There were times, a year ago, in Iceland, on a glacier, in the dark, in temperatures well below freezing, when Issa López thought to herself: “Who wrote this? What is wrong with this person?” López, the showrunner and director of Season 4 of the HBO anthology series “True Detective,” had only herself to blame.
This shivery “True Detective,” subtitled “Night Country,” premieres on Jan. 14. Set in Ennis, a fictional town in northwest Alaska, it stars Jodie Foster as the chief of police and Kali Reis as an intimidating state trooper. Opening just as the area descends into months of unrelieved darkness, the six-episode season has an icy milieu and a female gaze forcefully distinct from the show’s past outings.
Created by Nic Pizzolatto, “True Detective” debuted nearly a decade ago as a bayou noir starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson. Sultry, macho and spanning two timelines set 17 years apart, it entwined a familiar serial killer investigation with sweaty philosophy and intimations of the supernatural. Though that first season had its critics, it made for essential, much debated viewing. The second season, set in an unglamorous Southern California exurb and starring Colin Farrell, Taylor Kitsch, Rachel McAdams and Vince Vaughn, made a smaller, grimmer splash, as did the third season, which starred Mahershala Ali and Stephen Dorff and relocated the action to the Ozarks.
That third season, which premiered in January 2019, attracted significantly fewer viewers. That might have meant the end of “True Detective.” But HBO believed the franchise could continue. The network began to search for a new showrunner for Season 4, preferably a woman of color. (Earlier seasons skewed overwhelmingly male and largely white, in front of the camera and behind it.) Among the potential candidates was López, a Mexican filmmaker who had written and directed a roster of Spanish-language features, including “Tigers Are Not Afraid,” a movie about missing and murdered women and children that mingled crime, fantasy and horror.
Foster was drawn in by the original script but asked that her character, a somewhat blinkered white woman, be aged up and that the story’s center to be ceded to Reis’s.Credit…Michele K. Short/HBO
That film impressed Francesca Orsi, HBO’s head of drama. The essence of “True Detective,” Orsi said by phone in a recent interview, “is the way in which the horror genre is encapsulated within the detective noir narrative.” Confident that López could accomplish this, Orsi invited her to pitch a new season.
López had spent nearly two decades pitching American networks and studios. She understood that network interest was no guarantee that a project would be made. And she knew that when it came to English-language work, she would be considered a risk, untried. So she decided there was no harm in dreaming big. And dark. And cold.
“You write the impossible,” López said during a video call last month. “You write what you want to see.”
Though López grew up in more temperate climates, she is a fan of the John Carpenter horror movie “The Thing,” set in Antarctica, and of the Alaskan vampire comic “30 Days of Night.” Assuming the project would never be greenlighted, she wrote what she wanted to see: an “existential whodunit,” as she put it, set in Alaska’s furthest, iciest reaches. To her surprise and mild dismay, HBO said yes.
“It was so much fun to dream that world,” López said. “Except then I had to go there and shoot it.”
This season — the first without Pizzolatto, though he retains an executive producer credit — can be seen as a photo negative of the first. It is chilly rather than steamy, shadowed rather than sunlit, tundra-dry instead of humid. Despite occasional flashbacks, it restricts itself to a single timeline. In the first season, women appeared mostly as beleaguered wives or prostitutes. Here the gaze and the detectives are defiantly female.
Is this still “True Detective”? While Pizzolatto was not available for comment, López argues that it is. This season retains what she sees as the series’s essentials: two detectives, shrouded in secrets and enmeshed in a landscape that holds secrets of its own. The series, she believes, favors a kind of expressionism in which the inner lives of the characters explode into the environment.
“The darkness around them comes from inside of them,” she said. That’s certainly true of this season, though the earth’s axis may want to have a word. And if López exchanges the first season’s meditation on male toxicity and identity for a consideration of female victimhood and agency, she also returns the series to its roots in cosmic horror, even calling back to the certain Season 1 symbols, like the spiral.
Orsi sometimes doubted the wisdom of having handed a marquee franchise to someone with little television experience, but López’s choices and attitude reassured her. “Every step of the way, I was taken aback by how confident she consistently was about what we were asking of her,” Orsi said.
That confidence also inspired Foster, who hadn’t done substantive television work since her breakthrough role in the 1976 film “Taxi Driver.”
“I read the script and I was like, this is beautiful,” Foster, sitting beside López, said. “There was so much that I was curious about and that I wanted to learn from. Then I met Issa and that really nailed it. I could tell that she had a collaborative spirit.”
The initial episode finds Foster’s Liz Danvers called into investigate the sudden disappearance of the employees of an Arctic research station. (These men are later found naked and frozen into a single block of human ice. Call it a cold case.) The mystery reunites her with Reis’s Evangeline Navarro. Former colleagues, they fell out years ago, in the wake of a gruesome domestic violence case.
In the initial drafts, López wrote Navarro as Latina. But after researching the region, López decided that the character should have Native ancestry, specifically Iñupiaq. Foster asked for other changes. She felt that Danvers, a somewhat blinkered white woman whom she nicknamed “Alaska Karen,” should be aged up and that she should cede the story’s center to Navarro.
Previous iterations of “True Detective” had depended on at least two major stars. Reis, a former professional boxer who made her acting debut two years ago in the revenge drama “Catch the Fair One,” is a relative newcomer. But no one mistrusted that she could shoulder a series, even as she differs in meaningful ways from Navarro.
Reis, who was born and raised in Rhode Island, is of Wampanoag and Cape Verdean descent; Navarro is Iñupiaq and Dominican American. Reis’s language is not Navarro’s language, her ceremonies not the character’s. But they share a single-mindedness, a sense of duty and purpose. So Reis threw herself into research. “I just really want to make sure that I represented Alaska Natives, Iñupiaq people,” said Reis, who sat beside Foster and López in last month’s video interview. (They were all dressed in polite neutrals, though Reis had accessorized her outfit with a fierce-looking choker.) “I didn’t grow up seeing my face on the screen. I wanted to make sure that they could look on the screen and see themselves.”
Though Navarro is deeply intuitive and alive to the supernatural, Reis was determined that she present as a modern woman and an effective officer, avoiding cliché. “She’s not going to be the token Native,” Reis said.
To further that, she met with various Iñupiaq women, as well as several Native state troopers. She quizzed them, respectfully, on what they ate, what they wore, what slang they used. She asked the troopers how they squared their responsibilities to their community with their duties as law enforcement officers.
Informed by these conversations, she, Foster and López set about creating what the earlier seasons of “True Detective” hadn’t made space for: women who are as changeable, difficult and complicated as the men.
“We’re not really used to seeing women like that,” Foster said.
López had done her own research, some online, scouring YouTube and Instagram for videos, some on a visit to Alaska, where she sat with Inuit men and women, ate the caribou and seal they hunted, went snowmobiling with them on the frozen seas. At a local grocery store, she noted the ruinous price of Oreo cookies. That went into the script, too. With the help of Barry Jenkins, an executive producer, the production also brought on Cathy Tagnak Rexford, a native Alaskan who is partly of Iñupiaq descent and Princess Daazhraii Johnson, who identifies as Neets’aii Gwich’in, as producers. As López told it, Rexford and Johnson asked for more scenes of food-making, of laughter, of community. (They could not be reached for comment.)
As Alaska lacked the infrastructure to support a six-month shoot, the production had to make do with an area outside of Reykjavik and some computer-generated caribou and polar bears. The shoot was, Foster said, an intimate experience, with the dark and the frigid mitigated by the camaraderie and the beauty of the Northern Lights.
Perhaps that beauty softened some of the script’s elements. There is no shortage of existential horror (body horror, too — missing eyeballs, a severed tongue), but the show entertains the possibility of justice and the notion, not entirely foreign to the “True Detective” franchise, that if other people are the source of most suffering, they can also provide comfort.
All these months later, cozy on a sofa with her colleagues, López can look back on the experience warmly. “I learned to love the ice and the cold air, and now I miss it,” she said. “I would love to go back there for a vacation. Never to shoot again, though.”