Lost called, it wants its polar bear back.
One of the many mysteries of True Detective: Night Country is embodied by one of the cutest and deadliest animals on the planet: the majestic and terrifying polar bear.
In the fictional town of Ennis, Alaska, 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle, during “the long night”, this enormous pagophilic carnivore turns up again and again. It wanders through town in very real form; it appears in characters’ homes in plush toy form; images of it flash at us during the opening credits. While these bears don’t have anything to do with their island-dwelling kin in Lost, they strike the same chord of mystery in True Detective.
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What’s the deal with the polar bears and why are they important to the story? Each week, we’re tracking the polar bears of Night Country, tracing their appearances to pull this whole thing together with red yarn.
Opening credits bears
In the True Detective: Night Country opening credits, we see a rocking chair perched on the side of the icy road. A plush polar bear sits on the chair, with a close-up revealing it’s missing an eye. Seconds later, a polar bear wanders onto the road, and another close-up shows it, too, is missing an eye. The plush polar bear is clearly important, as it appears later in the credits, floating in icy dark water. And of course, it turns up in the show from the very first episode.
The plush polar bear
In episode 1, Chief Liz Danvers (Jodie Foster) is woken up in the middle of the night to a fervent whisper declaring, “She’s awake.” It comes after what seems to be a memory or a dream for Danvers, involving a child whose identity remains unknown — in her dream, a child’s hand touches her shoulder. Bleary-eyed, Danvers then finds a plush polar bear toy on the floor in her room. It’s missing an eye, and Danvers holds it looking pretty unsettled.
In episode 2, Danvers finds the plush bear in a box of Christmas decorations, and has a flashback to time spent with a child, playing with the bear and listening to The Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” (the song that triggers Danvers in episode 1, the one that features in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, the film the Tsalal scientists were watching when they disappeared).
Credit: Michele K. Short/HBO
In episode 3, when state trooper Evangeline Navarro (Kali Reis) out on the ice, she hears an eerie voice singing “Twist and Shout” in the wind. Navarro then sees a child running into the darkness and goes to catch up to them but slips and hits her head. She’s transported to a vision of her time served in the military, sitting beside a burned home. A child wearing pyjamas and holding a plush polar bear puts their hand on Navarro’s shoulder and whispers, “Tell my mommy.”
In episode 4, when Navarro visits Danvers and she drops a box of Christmas decorations on the floor, she sees the plush polar bear toy fall out and remembers her vision. “Is this his? Holden’s?” she asks, naming Danvers’ child. To demonstrate her cynicism about spirituality and the beyond, Danvers throws the plush bear out in the snow.
The polar bear in the middle of the road
As Navarro investigates leads in town in Ennis in episode 1, she’s driving around, calling potential witnesses and contacts, when her phone stops working. A voice whispers the same hissing “she’s awake” message Danvers heard in her dream and Navarro hits the brakes. A large polar bear stands in the road, blocking her path and notably missing an eye. Standing its ground with a growl, the bear then retreats. As there are no other witnesses to this bear, it’s unclear whether Navarro is looking at a real polar pal or not — but then episodes later, Danvers sees the same one-eyed bear.
In episode 4, driving on Christmas Eve, Danvers sees the polar bear standing in the middle of the highway, hitting the brakes to avoid it and plunging her car into a snow drift. The bear prowls over to Danvers’ window and stares directly at her, breathing heavily, then moving along. In this scene, the polar bear seems very real.
What do the polar bears mean in True Detective?
It’s still unclear what role the polar bears have to play in the series other than indicating a sinister presence in the story or suggesting a memory for Danvers connected to her child. But they seem to be only seen by Navarro and Danvers, in plush form and real.
Are the polar bears connected to the research the missing scientists were conducting at the remote Tsalal Arctic Research Station? Does it connect to the reindeer that throw themselves over the cliff in the show’s opening sequence? Why do both the real polar bear and the plush toy have only one eye? Why has Danvers held onto this plush polar bear for so long?
We’ll be updating this piece every week with any new polar bears per episode — we have a feeling they’re not done.
True Detective: Night Country is now streaming on Max.