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Breaking Down the True Detective: Night Country Premiere—And Its Possible Supernatural Twist

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Warning: This post contains spoilers for the premiere of True Detective: Night Country.

A severed tongue. Vanishing scientists. Perpetual night. In the True Detective Season 4 premiere, all these things play a role in the mystery at the heart of the latest chapter of HBO's acclaimed crime anthology series.

Subtitled Night Country, Season 4 is the first entry in the franchise to be helmed by a showrunner other than series creator Nic Pizzolatto. It's also being touted as a return to form for the show. "[I]n many ways, [Season 4] feels closer than ever before to the anthology’s blockbuster debut," wrote TIME TV critic Judy Berman. "But this fourth installment, premiering Jan. 14 after a five-year hiatus, is also a reinvention, a reawakening, maybe even a rejoinder to everything that preceded it."

Directed by Mexican filmmaker Issa López (Tigers Are Not Afraid), who also wrote or co-wrote all six episodes, Season 4 takes the traditional neo-noir formula of True Detective and puts a new spin on it. The story takes place in Ennis, Alaska, a fictional mining town 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle where several weeks of every year are spent in a period of uninterrupted winter darkness known as polar night.

Described by its own welcome sign as "the end of the world," Ennis is a remote and insular place where the mining company and its supporters have frequently clashed with the local Indigenous community. Six years prior to the events of the show, a Native woman named Annie K was found dead with her tongue cut out. But her murder was never solved. The case going cold created a rift between police chief Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) and former detective Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis), who remained obsessed with it even after being transferred to the state troopers.

But when a group of eight international live-in scientists at the nearby Tsalal Arctic Research Station go missing, the ghost of Annie K's case once again rears its head.

Read more: Jodie Foster on Returning to Her Killer-Hunting Roots in True Detective: Night Country

What happens in the True Detective: Night Country premiere?

Kali Reis as Evangeline Navarro and Jodie Foster as Liz Danvers in 'True Detective: Night Country'
(L-R): Kali Reis as Evangeline Navarro and Jodie Foster as Liz Danvers in True Detective: Night CountryMichele K. Short—HBO

The premiere opens on Dec. 17, the final sunset of the year before polar night descends. At Tsalal, the station's scientists are whiling away the evening hours when one of them suddenly starts mysteriously seizing. "She's awake," he announces ominously just before the lights cut out.

It's not until three days later, Dec. 20, that a delivery man discovers the scientists have all disappeared, leaving only the aforementioned tongue behind. Later that day, Danvers, her insubordinate deputy Hank Prior (John Hawkes), and Hank's son Pete Prior (Finn Bennett), an up-and-coming officer eager for Danvers' approval, arrive at the lab to investigate and find a message left on a white board: "We are all dead."

When Navarro hears about the tongue, which appears to have belonged to a Native woman, she immediately confronts Danvers about a possible connection to Annie's case. While Danvers is initially reluctant to tie the Tsalal disappearance to Annie's murder, after going back through Annie's file, she discovers that a pink parka Annie was photographed wearing is also pictured in a photo of the scientists.

Meanwhile, Rose Aguineau (Fiona Shaw), a modern frontierswoman of sorts who makes her first appearance while in the process of gutting a dead wolf, has followed what appears to be the ghost of a man named Travis out into the snowy wilderness. There, she finds a horrific sight—the bodies of the scientists twisted together in a grotesque, icy mass, their faces frozen in expressions of agony and fear—and calls the police to the scene.

Is something supernatural happening in True Detective: Night Country?

Fiona Shaw as Rose Aguineau in 'True Detective: Night Country'
Fiona Shaw as Rose Aguineau in True Detective: Night CountryMichele K. Short—HBO

While previous seasons of True Detective have hinted at elements of the supernatural, the Night Country premiere offers more than a suggestion of it. Although the true nature of what's afoot in Night Country is still up in the air, López has said that the story was inspired by a pair of real-life mysteries surrounding two strange and, to some, inexplicable occurrences.

One was the 1872 case of the abandoned ship the Mary Celeste, in which 10 people onboard an American vessel en route to Italy vanished with barely a trace. The other was a 1959 event known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident, in which a group of nine Soviet cross-country skiers died under mysterious circumstances in the Ural Mountains. Recent research has attributed their deaths to an possible avalanche, but López told Vanity Fair that she doesn't necessarily buy that explanation.

"An avalanche doesn’t explain a lot of the details I think," she said. "Even if it did, I prefer the strange, incomplete answer. I think there is a fascination with puzzles that are still missing a couple of pieces, and that obsess us, and make us angry, and make us not stop thinking about them."

However, despite her fondness for unsolved mysteries, López said all of the pieces of the Night Country puzzle will be available to viewers before the big final reveal.

"I took the risk of putting everything on the table," she said. "[The character or characters who] committed the deed are right there in front of you through the entire series."

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Write to Megan McCluskey at megan.mccluskey@time.com