Who Done It? Breaking Down the Finale of ‘True Detective: Night Country’

The sixth and final episode of ‘Night Country’ reveals the truth behind Annie Kowtok’s and the Tsalal scientists’ killings. Depending on, well, your definition of “truth.”

HBO/Ringer illustration

After four years away, True Detective returned for a new season with a sinistrous subtitle. We’re in Night Country now, and we’ve followed along each week to try to piece together, with the help of police chief Liz Danvers and detective Evangeline Navarro, who perpetrated those gruesome crimes in Ennis, Alaska. Read along for a breakdown of the Episode 6 finale.

Who Done It?

In the finale of True Detective: Night Country, characters stay up late on New Year’s Eve and try to finish the things they started. They listen to confessions, make personal connections, and lend neighborly helping hands. They battle through a deadly cold night and live to see the northern lights—and, eventually, the return of the long-gone sun. It sounds a lot like some sort of happy ending, right?

But Night Country tells a different story, one steeped in violent death and vengeful local lore, one where resolution relies on grim resignation. Ennis, Alaska, is a close-knit town full of people helping people … get rid of bodies. It is a place where a key workplace performance indicator is the number of secrets one can keep. In the perma-darkness of the show’s midwinter Arctic setting, tomorrow never really feels like a new day, and succeeding looks more like enduring. It’s no accident that the most satisfying moments in the sixth and final episode of Night Country either involve ghosts or are built on a foundation of lies.

It is December 31, the 14th day of the sans-sun stretch known as polar night, and detectives Liz Danvers and Evangeline Navarro are digging themselves a deeper hole—on purpose. Their objective: to gain access to the network of ice tunnels and caves that they’ve recently come to know as [points at TV screen] “the night country” and to see if they can glean any clues about the numerous still-unsolved murders. (Which have somehow still not attracted a single reporter?! You’d think at the very least there would have been one enterprising true crime/conspiracy influencer in a still-creased Canada Goose parka recording themselves whisper-shouting, “OK, you guys, so, you’ll never believe this” in front of Tsalal HQ.)

Night country, with its ice-blue walls and labyrinthine passages, is gorgeous and terrifying. Danvers and Navarro get the full experience, ducking and squeezing and plummeting through thin ice a good 15 feet without breaking a collarbone or twisting an ankle. Instead—jump scare!—they come face-to-face with their missing man, Raymond Clark, who is standing there petrified, wrapped in a blanket. He immediately turns and runs. Chasing him, they wind up in a subterranean ice lab with a ceiling that showcases the fossil of some ancient frozen creature (eel? megapede? DINO??) coiled in that familiar spiral shape. The scene looks a whole lot like the video the detectives saw of Annie Kowtok’s final moments. And with that, the Billie Eilish hits.

In the ice lab, Danvers and Navarro discover a tool with a sharp, star-shaped end that matches Annie’s 32 stab wounds. They also find and climb a long ladder tunnel that brings them to … the Tsalal lab, right where the show began. It remains as eerie as ever. The damn Ferris Bueller movie is still on. Wet footprints appear to disappear into a wall. Clark suddenly attacks, locking Danvers in a walk-in refrigerator with a “NO PROLONGED EXPOSURE” sign and clocking Navarro in the back of the head with a fire extinguisher. Danvers, summoning superhero strength, manages to rip a several-foot-long metal handle off of an industrial-grade freezer and uses it to shatter the glass, as one does. She arrives in time to stop Navarro—in a miraculous recovery—from beating Clark to death. Now they need him to talk.

And talk he does. (Well, after they duct-tape headphones to his ears and force him to listen, over and over, to Annie’s last screams.) More below on the specifics of his confession, but the major details were that (a) it was everyone else he worked with who stabbed her; (b) he loved her and would never hurt her; and (c) he was, however, the one who finished her off, strangling her as she struggled, his grasp exceeding her reach.

Danvers walks out of the room, leaving Navarro alone with her weapon and Clark; soon enough, we hear a gunshot. But it turns out to have been more of a warning. Clark, under pressure, recalls the night of the Tsalal scientists’ disappearance: Paranoid that the late Annie had finally “come for us,” he had raced to the ladder hatch before anyone else and held it shut for minutes, hours, days, a week; who’s to say, because after all [heavy sigh], “Time is a flat circle, and we are all stuck in it.”

By the end of the episode, Clark will be dead too, frozen in place on a snowy expanse, just like all the others. “That frozen motherfucker out there is the only witness we had!” Danvers screams, in an all-time great line delivery.

Then the power goes out. Things get cold. They’re nearing the brink of hypothermia and starting to hallucinate. They still don’t have a complete answer to “Who did it?” Perhaps that’s because they’ve been asking the wrong question. As it turns out, there are so many people involved in so many crimes that the better inquiry is more like: Who didn’t do it? So, with that, let’s do one final rundown of Night Country’s Rube Goldberg machine of perpetrators …

1. She/Her

Back in December, during a conversation I had with showrunner Issa López for a story I was writing about Jodie Foster, López shared a few memories from her childhood. Her mother died when she was very young, and her father, a college professor, “was broke as hell,” she said. “But he really wanted his daughters to experience the world, even if we didn’t have the means.” So whenever they could, they hit the road. López recalls “traveling through the entirety of Mexico and staying in little towns where there were no hotels. Sometimes we would knock on someone’s house and stay there.”

Often, upon arriving in a new place, López said, “The first thing my sister and I would ask was, like, ‘What are the legends here?’” One of their favorite places to visit was a town in Veracruz, “which is supposed to be the very center of all witch activity in Mexico. All the brujas had come from that town or passed through.” (She remembers locals telling her how to spot a witch.) “The mythology and the magical sense of these towns,” López said, “informed my writing forever.”

In and around Ennis, Alaska (fictionally located way the hell up on the state’s northern coast), there don’t seem to be witches, exactly. But there is something powerful, something judicial, something magical, something hyperlocal. The director hinted on Instagram a few weeks back that the bloody-handed woman drawn by little Darwin, for example, was indeed a rendering of the legend of Sedna, a spirit that lives in the seas and dishes out both karmic plenitude and justice. Which brings us to …

2. The custodians of Ennis

During the course of their One Wild Night at Tsalal, both Danvers and Navarro have game-changing revelations befitting their investigative styles. For Danvers, it’s a bit of typical connecting-the-dots police work. While Clark was holding that latch shut, who was on the other side? Through some sort of fortuitous high school chemistry hack involving a randomly grabbed bottle of Scientific Solution and a conveniently available UV light, Danvers reveals a handprint that’s recognizably missing a few fingers.

Navarro, meanwhile, finds herself walking through a burned-out memoryscape, in which her soul encounters another: ostensibly her late mother, who has a small but vital message to deliver. It’s Navarro’s Iñupiat name, a name that she’d long rued not knowing.

Both of these discoveries are crucial. The handprint belongs to Blair, the seemingly meek laborer at the local crab factory who lost part of her hand in an accident. (In hindsight, a handprint that Peter Prior found on a dead researcher’s shoe earlier this season was likely hers, too.) And Navarro’s awareness of her identity turns out to function almost like a speakeasy code. When they track Blair down at the home of Bee—another crab factory worker as well as a cleaner at Tsalal—Bee is pleased to hear Navarro’s full name. “It means the return of the sun after the long darkness,” she translates, and she allows the detectives inside.

Bee explains that while on the job at Tsalal, she happened upon the secret ladder, and then the ice lab, and then the star-shaped tool, and she put the pieces together. As they talk, the room fills with women, a scene reminiscent of the birthing circle from Episode 3—except with less blood and more mob-like menace. There are laughs all around when the cops ask why no one told the cops.

“That would change nothing,” Bee says. “It’s always the same story with the same ending. Nothing ever happens. So we told ourselves a different story, with a different ending.” In Bee’s telling, the women organized and planned in near silence so they could attack at full volume: ambushing the Tsalal scientists at gunpoint, driving them to the hinterlands, making them strip naked in a snowstorm, exiling them out into the realm of the unknown, and crisply folding all their clothes in neat piles.

“In this story, you killed the men?” Navarro asks, and again, Bee chuckles. “Honey, they did it to themselves,” she says. “When they dug in her home in the ice. When they killed her daughter in there. They woke her up. … If she wanted them, she would take them. I guess she wanted to take them. I guess she ate their fucking dreams from the inside out and spit their frozen bones.” She says this with true relish, like someone licking sauce off every finger.

3. The fellas of Tsalal

So what was up with these Tsalal guys that led to such a high-body-count mess? As Clark explains, Annie was one of the first to discover the details of their, ah, unorthodox research methods after finding “some notes … scribbles, really” describing what was going on. Turns out the Tsalal fellas:

  • Were “digging for the DNA of a microorganism contained in the permafrost.” OK, so far seems like pretty standard stuff?
  • Felt their work could “change the world”—a claim that would definitely sound cooler if it wasn’t the same thing said by every inventor of a mid iPhone app in history. (As well as being a claim that was previously disputed by Danvers’s geology boy toy.)
  • Just wanted to live forever, man! (Whoops.)
  • Were yooge, yooge fans of the pollutants coming from the Silver Sky mine because they “helped soften the permafrost,” which enabled the researchers to extract and process the DNA at far speedier rates. Yay, synergies! Yay, efficiencies!
  • Pressured Silver Sky to … ramp up the pollution further, pretty please, even though it was for sure a bummer about all those stillbirths and probably cancers that ravaged the local community as a result. 🙁
  • Believed so strongly in their work that they murdered a beloved local midwife who stepped in their way and then maintained a code of silence for six years.

OK, so you can see why they never really gathered for a few brewskis at the town bar! And also why they awoke a powerful spirit or two and had their dreams eaten from the inside out. Thankfully, that stuff happened before they could accidentally, like, activate some ancient bacterio-viral fungi buried deep in a beautiful blue shard of ice. Although, on the bright side, that would have changed the world too.

Other Loose Ends

1. Petey P

“Prior’s fucked for life, isn’t he?” Navarro remarks to Danvers while they’re gathering their wits in the Tsalal kitchen. Indeed, when we first see Peter Prior in this episode, he is on his knees in Danvers’s foyer, surrounded by gore: on the floor, on the mirror, on his mind. There’s still a bullet lodged in the wall and the dead bodies of the drifter, Otis Heiss, and his father, Hank, to dispose of. He washes the blood off himself in the shower, but there’s no cleansing his sins.

Still, his timing is fortuitous, because all of a sudden Leah is there, having arrived to celebrate New Year’s Eve with her absent stepmother. Will she notice the bullet or the mop bucket? Did he miss any blood? Is he giving off that classic vibe of “Ugh, I just killed my dad”? But young Prior has spent enough time with Danvers to now excel at deception, and he redirects Leah back to his place so she can hang out with his wife. When they get there, Kayla—a woman consistently more frightening (complimentary) than any Arctic specter we’ve encountered—gets angry with her husband, and then makes out with him, and then punches him and calls him an asshole, and then maaaybe smiles. Someone’s been listening to Olivia Rodrigo!

It is only a glimmer of the whiplashy emotional journey Pete has ahead of him. “It’s gonna be one of those nights, eh?” says Rose “the Frozen Reaper” Aguineau when he shows up at her door with two body bags that need to be disposed of in Night Country’s tundra version of the Yellowstone train station. (I didn’t quite get how the roads were clear enough for him to make that drive, but the detectives were stranded almost to death at Tsalal? Not my business, I guess.)

Just as Clark was made to hear Annie’s final screams, Peter listens as Rose stabs the air out of his dad’s lungs to help the body sink. “I guess you’re thinking the worst part is done,” Rose remarks afterward as the aurora borealis shimmers above. “It’s not. What comes after, forever, that’s the worst fucking part.” Young Petey began the series largely as an innocent—a guy pushed around by everyone else. Then he established himself as one of the only people doing real detective work and moving the cases forward. Now he’s a man who is carrying torturous secrets—not just for others, but for himself. There’s power in that, to a degree. But there’s personal tragedy, too.

2. Danvers and Navarro

When it comes to harboring secrets, of course, these two have a real hard-won veteran savvy, having already kept mum for years about what really happened to the abusive William Wheeler. (We learn that it was Navarro who shot him, but it easily could have been Danvers: “You know, I was just about to do it myself,” she tells Navarro.) Now, they have a whole bunch of explosive new information to forever keep hush-hush.

For one, there’s the handling of Clark, which ranged from the illegal to the incompetent. There’s also their sham conclusion that, yep, the Tsalal scientists died in a freak avalanche, nothing else to see here. And their knowledge of the deaths of Hank Prior and Otis Heiss. And the whereabouts of Navarro, who up and skips town, Will Hunting–style, but does leave behind some valuable relics, like a SpongeBob toothbrush (poor Qavvik!) and a confession video from Clark. (When was this recorded? Where was all the blood on his shirt?)

But what is different from before is that now the two former coworkers aren’t just bonded by lies; they’re also bonded by love. In the finale, we see one of the angriest scenes between them and also one of the sweetest, and both involve an interactive vision Navarro had of Danvers’s dead son, Holden. At first, Danvers’s grief manifests as fury. “You don’t say his name, you hear me?” she howls at Navarro. “I will shoot your sick fucking mouth right off your face.”

But not long after, Danvers falls through the ice and very nearly freezes to death. (I really thought at this point that she had gotten got, and I still don’t quite understand how she lived.) Delirious and wrapped in blankets in front of a fire, she now asks Navarro about Holden. “He says he sees you,” Navarro responds. “He sees you, Liz.” If anything can warm a near-frozen heart, it’s that.

At the end of the episode, Danvers lies with a smile to two internal affairs detectives who are trying to make sense of everything (where is Captain Connelly, by the way?!). She shrugs when they wonder what became of Navarro. “Some people come to Alaska to escape,” she says. “You know? Get away from something. Sometimes they come here looking for something. Sometimes they find it.”

The line reminded me of something Rose said earlier in the season, in Episode 2. “The thing about the dead is that some of ’em come and visit because they miss you,” she told Navarro at the time. “Some come because they need to tell you something that you need to hear. And some of ’em just wanna take you with them. You need to know the difference.” In a place like Ennis, sometimes the living and the dead operate in similar ways.

3. The rogue tongue

I’ll be vulnerable here for a moment: I was, and remain, confused by the severed tongue and its chain of custody. It feels good to get that off my chest.

Galaxy-Brained Theory of the Week

Step aside, omnipresent oranges of Ennis: You’re nothing but red herrings! The real juice is in that yellow bag of Funyuns. (A food with a storied cinematic past.) Wake up, sheeple: We see Danvers eat Funyuns … which are shaped like flat circles … and were invented by a guy named George Wade Bigner … whose last name rearranges to Bering, just like the strait. Case closed: The whole town of Ennis is being controlled by the Russians. I knew that Connelly guy seemed like an op.

Vikram’s Alaska Corner

True Detective: Night Country takes place in the cold fringes of the Last Frontier, otherwise known as Alaska. (Never mind that the season was filmed in Iceland.) The Ringer’s own Vikram Patel is a former resident of the state who still spends his winters there. Each week, we’ll pose a question to Vikram about his second home as we look to learn more about the local geography and culture.

Katie: Allow me to begin this question with more of a comment: I just want to say that for a good portion of the Night Country finale, I was thinking about your ice cave story with an absolutely pounding heart. I’m really glad that, in Night Country parlance, ~*~She~*~ opted not to take you! Over the past few weeks of Alaska Corner, you’ve discussed airborne fauna, the depths of darkness, and proper winter footwear. Now, in summary and in conclusion, I’m hoping you’ll speak about SPRAAAANG BREAK.

Near the end of Night Country, we get a vista of post-thaw Alaska in all its lush blues and greens. I’ve only ever lived as far north as Connecticut, and I have vivid memories of how truly frenzied people got whenever spring first sprung. I can only imagine what it would be like in Alaska. What stands out in your memory about the END of winter?

Vikram: Anchorage, where I lived, has a pretty serious winter. And in my experience, the end of that winter is less of a moment and more of a process. It takes a long time for all that snow to melt.

Still, let’s review the candidates for the End of Winter Moment, in chronological order:

  • Winter solstice: A very optimistic person might suggest that winter ends on the winter solstice, which is usually on December 21, because that’s when the days begin to get longer. But January is often the coldest month of the year and sees almost as little light as December. Let’s move on.
  • Valentine’s Day: In February, Anchorage gains between five and six minutes of sunlight every day. Over the course of the month, that works out to an increase of about two and a half hours of daylight. At some point in February, you will likely squint on your walk to work for the first time since October. Or maybe you’ll notice the pattern of your kitchen blinds reflecting on the floor when you are making breakfast. In Anchorage, Valentine’s Day isn’t just for romantics; everyone gets a boost.
  • Fur Rendezvous: Self-styled as “the nation’s premier winter festival,” Fur Rondy is an annual springtime gathering that celebrates an almost-century-old tradition: when the miners and trappers return to Anchorage to trade their goods. Today, you’re more likely to ride a Ferris wheel than buy a bag of graphite, but there’s still a fur auction if you’re so inclined.
  • Breakup: In Alaska, people have a special word for the month of April: Breakup. It describes not only the unpleasant aesthetics and inconvenient puddles that result from the melting of snow and ice on city streets, but also what happens to a lot of couples who hooked up at the start of winter. If you haven’t been dumped in April, it just means you haven’t lived in Alaska long enough.
  • Summer: Look, I know we’re getting pretty far down the calendar here. Winter should be over by May and certainly by June, right? Unfortunately, there are no hard truths when it comes to summer weather in Alaska. Think you’re safe to go on a Fourth of July hike without your fleece and knit hat? A classic rookie mistake.

Of course, the “end of winter” does eventually happen, even if you’re still going skiing or wearing rain boots to take the trash out. I like to think it’s more of a personal decision.

For me, winter ends when the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race rolls around every March. I’ve mentioned the race a few times during previous Alaska Corners (Episode 1 and Episode 3), but let’s take a moment to talk in detail about how extreme this race is.

Each musher and their team of dogs have to travel about 1,000 miles in temperatures as cold as negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit (and occasionally much colder) from near Anchorage all the way to Nome, one of the communities on which the fictional town of Ennis is based. The mushers are trying to avoid frostbite and hypothermia—and moose encounters—while making sure their dogs are fed and getting enough sleep, which means the mushers themselves aren’t getting much shut-eye at all. Last year, the teams who finished the race spent between eight and 13 days on the trail.

But for those of us who aren’t competing in the race, the Iditarod is a pure delight. It seems like everyone in Alaska gets excited about the race. And there are a lot of great ways—and places—to experience it:

  • Anchorage: You can attend the ceremonial start of the Iditarod in Anchorage, where the dog teams first travel through the streets of downtown before hopping on a municipal cross-country ski trail and passing by hordes of celebrating townies. The ceremonial start is usually the day you see the most people in town all year.
  • Willow: The day after, you can drive an hour to nearby Willow for the Iditarod restart, which is the official beginning of the race. It’s much less crowded than the ceremonial start, and the vibe is more sober—mushers are setting off into the wilderness, more or less alone.

Nome: A week or so later, you can fly across the state to Nome to watch the end of the race. Unlike the mushers on the trail, your time in Nome will be anything but lonely—in the hours between cheering for arriving teams, you can partake in all sorts of Iditarod-related programming. The events range from dogsled rides and fine arts shows to, well, less serious affairs. The first time I went to Nome, I won second place in an arm-wrestling contest without winning a single match. An excellent tournament, if you ask me.

  • Flight-seeing: Or you can do what The Ringer’s Brian Phillips did in 2013 and track the race from above in a small plane. If you’re interested in a little more Iditarod content, Brian wrote a very moving 18,000 words about his experience. Adding just a few more words this week, he told me: “I’d trade it all for that arm-wrestling trophy.”

I should admit that even though I consider the Iditarod the end of winter, it’s not exactly the beginning of anything else. I decided to get a second opinion and texted my personal Iditarod expert, Tara (whose advice on managing dark winters can be found in the Alaska Corner from Episode 2), to ask if she agreed with my assessment.

“What are you talking about? March is the BEST MONTH of winter. It’s PEAK winter!!”

I tried, feebly, to suggest that there’s room for interpretation; Tara shrugged me off. “Most Alaskans would agree with me. It feels pretty wacky to say that the beginning of March is the end of winter.”

So what does she think qualifies as the end of winter in Anchorage? “It’s the last day you can do your favorite winter activity. So, basically, the beginning of Breakup.”

After thinking it through, I’m with Tara on this one. Winter should be defined by the things it makes possible, not by the limitations it imposes. If you can ride to work on your snow bike or a pair of cross-country skis, then it’s still winter. Case closed.

Iconic True Detective Looks of the Week

Underneath the true crime mysteries at the forefront of each season, True Detective is admirably devoted to capturing the aesthetics that define each of its many eras. With that comes some pretty incredible costume and makeup work, which we’ll be highlighting throughout the season.

Screenshots via HBO

Some quality spelunk-core fashion in this episode! You can never go wrong with a headlamp. (It’s one of my go-to birthday gifts for kids.) Something about the great textures of Clark’s chosen blankety fit for his daily ice-cavern idling made the look feel worthy of a fashion week runway.

Joins the Beth Dutton poncho in the pantheon of “turquoise garments I’d like to own but don’t have the closet space for.”

Style icon. All season long, I’ve oscillated between not necessarily “getting” Rose—who she is, why she is, that sort of thing—and feeling like I have never understood anyone more completely. She keeps her house gloriously dim! She understands the value of a quality turtleneck sweater! A former “very serious professor,” she up and got out of Dodge for the fringes of Alaska because, in her words: “One Tuesday morning after coffee, I sat down to polish some pompous, useless article, and I just had enough. I had enough. Every damned word I’d written in my entire life was meaningless.” I mean, this is relatable content!

Her aesthetic? You know Audrey Gelman is taking notes. Her easy self-sufficiency? All these TikTok tradwives could never. (Though I’d sure click on a Reel where one of them gives tips on hiding bodies.) In this scene, Rose does her own take on a Queen Elizabeth high-low assemblage. Downy sweater plus camo bib overalls and you’re always ready to be a gracious host to anyone who comes to your door asking for sugar or a shovel.

Ultimately, these guys got their due punishment for yelling, “Play Farmhouse!” Sorry, I don’t make the rules.

You know what? I would lie for them, too.

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