than only this world and us. The fourth season used ambiguity to say more, that we might be part of something much bigger than ourselves as Rust Cohle thought. It’s “something” that goes beyond the events of small towns in Alaska and Louisiana. The skeptic Danvers saw strange, unexplained visions, same as Ennis’ true believers. The show also refused to tell us exactly how those men died in the snow, how Annie’s tongue showed up at the station, or why voices and spirits called out to Navarro to tell her things she couldn’t plausibly know otherwise.

Two hands with tribal tattoos touching fingertips on True Detective: Night Country

Night Country even refused to tell us what really happened to the missing Evangeline after she walked out onto the ice one more time. Did she finally join her mother and sister in the afterlife? Have the people of Ennis seen her spirit since she, the way Rose saw the dead Travis Cohle walking the ice? Did Evangeline appear on Danvers’ porch in the show’s beautiful last moment because she will forever be a part of Ennis and her old partner’s life the way Danvers’ late son watches over his mother? Or was Trooper Navarro actually alive and merely fulfilling the promise she made to return to her friend?

We don’t know and we never will, because True Detective, for the first time, refused to give us hard answers. It held us responsible for our actions while still saying there might truly be life beyond our world. Maybe ghosts are real. Maybe they aren’t. Same for the afterlife. It’s up to you to believe what you want for the reasons you believe.

A mom and son smile as they lie on their sides looking at each other on True Detective: Night Country

That’s as honest as saying we’re to blame for what we do. We all live with the unknown. Whether you firmly believe in supernatural forces or not, none of us can definitively prove what awaits us (or doesn’t) when we die. The best many of us can do is hope our loved ones aren’t truly gone when they leave us. Maybe they’re waiting for us to leave this plane, so full of pain, so we can join them forever in another one where death no longer matters. In that way maybe time is a flat circle, only that’s a good thing. We’re not trapped forever in a nightmare as Rust Cohle feared. Instead we’re forever with those we care about. Until we find out, however, we have to navigate the existence we have now the best we can.

In that way Night Country remained intimately connected to True Detective season one, which also provided a moving conclusion for its characters. The first season ended with an injured Rust telling his partner Marty Hart what happened as he was dying. Rust said he felt his late daughter and father’s presence in the darkness. That feeling gave him comfort before he returned to the land of the living.

Matthew McConaughey in True Detective

Was that just another false vision or something more? It didn’t matter, just as it doesn’t matter if Evangeline is still alive or not. Because while the chance “something” more exists beyond the world makes for a more compelling show, True Detective endures because of what it has always said about being alive. To live is to feel pain. Not only do we do terrible things to one another all the time, everyone we know and love will eventually die anyway. There’s a darkness to life we can never escape. But just as darkness cannot exist without light, evil cannot exist on its own. There is good in a universe where we are not alone. That’s something Rust Cohle, a man who feared an eternity trapped in a nightmare, realized during season one’s last moment.

As his friend helped him walk, Rust looked at the stars in the night sky, just as he once had in Alaska with his dad Travis. He’d realized there’s only real story of life, the oldest, a story of “light versus dark.”

Marty looked up and thought the dark had a lot more territory, but Rust told his friend he was looking at it all wrong. Rust said, “Once there was only dark. You ask me, the light’s winning.” Night Country‘s ambiguous finale, where light—through love, friendship, and hope—shone through so much darkness, said the same thing, just in its own way. In Ennis and everywhere else there’s a light that can be impossible to see if you can’t believe it’s there, but if you do “something” out there offers hope that one day we’ll say hello to those we once had to big goodbye.

Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on    Twitter and    Bluesky at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.

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