‘True Detective: Night Country,’ Episode 5: Death in Ennis

Some big questions were grimly answered in part five of True Detective: Night Country, with a conspiracy’s web at least partially unveiled. It turns out that mean old sad-sack Hank Prior (John Hawkes) has indeed been a bad guy all along and has now paid for his sins. Though creator Issa Lopez was careful to give Hank some moral shading; even at his violent end, he was perhaps more cornered animal than vengeful sociopath. 

On this week’s episode of Still Watching, hosts Hillary Busis, Richard Lawson, and Chris Murphy discuss the penultimate installment of this snowbound season of True Detective, looking toward the endgame and wondering how all of these various plot threads can possibly be sewn up. The Hank of it all does at least narrow the playing field some: The mining company is involved somehow, and one local perpetrator has been identified. But many other mysteries remain. There is also, suddenly, the matter of our intrepid heroes—Danvers (Jodie Foster), Navarro (Kali Reis), and Hank’s son Peter (Finn Bennett)—needing to cover up a death. (Was it a murder? No, not precisely.) A new element of suspense has been added, nicely ratcheting up the stakes for a grand finale. 

But first, we must bid adieu to Hank. He may not be missed, but Hawkes’s nuanced performance certainly will be. A journeyman actor who has wowed on screens big (Winter’s Bone, The Sessions) and small (Deadwood), Hawkes typically brings both an intensity and a gentleness to his work, a duality that helped make Hank such a complicated character. 

He wasn’t always so multifaceted, though. “Issa’s an incredible writer, but I felt like Hank was pretty one-dimensional,” Hawkes tells Still Watching of when he first read the script. “I thought that we could serve the story a lot more by bringing more notes to him, more levels, more layers. To not just be kind of a one-note male chauvinist pig, but to find a kind of humanity in this, a more complex human being.”

That’s a tricky task—Hank is definitely a chauvinist, and a murderer by the end of part five. But Hawkes and Lopez worked together to give the character a backstory that might help explain why Hank is the way that he is. “That’s something I always do in great detail,” Hawkes says. “I’m an over-preparer who likes to know too much and then try to forget everything when the curtain goes up or the director says action.” 

Lopez was so invested in the process of creating the backstory that sometimes those details made their way into her scripts. “I realized quickly that I had to be careful what I said, because I was just kind of throwing out ideas and then she’d send me a draft and some of those ideas were in there,” Hawkes tells Still Watching. “Which is really cool.”

All of this character work was, of course, leading to Hank’s tragic demise, a desperate man going to extreme lengths to maintain some footing in the world. To the point of delusion, perhaps. “I think Hank fools himself a lot,” Hawkes says. “With Alina, his fiancée that doesn’t exist. With a relationship with his son that doesn’t really exist.” Of Hank’s terrible final decisions, Hawkes says, “I think Hank had to see some way that it would all work out in the end. If he could just get Otis and get him out of there…” 

By the end of the episode, the jig was finally up for Hank, but at least, he got one moment of grace before we went. Part five includes a melancholy scene in which Hank sings a lonely song to himself, one written by Hawkes. The music Hawkes wrote was originally meant to be only instrumental, used as part of the show’s score. But that all changed when Lopez saw Hawkes playing a gig on his time off from filming.

“I had a gig playing music in Reykjavík,” he tells us. “And Issa came. Afterwards she said, ‘well, you gotta sing. You gotta write some words.’ And I can’t say argue, because Issa and I—and I’m sure the other actors would concur—she’s just an incredible person to work with. It wasn’t real arguing. But it was good-natured bickering for a few weeks with me saying, ‘Well, it’s going to become performative suddenly, it’s going to be a guy in his living room performing.’ I’d always just seen it as a score piece, but eventually, I came around. So I wrote words and a melody, kind of at the last minute. And that was that. I’m glad I did.”

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