There are two historical enigmas that overtly inspired True Detective season four, subtitled Night Country: that of the Mary Celeste, a 19th-century American ship whose entire crew seemed to evaporate into thin air while the vessel was on a voyage to Italy; and the 1959 Dyatlov Pass incident, a case involving nine Soviet hikers who inexplicably abandoned their campsite, then froze to death in the nearby wilderness. But even beyond those, showrunner Issa López has stocked her chilly saga with references to culture, history, and true crime that both reinforce the themes of Night Country and draw a straight line between it and True Detective’s rich past, particularly the show’s zeitgeist-grabbing 2014 first season.
Below, you’ll find some of the most tantalizing allusions and Easter eggs we could tease out of the season’s first episode, titled simply “Part 1.” We’ll update the list as subsequent episodes are released each Sunday.
The Yellow King
The show’s first episode begins with a stark epigraph: “…For we do not know what beasts the night dreams when its hours grow too long for even God to be awake.” The text is attributed to Hildred Castaigne, a name that might be familiar to True Detective season one die-hards. Hildred is the protagonist of a short story found in Robert W. Chambers’s 1895 collection The King in Yellow, a key influence on Nic Pizzolatto’s original True Detective.
More specifically, Hildred is the unreliable narrator of a story called “The Repairer of Reputations.” He’s a delusional figure who believes himself to be the heir to a royal dynasty that descends from the stars and is driven mad, in part, by reading a fictional play also titled The King in Yellow. The story ends with him confessing to two murders, followed by an “editor’s note” that simply reads, “Mr. Castaigne died yesterday in the Asylum for the Criminally Insane.”
The line that opens True Detective: Night Country doesn’t actually appear in Chambers’s story; it was written not by the author but by López, presumably because she wanted to launch the show with something that spoke more specifically to its particular themes. But the callback to Robert Chambers indicates that while this version of True Detective will move the story in new directions, it’ll also consciously invoke what came before it. Time, after all, is a flat circle.
The Tsalal Arctic Research Station
The name of the mysterious lab at the center of Night Country’s primary enigma has a literary connection as well: It comes from Jules Verne’s 1897 novel An Antarctic Mystery, set in similarly chilly climes. The book is a sequel to Edgar Allen Poe’s influential novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, which apparently inspired Herman Melville and horror master H.P. Lovecraft, among numerous others.
Verne’s Tsalal is a strange, otherworldly island that is known to be populated by fierce “natives” who (we are told) are prone to attacking white explorers. But when Verne’s heroes arrive on the island after a long journey, they find it curiously empty of both natives and the strange vegetation they’ve heard stories of.
They posit that Tsalal was destroyed by an earthquake, before discovering remains that indicate that the Indigenous population actually died before that natural disaster occurred. Eventually, they come to believe that Tsalal’s islanders died after being exposed to a disease spread by Arthur Pym’s dog, a Newfoundland named Tiger. Given the tangled relationships between the white and native populations of Ennis, Alaska, in True Detective season four, it’s easy to draw speculative parallels between that story and this one.
Speaking of Ennis…
The word itself has Irish origins, and means “from the island.” From the island…of Tsalal?!
Lone Star Beer
Did you notice the bottle sitting next to a bowl of uneaten popcorn at the abandoned Tsalal station? It just so happens to be Lone Star, Rust Cohle’s preferred brew. Fun fact: True Detective season one was so popular that Matthew McConaughey’s Lone Star–guzzling apparently led to a spike in sales, at least in the UK.
The Blue King
The crab processing plant where we meet Kali Reis’s Evangeline Navarro is named “Blue King,” which also seems like a callback to Chambers. What’s next, the Carcosa Cannery?
Peer closely at the DVDs lined up on Tsalal’s shelves, and you’ll find this one to be conspicuously visible. John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic is about a group of researcher scientists in Antarctica—sound familiar?—being terrorized by the titular antagonist, a shape-shifting alien. López has called out Carpenter’s film as one of her favorites.
What’s in a Name?
Can it possibly be an accident that one of the slain scientists is named Ralph Emerson? That seems like a clear reference to the transcendental 19th-century essayist, a staunch advocate for individualism and the belief that nature is imbued with the power of the divine. Or that sweet Peter Prior’s son is called Darwin, a name with obvious science-vs-the-spiritual-realm connotations?
And then there’s paleomicrobiologist Raymond Clark, who shares his name with Raymond Clark III—a Yale laboratory technician who in 2011 pleaded guilty to the murder and attempted sexual assault of a Yale graduate student named Annie Le. (Whose own name evokes Annie Kowtok, the murdered Indigenous woman whose cold case still consumes Navarro—and Danvers notices that in an old photo, the show’s Clark is wearing a parka that looks an awful lot like Annie K’s.) Clark is currently serving a 44-year sentence.
Jodie Foster’s Danvers notes that before they disappeared, one of the scientists was apparently reading Cormac McCarthy’s 1985 novel—a violent, historically-inspired anti-Western about a young man who joins a band of outlaws who murder Native Americans. Topical!
Near the end of the episode, we see that Danvers has either intentionally or inadvertently arranged various bits of evidence in a massive spiral shape. It evokes the twisting orange peel we glimpse briefly in the show’s eerie, Billie Eilish–underscored opening credits—and the crooked spirals in True Detective season three that were themselves a callback to season one, when the spiral was used as a symbol of the pedophile ring at the center of the show’s first major mystery. We first saw the spiral carved into the back of the show’s first victim; the murderer himself had one scarred onto his own back.
Maybe Danvers’s spiral is a hint about Night Country’s own mystery. (There’s a spiral in this season’s teaser trailer as well, in footage that didn’t come from this first episode.) Maybe it’s just a callback. Either way, the spirals are spooky.