Issa López is a bit anxious as we hop on a video call to discuss the fourth season of “True Detective.” For what it’s worth, though, it’s a pretty big deal for her. She’s the first female showrunner, writer, director and executive producer of the previously mostly white male-helmed and -centered anthology thriller usually plotted around cases of sinister, mortal horror.
And with its latest outing, López turns much of that on its head by infusing the HBO series with more cosmic horror in a story that aligns two female detectives (Kali Reis and Jodie Foster) in a frigid Alaska’s monthslong period of endless night (hence the season’s subtitle, “Night Country”).
When López and I finally got a chance to speak, it was just nine days before the season’s premiere this Sunday. So, she was naturally feeling the energy around that as reviews began trickling in. “I don’t wish it on the worst of my enemies,” she tells me. “The fucking instrumental waiting for the reviews is horrible.”
Before I bring up the fact that reviews of “Night Country” at the time of our conversation were, actually, overwhelmingly positive, she quickly added that she was thrilled about this but it hadn’t placated her restlessness yet. As she reminded me, there were still more reviews to come. Plus, the audience had obviously not watched it yet.
“I hate the idea of jinxing everything,” López continued. “You become so superstitious in this business, I’m telling you.”
I believe it. To add to that, “Night Country” has been years in the making, beginning first as a stand-alone Western whodunit that López began penning in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, long before HBO came calling. What you’ll see Sunday is a sharp and fiercely feminine addition to “True Detective” that is expectedly disturbing but in a whole new way.
And, as many others have pointed out, it is superb.
Not just because the past two seasons of “True Detective” were subpar and the show needed this kind of a recalibration, or something, to restore confidence among viewers like me who had grown less enthusiastic about it.
Rather, because López and her team were very intentional about making “True Detective” work for the kind of story she wanted to tell — and the final product proves that they tried like hell to make sure they succeeded.
That included hiring consultants and producers like Cathy Tagnak Rexford and Princess Daazhraii Johnson to the already impressive roster including Foster, Barry Jenkins and Cary Joji Fukunaga to help ensure that the story, production and characters felt real and culturally authentic.
And it included finding a place in Iceland that resembled the show’s snowy, quaint and shadowy Indigenous setting when the real Alaska inspiration wasn’t equipped to handle the large production, which started shooting in December 2022.
This all began years prior in López’s Los Angeles apartment, well over 1,000 miles away from her native home in Mexico, where she was feverishly working on something brand new to her that would later become “Night Country”: a crackling murder mystery.
“It’s terrifying to do something you’ve never done before,” she conceded. “I’ve done comedy, I’ve done horror. I love this, but I’ve never done it.”
She perked up at the memory of challenging herself with this new venture. “You know what,” she said, recalling her own pep talk back then, “I was going to do it alone in my apartment, in the middle of the pandemic. So, if it was a miserable failure, nobody had to know. Right?”
She was obviously poking fun at herself there, because HBO later wanted her idea. And, well, now everybody knows about it.
“Night Country” manifests the series-ingrained brutality into a somehow even more disquieting murder mystery through López’s signature brand of genre folklore with a bleeding heart.
If you watched “Tigers Are Not Afraid” — her chilling 2017 directorial effort that follows children in Mexico, orphaned by a cartel war, who embrace the supernatural to survive — you’re well-enough primed for the uncanny journey that is “Night Country.”
Years after an already grisly case that detectives Liz Danvers (Foster) and Evangeline Navarro (Reis) worked on went horribly more awry, they are begrudgingly brought back together when a group of white male scientists suddenly vanishes.
Their actual fate is even more bewildering. Their bodies are found together naked in a heap, with their faces frozen in terror in the middle of an icy tundra. Possibly related to this is a cold case that Navarro’s been agonizing over: a missing young Iñupiaq woman whose disappearance has devastated and understandably frustrated the local community.
“Night Country” is at times lurid and almost impenetrably disconcerting. In addition to that ghastly image in the tundra, the two sleuths encounter a severed tongue during their investigation and faint apparitions when often they’re at their most vulnerable. A rattling watch indeed.
What could have possibly happened that made the scientists wind up like that? What exactly were they working on? What, if anything, does the missing woman have to do with it? And what haunting pasts are both Navarro and Danvers hiding from each other and the audience that’s influencing how they conduct this increasingly bizarre case?
These are the urgent questions that pulsate at the core of “Night Country.”
But, as López emphasizes, the season is nothing without the complexities of its female characters.
Those extend beyond the steely and practical Danvers, who is white, and the emotionally responsive Navarro to the locals, whose distrust in law enforcement is plenty valid as women around them end up missing or dead with no explanation. That’s even despite Navarro being part Iñupiaq as well as Dominican. (Reis is Cape Verdean and part Cherokee, Nipmuc and Seaconke Wampanoag.)
These conflicts help make the show deeply human.
The showrunner describes the season as “a little bit like Navarro, who’s such a badass, I think. But it has a heart, the way she has a heart.”
López takes a beat before adding: “I always try to put a little bit of a soul in it at the end. Especially in that last episode, I think that it can speak to emotions.”
Without spoiling the season’s conclusion, there is something to be said about the way characters throughout “Night Country” challenge and are challenged by both social and familial injustices to get closer to the truth — one that is often startling and cathartic in equal measure.
And that’s all as two very different detectives find a way to work together, even with vastly separate motivations and methods that come crashing to the fore as each of the six episodes unfolds. Part of that dynamic was driven by something López learned while working on the project and specifically when she met with Inuit people.
“My whole concept when I sat down with them [about] this dark season is how the darkness in all of us comes out and how we survived it,” she explained.
López recalled their response to that precisely. “They very pragmatically said: ‘The one thing that is most important for you to capture about the Inuit experience and the Indigenous experience is community. That we survive, especially in an environment as harsh as this, by sticking together, by standing together,’” she said.
That undercurrent of compassion is also propelled by López’s own instinct as a storyteller, one who’s just as fascinated by the macabre as she is with the ways in which we survive it.
In fact, that’s exactly the space she was in as she began writing what would become “Night Country.” “I was losing my mind, as we all were, in the throes of the pandemic,” López recalled. “Fortunately, the series is so gruesome and fucked up and dark because the pandemic was informing the emotions where it came from.”
As she pondered in a 2020 Vulture piece, though, she was also sorting through some pretty heavy questions about who humans will become, and how we’ll treat each other when and if we ever come out on the other side of, say, a cultural reckoning or a pandemic. She was trying, sometimes in vain, to prioritize a sense of hope.
And that’s what peers through even the darkest corners of “Night Country.”
“Not to be a nihilist or anything, but as an artist, you’re sometimes set up to be badass and go into very dark places,” López said. “Usually I go into stories with ’the ending is going to be terrible and everybody will suffer.′ But this Mexican — hopeful, sweet things come in the end.”
Sustaining that feeling off the page seems to be an ongoing battle.
“Going through the pandemic, there were moments that it felt like we were never going to get our lives back,” López continued. “Coming on the other side, there was a little hope of having gone through something like that would teach us some lessons and we would be slightly better.”
Just as quickly as she says that, though, it’s almost like the harsher reality invaded her mind once again. Have we actually learned anything?
“What we’re seeing around us is concerning,” she added.
That’s an understatement as we enter year five of the pandemic and the social climate being, well, what it is.
“It’s getting more complicated every single year,” López said. “In which case, I think that putting into the screen stories that represent those dark times, with the idea that if you go through the darkness that you carry yourself, you might come into the light on the other side.”
She noted that this sounded “a little trite.” But it’s something that she firmly believes, and that resonates deeply in her work, including in “Night Country.”
This sentiment of finding goodness in even the most frightening of circumstances goes as far back as her childhood in Mexico, particularly after her mother died when she was just 8 years old. Though her mother was also a fan of horror, especially Edgar Allan Poe, she wouldn’t let López or her sister watch or read anything in the genre.
But when she passed away, their father allowed them to watch whatever they wanted — as long as they discussed it with him first to prepare for it. It wasn’t just a talk about a movie, though. He acted out scenes from films like “Alien” and “The Shining,” much to López’s amazement.
“He was a raconteur,” she remembered fondly. “An incredible performer. I swear to you, I saw those movies in my head before I saw them in cinema. I knew exactly what that woman in the bathtub looked like. And I was like, yeah, I want to see it.”
A smile spread across her face as she shared this memory of her dad reenacting one of the most iconic moments from director Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 film.
Not only did that mean she wasn’t as unnerved by the scene when she finally watched it on the big screen, but it also helped ignite her interest in horror and its inspirations — a recurring one being grief, something she was sadly familiar with.
“It became a drug for me and an escape from my reality, which was very sad,” López said. “I had lost my mom. I felt very different from the other kids. And I felt very isolated.”
But through that devastation was a portal to a way for her to process it, one that she could create herself.
“If this world was not everything that existed, if there was a wider world out there that opened more possibilities, and the idea that maybe people that were gone were not really gone and you could find them again later — that felt very warm and loving to me instead of horrible,” she said.
It certainly creates a path forward, something that she was also clearly grappling with in 2020.
“That’s how I became very, very close to the idea that not every explanation has to be closed,” she added. “And there’s more to what you can see.”
We see that theory eerily incarnate particularly throughout Navarro’s story on “Night Country.” The detective struggles to manage her own personal losses with new ones threatening every turn and in a landscape that never seems to let up. Not to mention the stirring places that the season sends each of its characters as it reaches its shocking conclusion.
Though López herself isn’t Indigenous, that sense of delving into the uncanny as a way to reflect on or avenge a more horrifying reality like death or femicide, a long-standing issue in Mexico as well, connected her to the story.
Did she have any reservations about taking on this particular story as a non-Indigenous filmmaker?
“Completely,” she answered right away.
But she underscores that “Night Country” comes from a place of honesty, and that it returns her to a lingering theme in two of the four movies she’s directed — including “Tigers Are Not Afraid” — that deal with missing and murdered women, but in Latin America.
“Number one, I’m not a believer in borders,” López said. “I think that borders are a completely artificial deceit that exist for economical and political reasons. And they are lines drawn on paper by men, usually white.”
“The violence happening to women does not care about those lines,” López continued. “That said, I completely respect the very specific and distinctive experience of how this is happening with Indigenous communities in the northern part of the continent. So, I wanted to be respectful.”
But it was a screening of “Tigers Are Not Afraid” in Alberta, Canada, where more than half of the audience was Native, that solidified her decision to pursue the story of “Night Country” and work with the Indigenous community to do so.
“They responded very powerfully and positively,” López said, recalling the Canada screening. “They were moved and we could see each other in that moment, which is what I care about. So, I felt that given an opportunity, I was going to talk about it, but I wanted to do it responsibly.”
That entailed reaching out to Indigenous advisers to read early drafts of all the episodes. The director was very honest with me about that process.
“They were like, ‘Why do you want to talk about this?’” she recalled. “I told them, and it was completely different. This connected to the loss of my mother, which was not in violent circumstances, but it was very sudden and I never had a chance to say goodbye.”
With respect to the specificity of the Indigenous narrative in “Night Country,” López felt connected to it in a way she discovered particularly through the writing process. “I do understand the trauma of the sudden loss of that female center of your life,” López said. “When I told this story to the Indigenous advisers, they were moved. And they said, ‘You’re OK to tell this story.’”
That’s a blessing not all filmmakers attempt to earn today, and at a time when recent stories like “Reservation Dogs” and “Killers of the Flower Moon” help necessitate the need for greater Indigenous representation in front of and behind the camera.
“They could see that what I was doing was not a plot device,” López said. “To be talking about this that has been happening for centuries has nothing to do with the fact that it’s now around in media. But I believe it has to be done hand in hand with the community suffering these losses.”
With “Night Country” now in the can for López, and an increasing dearth of Latine stories on screen, has it inspired her to investigate more horror rooted in Mexican experiences in an anthology series format?
She’s apparently already been toying with that idea. “It could be really fun to do it with Latino and specifically Mexican folklore because men, women — there’s really fucked up, weird, beautiful imaginary there,” López said.
That’s another reason why she’s been working so hard, because the process to get something done can be long and grueling.
“And I have so many stories to tell,” she added. “So, this is a shoutout to everybody to give me the money and green lights so I can go and make my shit.”
That’s where hope comes in handy.
“True Detective: Night Country” premieres Sunday on HBO and Max.
The Stakes Have Never Been Higher
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