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Darkness at the Break of Noon

Why do people get drawn to Alaska I’ll never know. Don’t get me wrong: Thirty years ago, I almost went there to adventure, live and maybe die there. I was working for the federal government, losing my vital energies, my ‘way’ and my mind. So, I quit and decided to take up an offer to More

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Why do people get drawn to Alaska I’ll never know.

Don’t get me wrong: Thirty years ago, I almost went there to adventure, live and maybe die there. I was working for the federal government, losing my vital energies, my ‘way’ and my mind. So, I quit and decided to take up an offer to teach English in Istanbul, instead of buying a slide-in for a rough-and-ready pickup truck. I pictured myself as John Steinbeck in his neat little memoir, Travels with Charley (1962), about his trek to find the soul of America. I hoped to write my pent-up novel, and to revisit the sentimental but powerful works of Steinbeck, especially his trilogy that wonderfully depicts the life and times of the downtrodden: Cannery Row, Tortilla Flat, and Sweet Thursday. But I went overseas instead and have stayed all this time ‘here’ and can only long now, in my olding, ailing age to go home to America, still lost.

Alaska. One thinks of Jack London’s Yukon classic, Call of the Wild (1903). I thought about the Alaska Maritime highway stretch from Bellingham (WA) through Vancouver through to Anchorage, maybe beautiful, but probably treacherous — maybe David Lynch-like, Lost Highway darkness waiting. Slippery roads of ice. A thought sparked: Alaska — wasn’t that where that contracting psychologist who went on to set up Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (wink, torture) for the CIA’s black sites hailed from? Even that Navy SEAL, who broke omerta-like protocol and wrote a memoir (No Easy Day, 2011) about the take-out of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, came from there. Exxon Valdez. The Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline System. Sara Palin waiting, speaking of laying pipe. It’s a great place to study climate change, and how the permafrost is melting and releasing prodigious amounts of methane gas that could end Us. Alaska. It’s a crazy-seeming place, where one can not only imagine bears shitting in the woods but driving through them, too. Mostly, it seems like a dark, unforgiving place. But now, I’m thinking, I might have been better off having taken that trip by campervan all those years ago.

It’s all worth ruminating on, as I begin watching Season 4, Episode 1, “Part 1,” of True Detective: Night Country. This fourth installment of the crime miniseries (six episodes each) stars Jodie Foster as Liz Danvers, and Kali Reis (Black Flies, 2023) as Detective Evangeline Navarro. It’s set north of the Arctic Circle in the town of Ennis. Liz Danvers tells us early in the opening episode, “Some people come to Alaska to escape from something. Well, this is Ennis; nobody ever really leaves.” The episode begins with an indigenous hunter looking down with a rifle at a herd of milling reindeer as the sun sets for six months. As the hunter is about to pull the trigger, there is a mysterious disruption and the herd panics into a stampede that ends with an apparent group suicide. The tone is set.

Eschatology will figure in, it seems. Early in, Liz is called in to investigate the disappearance of eight staff members at Tsalal Arctic Research Station. When she arrives, she asks a delivery person, who had called the cops when he found the place abandoned, what they were researching at the station. He answers, “The origin of life.” She says back, cooly, “Oh, that old one.” A similar chord is struck later in the episode when detective Evangeline is talking with her estranged ex- and they briefly discuss theistic values:

He: Do you believe in God?

Evangeline: Yes.

He: That must be comforting to know you are not alone.

Evangeline: No. We’re alone, and so is He.

Liz and her wizened ways will create frisky tension when she talks with Evangeline, with whom she has an unresolved set of issues, that will get ‘resolved’ as they work reluctantly together to solve the mysteries. The first mystery is who belonged to the severed tongue found by Liz at the station. It is aboriginal, Liz notes, due to the markings on the palate. But Evangeline has sallied into local mystical regions that contain insights Liz has no present door to.

This dialectical approach is somewhat bizarre. One imagines Good Cop Bad Cop working the perp together for justice, but not getting along with each other, sometimes seeming to detest the other’s world view and approach. The series opened in 2014 with Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey in episode one, “The Long Bright Dark,” wherein Harrelson’s detective Marty Hart can barely tolerate partner Rust Cohle, a seeming loner and existentialist naysayer. Liz is somewhat like Marty Hart and Evangeline has some chords of Rust already sounding. In the series, featuring such buddy problems, The Long Bright Dark could only lead on the lost highway to Night Country.

The series delivers lurid evidence of humankind’s lack of success in entirely breaking free of his native animal disposition. Marty and Rust must come to terms with taboo and ritual and animistic features that are shocking to one’s presumptions about the institutional stability of civilization. Murders are lurid, cruelty is prevalent, hatred of human being itself seems on display. We get similar reads on human corruption and the fragility of integrity in the other seasons. Though I don’t know it to be the case, it’s easy to see the connection of the HBO series to the old magazine, True Detective, which was founded in 1924 as True Detective Mysteries and ran to 1995. Its often lurid contents were hugely popular, with two million Americans reading TD or some derivative each month. The HBO series casts a more highbrow pall over the seediness of our lives, which is rich with disturbing metaphysical questions about purpose but also deepens the funk you feel yourself falling into as you watch events unfold. Like Mose Allison once sang, “You don’t need to go to Off-Broadway to see something plain absurd.”

One phenomenon that struck me while watching this episode was product placement. It used to be a kind of interesting to see how such placements were handled, where and when Heineken was on display, the product coming from a funder of the film, often. Here, the products, all kinds, are boldly displayed and seem almost a character in the plot. The most desolate place you can go to can be made to seem like you’re home again if you surround yourself with product. Even not so desolate places, like Australia, have companies (US Foods) that cater to yearning American expats by offering the crap they associate with home — like Twinkies, Crisco, Aunt Jemima, Cheese-Its, etc. This is striking in the episode, seeming to replace the concept we used to associate with soul. The evil excesses of consumerism also seems at least metaphorically relevant.

The fourth iteration of the series, Night Country, is the first without producer Nic Pizzolatto, and the first to feature two females in the lead. I last saw Jodie Foster as lawyer Nancy Hollander in The Mauritanian (2022), a story about Mohamedou Ould Slahi who fights for his freedom after being detained and imprisoned without charge by the U.S. Government for years at Guantanamo. [IMDB] More evidence of our collective corruption and cruelty. Foster has been toiling in the shabbiness of our lives for a long time now — from junior prostitute in Taxi Driver (1976) to getting gang-raped on New Bedford pool hall table in The Accused (1988) to an FBI agent in Silence of the Lambs (1991) — but she also brings intelligence and honesty to life-affirmation, such as in the film, Contact (1997). And for this project, Foster has lost her familiar Yale acting voice (or whatever it is), which would seem out of whack here.

Dark Country seems reminiscent of other Alaska-evil-doings films. I’m thinking of Nic Cage in The Frozen Ground (2013), where Cage plays a State Trooper on the trail of a serial killer (based on fact). And another is Insomnia (2002), a thriller with Al Pacino, who plays an LA detective sent to the North during the dark season to investigate a murder (also based on a true Norwegian story).

Dark Country also features an excellent soundtrack (Spotify), featuring “Bury a Friend” by Billie Ellish as the theme song.

There is one other image I have of Alaska up beyond the Circle. Mary Wollstonecraft’s monster. Made of graveyard body parts sewn together, and reanimated by electrification by Dr. Frankenstein (the real monster of the story), the monster, which has spread panic among humans everywhere it goes, like a gain-of-function virus, flees to the cold northern climes and is last seen going from floe to floe in the darkling sea. Awastling in the wasteland. And this too strikes me as an appropriate metaphor for monster-making and the historical process of the human condition.

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This content originally appeared on and was authored by John Kendall Hawkins.

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