‘True Detective: Night Country’ Ending: Creator Issa López on Those Killers, Season 1 Ties and What’s the Deal With Annie’s Tongue?

Rexa Vella

‘True Detective: Night Country’ Ending: Creator Issa López on Those Killers, Season 1 Ties and What’s the Deal With Annie’s Tongue?

SPOILER ALERT: This interview contains spoilers from “Part 6,” the season finale of HBO’s “True Detective: Night Country,” now streaming on Max.

After flirting with the supernatural all season, the finale of “True Detective: Night Country” revealed that the show’s killers were very much real human beings.

And the two women at the center of creator Issa López’s story — the true detectives Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) and Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis) — not only solve the mystery of what happened in their town of Ennis, Alaska, but each arrive at a place of personal peace.After the individual torments that plagued them throughout the six-episode series, Navarro and Danvers find, according to López, a “love, the non-romantic love” that heals both of them, and resets them so they can go on — even if Navarro’s fate is somewhat nebulous.      

But back to the mystery. As Navarro had intuited immediately, a murder years before led to the 2024 deaths of the TSALAL scientists. Activist Annie K. (Nivi Pedersen) discovered that not only were the scientists faking environmental data for Silver Sky Mining — the company that’s been poisoning Ennis — but they actually wanted the permafrost to melt so they could better conduct their experiments. In a justifiable rage, Annie destroyed their research in the secret lab under the TSALAL station, and when the men caught her, they stabbed her and beat her, seemingly to death. When her boyfriend, scientist Raymond Clark (Owen McDonnell), went to weep over her body and Annie showed signs of life, he smothered her with his T-shirt.

This is the confession Clark delivers — under considerable duress — to Navarro and Danvers on a freezing, stormy New Year’s Eve at the TSALAL station. What he can’t tell them, because he doesn’t know, is what happened to his colleagues years later — after they disappeared from TSALAL, and were later found in a frozen, naked corpsicle pile on the ice. Clark is convinced that it was Annie who’d taken her revenge, and describes how he’d hid for a week under the hatch to the lab. “She’s been hiding in those caves,” Clark says, half-insane. “Before she was born, after we all die: Time is a flat circle. And we are all stuck in it.” Fans of “True Detective” surely issued a collective gasp upon hearing the most famous quotation from the first season of the series, as delivered from the fried, brilliant mind of Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey).

Courtesy of HBO

It’s a long night for everyone, and by the time the northern lights streak the New Year’s Day sky, Clark has purposefully chosen to freeze to death, the power has gone out and both Navarro and Danvers have ventured out onto the ice, hearing the whispers that have called to them throughout the series. For Navarro, that Danvers nearly dies falling through the ice — she thinks her dead son Holden is trapped under it — is what snaps her back to reality, and they end up saving each other, with Danvers finally grieving her son.

“That they embraced at the end is all the companionship that the two of them need,” López tells Variety.

Danvers and Navarro toast to the New Year, and finally admit that they’ve become friends. “Try to come back, OK?” Danvers says to Navarro, who clearly still feels the pull to wander. After Navarro mentions the hatch again, Danvers, going on a hunch, puts a UV light on it, and finds a handprint with two shortened fingers, indicating that Blair Hartman (Kathryn Wilder), had been there. Blair is one of the women of Ennis who have multiple jobs, and hover around the periphery of the town — López calls them, “the women who know everything.”

With the blizzard over, Navarro and Danvers go to speak with Blair, and Bee (Diane E. Benson), clearly the group’s leader, takes charge of the conversation — or the “story,” as she puts it. “Those fuckers killed Annie K.,” Bee says, as she describes how she had discovered the underground lab while cleaning at TSALAL, and then figured out what had happened to Annie six years earlier. This band of women then came together to kidnap the TSALAL scientists, busting in with guns and corralling them into a truck. After making them strip and forcing them to walk out onto the ice, Bee says she was leaving their fates up to nature. “I guess she ate their dreams from the inside out, and spit their frozen bones,” she says with a shrug. As the women stand in formation against Danvers and Navarro, Danvers tells them the case has been officially closed. “Thought you’d want to know, seeing as they were your employers and all,” she says.

In the final sequence of “True Detective: Night Country,” set a few months later, Danvers gives an official account of what happened in the New Year and its aftermath. Peter (Finn Bennett) should be in the clear after he killed his father, Hank (John Hawkes), while defending Danvers — she tells investigators that Hank’s disappearance seems like “a deal gone bad,” covering for her deputy. They ask her about the oddness of Clark dying in the same manner as his colleagues. “Incredibly odd,” she says. “Some questions just don’t have answers.” As Danvers says one thing, we see another, with her arriving at Navarro’s place to find it empty, but with a polar bear stuffed animal on the bed, along with a phone containing Clark’s video confession of everything TSALAL was doing covering for the mine, which has now been shut down as a result of the video being leaked and going viral.

The audience sees Navarro setting out to walk across the ice, but this time, she looks resolved and happy, not frightened. As we watch Danvers and her stepdaughter Leah (Isabella Star LaBlanc), happy and getting along, one of the investigators asks about sightings of Navarro, who has become a mythical figure. “Well, this is Ennis,” Danvers says, over a serene scene of her and Navarro sharing space on a deck that overlooks a lake. “Nobody ever really leaves.”

In a wide-ranging interview, López discusses the details the finale, where Danvers and Navarro end up, the mystery of Annie K.’s tongue — and confirms that yes, Rose’s (Fiona Shaw) late ex-boyfriend was Rust Cohle’s father.

I’ve seen people worrying on social media that the show wouldn’t have enough time for the mysteries to be resolved — but most of them are! What questions did you know you wanted to answer definitively in the show’s finale? 

Who did it! It’s a whodunit. There’s a satisfaction in knowing what happened. It’s two different crimes and they’re connected, and we’ll get an answer on both.

Most importantly, I want to know honestly if our characters are going to find their own answers, and I think very much that they do. One thing that we hear Danvers say in Episode 5 is, “You need to know when to stop asking questions.” That’s one line — the other one is, “Not every question has an answer.” So there’s things that will be up for our audience to decide on themselves. And that was very important to me too.

Courtesy of HBO

At what point in your writing process did you know who had killed Annie and what happened to the Tsalal scientists? Can you take us inside your process for how those things were related?

We know who put those men in the ice. What happened after the men ran into the ice? That’s up to you.

I knew the moment that I wrote, “Men disappear in an Arctic research station…” that there would be a body part that would connect with an older crime. So that’s how it all started.  And then I thought, “What is going to be interesting?” Lynch absolutely took care of ears forever.

He sure did.

There is a Japanese movie by a very demented and incredible Japanese director [Takashi Miike] that did that movie “Audition.” And there’s a tongue actually flapping on the floor in that movie, and it’s an image that stays with you. I thought that that would be a nice reference. Nobody has caught it up until this moment.

You have eight missing men, and you have a human tongue on the floor. It had those elements, and it would be boring that it’s some other guy — so it had to be a woman. Because of the area I was working in, it was a perfect opportunity to talk about murdered and missing Indigenous women. Started piecing together: I understand that the men were implicated in the death of this woman. In what shape? I still didn’t know. The motivation, I still didn’t understand, but I knew it happened then. So it came to reason that what takes them at the end is a result of what happened with that woman.

One thing I love to do in my work is underline the concept that we are at the point in history where we can’t trust the justice machine to come and help us, and that justice needs to be manifested in a different way. So who would avenge the death of this woman? It was obvious that it was the very same women that had been suffering this.

Day one, I knew those two things, and that’s all I knew. I needed to construct everything in between.

How did you come up with this secret society of women in Ennis, who are the ones who’ve taken revenge against the scientists who’d killed Annie?

As a Mexican immigrant who’s now a citizen in the United States, it’s such an interesting thing to realize that everybody working beyond the spotlight is invisible. Usually, the waiter that comes to your table in the restaurant is an aspiring actor or writer, or perhaps a French immigrant. But it’s rarely the Mexican that just crossed the border that is struggling, or the Ecuadorian. Those are the ones that pick up the plates, and when you call them, they quickly say, “I will call your waiter.” We’re not supposed to interact! They’re the people that show up in the office after everybody left.

However, they’re witnesses to everything that happens in all these places; they’re the invisible witnesses. And I thought that the working women in this town could be pretty invisible, which is unfortunate. But at the same time, it gives you a chance to observe everything, and do things that nobody will notice — because nobody’s looking at you.

And with Annie’s murder— ultimately, we see that it was Clark who killed her, even though he says to Danvers and Navarro that he “would never hurt her.” Tell me about that decision — to show what really happened as we hear his lie.

I establish in the series that you cannot rely on the stories that your characters are telling you when you see what actually happened — as happens in real life. But the question here with Clark is how much he believes what he’s saying. And I think he does. It’s torturing him, because at a certain level, he knows exactly what he did by stopping her from breathing.

This woman is moments away from dying anyway. And in his mind, he wants to stop it, the way that you put a wounded animal out of his misery. But she could have been saved? I think she could have been saved, or at least it could have been attempted. And it’s possible that the other scientists, after the horror and the shock, would have allowed it. And how much of that decision is to quote, “stop Annie’s suffering?” Or knowing that, thinking that if he doesn’t do it, one of the scientists is going to come and kill her with no love. Or that Clark also needs that secret to stay a secret.

After that, he says, “At least her death could mean something.” He’s still obsessed with finding this life-changing scientific finding. He’s still losing his mind, and it’s pure guilt — and he feels that she’s going to come for him. So this is, I think, the origin of his mental state, and the cognitive dissonance between the actions he took and the fact that he loved that woman more than life.

Courtesy of HBO

Where does Navarro go when she sets off across the ice? Is she in a place of peace? Is she alive?

Navarro — definitely she’s at peace. That decision is very different than the Navarro that we see in the station listening to voices and walking into the ice. Then, she’s terrified thinking that she’s going to her destruction. She’s been fighting that call for a long, long time.

And what she finds once she surrenders to it is that the voices are trying to embrace her, and give her something that is a missing piece of her life. So now she can, with that knowledge, make a decision about this instinct that she always had, of, “Just go, and keep on going.” And do it at peace with herself. If that takes her to the afterlife or not, it’s a little bit open for interpretation.

There is going to be a part of our audience that wants to believe in the poetry of her just leaving to be with the spirits of the people she’s lost, and not be alone in the way that she is now. And that’s OK! That’s an interpretation.

My colleague and I had very different interpretations of the final shot of the series of Navarro and Danvers. I’m a literalist, so I thought, “Oh, they’re hanging out at a lake house.” And she said, “I don’t think that’s the corporeal Navarro.” So tell me about that.

When the author speaks, it’s over. And I don’t want to cut out the reading that your colleague had. I love, love, love that, because what you two did is what I want our audience to do. If the Navarro that comes back is her spirit, there’s a beautiful poetry into that: It’s a spirit at peace, not like the apparitions that she saw before. And if she is Navarro after going on a walkabout and coming back to hang with her friend, that’s beautiful too.

Courtesy of HBO

Danvers is very broken at the start of the show. Where did you want her to be at the end?

Danvers is a person that has absolutely frozen herself, petrified herself, hardened herself. Jodie and I worked very hard on the concept that she was not turning to this horrible, marvelous — I love her — bitch because of the tragedy she went through. As Connelly states, she was terrible before! She was always impossible, but she became a lot tougher and bitter and angrier after it. And it was her way to deal with it.

When she’s quiet, she can hear Holden’s voice. And she can hear “Twist and Shout” when she opens the fridge, which is the song that Holden loved. And when she’s alone, she puts that white noise machine to cut all of this. She doesn’t listen to music because music accesses emotions and brings messages. So she cuts it all with a white noise machine, and never listens to anything.

She’s terrified of whatever will happen if she opens to the possibility of listening, which is the thing that Navarro knows how to do from the very beginning. At the end of the story, she is incapable of denying the fact that if you listen, there’s voices that want to tell you things — and that allows her to break down and cry for her loss. And cry in someone else’s arms who also understands loss, and give in instead of resisting.

So the Danvers on the other side is the Danvers that has made peace with her loss, that can think about her child. And that can now enjoy her other child. Finally!

You mentioned the tongue earlier, and throughout the finale Danvers and Navarro keep asking people whether they had cut out Annie’s tongue. When I interviewed John Hawkes, he thought that Hank had cut out her tongue.

Well, I’ll tell you the two stories of the tongue, so our audience can pick. Annie was killed by the scientists, as we know. Clark finishes her off, and then they panic and they call the mine. The mine sends Hank, who has a corrupt relationship with the mine, to take care of the body. So he takes her out of the station and dumps her in a place close to the area of conflict between the mine and the hunters, the people that live of the land. And there, he mistreats the body. He’s the one that kicks the body. He’s the one that cuts the tongue.

And all of this is to make it look like it’s a message about the activism against the mine. In my many conversations with John, this is not something Hank enjoys. He disconnects, and it’s a job. It doesn’t mean that he doesn’t haunt him. But I do believe that there is a slight psychopathic streak in Hank to be able to do that violence to a woman. He leaves a tongue there, and walks away.

So what happened to that tongue? The version that will work for the people that will read the series as a completely rational story is that the tongue was found by the people of the village. And then the women who know everything knew that they couldn’t take care of Annie’s body in the way that they would like. So one of them keeps a tongue as an act of reverence and kindness to the body that is still going to go through a lot of indignities. They preserve the tongue. Danvers says in Episode 2 that the tongue has some unusual damage, which could be because of freezing. And then when the women come into the station, they leave the tongue as a sign that now is the time of the truth of storytelling — of our storytelling. The stories that Annie couldn’t tell and was silenced for are going to come to the light.

The other version of events is: Annie is left there, and the tongue is cut and the tongue disappears into thin air. And it is Annie who comes with the women into the station, like she’s awake. Clark says, “I knew she was coming.” Annie does visit the station with the women, and leaves her own tongue, because she knows this is how it starts — that she can finally tell her story.

So it’s up to you to decide.

Does the show “True Detective: Night Country” believe in the supernatural?

The show “True Detective: Night Country” both believes in the supernatural and believes that there is a rational explanation in the everyday world for every single event that you see. Very much in the tradition of the original “True Detective” — where you can assume that Rust Cohle, in the very climax of the series, looking up above the altar in Carcosa of the Yellow King and seeing the spiral of the universe opening before him, is because he fried his brain with drugs years before. Or you can think that he’s actually peering into the Carcosa kingdom. It’s for you to decide.

The women throw the men into the night and the cold, and they died of exactly of panic-induced hypothermia and self-harm because of the cold. Are we going to go with that? Or are we going to go with that they faced something they’d woken up in that bone chamber, and that finally came to “claim their souls,” as Bee says.

Courtesy of HBO

How did you decide to weave in references to Season 1 of “True Detective”? I nearly fell off my couch when Clark said, “Time is a flat circle.”

I think it’s very important to say that it happens in the same universe. In the same reality where the events of “Night Country” happened, those horrible murders in Louisiana happened. Every time that it felt organic, I connected them, just to create a common universe — to say, “It is the same place.” So the moment that I knew that Rose had a lover, and it was Alaska where Cohle’s father had died, I had to check the dates and be very sure that it was feasible age-wise for all the characters to work like that. It is not a central part of the story, but it’s nice to know that there is a certain connective tissue between those.

And if you have an evil corporation in the first season where politicians and powerful people are cooperating with the government, isn’t it interesting that they have an investment in the company that is founding the mine in this town? It doesn’t mean that they’re doing bad things everywhere. It’s just bad money, and bad money brings bad things.

Right after the show premiered, you went on Twitter and asked fans to leave a review on Rotten Tomatoes, because the “bros and hard-core fanboys of S1 have made it a mission to drag the rating down.” What has that part of this experience been like for you? And have you been paying attention to online discourse about the show?

To tell you the truth, at the very beginning it was a little discouraging to see a negative reaction. There’s people that don’t like the series — that’s OK! There’s people that I trust their opinion, that don’t like things that are sacred to me. But it was discouraging to see that at least a certain amount of those came from — well, automatic reactions, let’s call them. I felt that people that feel positive to it should also speak up.

I really very quickly understood that it was useless to think about those reactions, because those are not going to be changed. And the truth of the matter is the series has been massively and beautifully embraced by people that were both familiar with the original series, and people that were not familiar with the original series. By the reviews, by the ratings.

Which of these characters have been the hardest to say goodbye to, and would you ever want to do another season of “True Detective”?

Oh my God, all of the characters! I love the series so much. I love making it so much. I love the actors, and we had so much fun. And obviously my two center darlings are Danvers and Navarro. And I just love them together. I just love how funny they are and how poignant and honest they become at the end. I love Prior! I want to know what’s going to happen with that kid. I adore Rose. I have a lot of children in this series, and I’m going to miss them all.

But I think all of them went through a journey that is final. They find themselves at the end, and that’s when you have to let them go — like children — once they find themselves. But on the other hand, yes, I would do another one.

The luxury that this particular series presents is that what makes it is a tone, and a certain way of looking at the world, and to America. And it allows for an exploration of the dark and macabre that I love. So yes, for sure.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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