The Night Of: Season 01, Episode 02, “Subtle Beast”
The first episode was intense, packed with information and events. The second is a slow inhalation, and feels much more like a traditional series establishment: here’s the system, the major players and some hint at their motivations. Here, too, are the various mundane procedures which accompany a murder.
“Subtle Beast”‘s opening scene covers territory we saw in episode one, but the echoing audio, the abstract shots, the sometimes slurred speech, makes it obvious it’s a memory of an episode under the influence of drugs. That’s the only flashback we get, everything else is either concerned with Naz’s processing and trial, or looks at individual pieces of evidence.
It’s more procedure than we get from any typical procedural – cop interviews, holding cell, first interviews with the lawyer, transportation from holding to prison, dusting the car for prints. It’s beautiful in HBO fashion, with city lights and soft focuses and reflections in puddles and shots which make us feel Naz’s claustrophobia, disorientation, and smallness. It also has the HBO grit and approaches toward nudity, with smeared windows, removal of a cell phone from a prisoner’s ass, the beating of a prisoner by another. Of the Christie/Wire/Hitchcock styles, this one leans heavily towards The Wire.
The Christie element of looking for clues was evident in the first episode, what with lingering shots on bloody palmprints and knife wounds. Now we have numbered evidence items, we see leftover drug paraphernalia and pill bottles, we watch the autopsy start. The episode doesn’t delve into the mystery, but it gives us some pieces.
We understand why we’re being shown all those evidence items, but the reason for other things we see is less clear. The slowness, methodicalness, and detachment with which Don Taylor (a basic stepfather name if there ever was one) studies the dead body of his estranged stepdaughter Andrea is for what? To make us think he may have had something to do with it? Simply observe how slowly these things actually happen, the same way we follow Naz’s parents traipsing from station to station to determine where Naz is being detained? For that matter, why do we linger on Stone’s eczema? Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether or when these details will be relevant, but this is a show that rewards slow, steady watching.
I keep referring to ‘we’ the audience, because this is a show which relies heavily on the audience picking up on what it’s doing. For example, we know why Naz is lying, omitting the drinking when he talks about his night to his parents. His parents would be devastated that he was drinking, doing drugs, having sex; his mom is horrified enough by Maxim magazine. We understand that completely. But we also know why it looks really bad to Box that he’s doing so; if he’ll lie about the drinking, obviously he’d lie about the murder.
It’s a great choice to concentrate on Box (a basic detective name if there ever was one). The shot where we see a closeup of his gun and then the camera rack-focuses to him handing Naz his inhaler is brilliant; he’s his own goodcop/badcop, he uses both the carrot and the stick, he manipulates Naz and his genuine curiosity doesn’t absolve him or make him any less dangerous. He tries to ingratiate himself to Salim with “I understand, I’m a father myself” in one breath, then serves a warrant to search the house in the next, and then cooly takes all the computers in the house. He shows off some knowledge of history and religion alongside law, he has a working relationship with the lawyers and journalists, and he’s a formidable opponent.
He’s not wrong when he points out Stone will be getting something out of it, too. It’s the biggest case he’s gotten. It won’t make him rich, but it gives him legitimacy, a cache in the eyes of his son, ex-wife, and he hopes the rest of the legal establishment.
While Box and Stone are in a fight over Naz, the rest of the cops continue to be presented as “not all bad,” but more concerned with conviction than truth. They’re not some sort of American hero, they’re just doing their jobs and going home. Their jobs involve a lot of other people being helpless, and they will exacerbate that when it suits them. The response to Naz’s parents is cold, clipped, impassive, unfeeling. If prisoners get assaulted, if the wrong man gets convicted, if they don’t get it right, so be it. The cogs of the system grind on.
The pilot gave us the setup of the murder and an introduction to our protagonist, now we’ve gotten the setup of the system and a thorough introduction to the lawyer and detective on opposite ‘sides.’ It will be interesting to see what approach the third episode takes.
– Swabbing the eye of the deer which ‘saw’ the events of The Night Of: incredibly evocative, evidentially relevant, or both?
– The prosecutor knows any case that seems too good to be true, is probably going to bite her in the ass.
– It was quietly heartbreaking, watching the left-behind son watch his parents leave him behind as they went to visit their incarcerated, prodigal son.
– Turturro’s John Stone (a basic lawyer name if there ever was one) gives a brutal assessment of the justice system as his reason for refusing to hear the flashes Naz remembers from the night of: “They tell their story, we tell ours. The jury gets to decide which they like best. . . . I need to be flexible.”
– More casual racist banter, with “these guys Arabs?” and “You want Jew time, do Jew crime.” I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how to take this part yet. Are they trying to portray the system / society as casually racist, and that being problematic? Are they just enjoying being on HBO and being able to ‘push boundaries,’ because that’s gross. Is it going to factor into later episodes, as presumably other things we have seen will?
The storyline with Pauline is like this, as well; yeah, trans people are often marginalized and treated poorly and even the ‘good guys’ like lawyers who defend them can be insensitive, so using her story to show what kind of a person Stone is makes sense. But when that’s the *only* representation a segment of society gets on your show, that’s a problem.
The thing with Naz’s story is, so far, this is a story which could have happened to anyone, and as I mentioned on the first review, it feels very much as though Naz is a more-hapless Cary Grant archetype; the innocent, trustworthy man accused. The tension works in waiting to discover whether or not he gets arrested, and casting a white boy as the ‘hapless innocent’ with supportive parents is overdone, and it’s nice to have broader casting. There’s no problem in showing he is also a person of color, and as such is going to be targeted and discriminated against by others. But there could quickly become a problem, dependent on where his story goes.
It’s weird feeling as though the current portrayal is problematic or not dependent on the portrayal to come, but right now that’s where I’m at. Personally, I want the next several eps to turn into a whodunnit where the audience gets to piece things together, and veer away from the racialized storylines, because I love me a good whodunnit and I’m always wary of writers trying to write stories purely about race [oh god I just looked it up, the three writers are all white dudes. fuck damn shit]. But if they do continue with the loaded language, there better quickly appear a damn good reason for it, and a clear condemnation of the system and people using it, and a way in which it affects the procedures, not just the people.