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The Agony and the Eczema: The Night Of ‘Subtle Beast’ (Recap)

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In the series premiere of HBO’s The Night Of, Jack Stone swaggered in towards the end feeling more like a thin caricature than a multi-dimensional, complex character. “Subtle Beast” attempts to rectify that, giving John Turturro more screen time to show that there’s more to Jack than eczema and bizarre career choices (i.e. taking on an ostensibly doomed client for no apparent reason). But in spite of Turturro’s commanding performance, Richard Price’s focus on the bizarre lawyer’s quirks still leaves them as merely that: loose ends making for humorous details but failing to tie together into a complete character.

Price specifically attempts to flesh out Jack in “Subtle Beast” by showing a slice of his life away from Naz. Jack leaves to deal with another client, and the resulting journey provides an opportunity to show how the character behaves outside of the very particular context of Naz’s case. Despite the broader context to understand Jack, though, he remains enigmatic without quite being compelling or believable.

As with “The Beach,” Price leans too heavily on Jack’s eczema as a defining character trait. It slows him down as he waits on the security line to enter court, emphasizing his status as a fringe figure but not saying much else. Jack has a skin condition, we know, and it says little about him beyond informing us of his itchy feet.

Yet even once he overcomes his eczema to get inside the court, Jack continues to fail to come to come together as a character. He defends a client whose race appears to give him a harsher sentence than the white criminal being sentenced before him, but Jack’s lack of interest in the ostensible injustice derails any image of him as an enthusiastic proponent of civil rights. Still, none of the details about Jack work quite as poorly as his black son, which Price and Steve Zaillian awkwardly delay as long as possible, as if to fool with our expectations. They wait until the end of the scene for the boy’s black mother to enter and for him to call Jack “Dad,” suggesting that Price and Zaillian think they’re dropping a giant bombshell by revealing that Jack fathers an interracial child. But in the 21st century, Jack’s paternity plays as a surface-level detail in the vein of his skin condition, feeling like yet another attempt to sculpt a character out of ultimately insignificant characteristics. 

Remarkably, the scene with Jack’s son isn’t even the most racially awkward aspect of “Subtle Beast,” a dubious honor which belongs to the repeated references to Naz as Arab or Muslim. As with the interracial parentage, Zaillian and Price seem to think they’re being subversive by reminding us that their protagonist is, instead, Pakistani, but the question of ethnicity merely calls attention to prejudices without saying much about them. Racism was a plot device in “The Beach,” and it’s an extraneous detail in “Subtle Beast.”

Beyond racial insensitivity, the opening hours of The Night Of have been marked by attempts at complexity which end up doing little to give characters depth. Detective Box finally reveals his hostility to Naz to his face, but his one-man “good cop/bad cop” routine felt stale and predictable from the moment it was suggested that he was only being friendly to give his suspect a false sense of security. Naz’s encounter with his parents gives viewers a chance to see more of how they interact with each other, but the attempt to show his mother’s realization that her son isn’t who she thinks he is gets undermined the use of Maxim issues to identify his dirty secret. Even if Zaillian and Price are trying to emphasize Naz’s naïveté, the suggestion that a present-day 23-year-old gets his rocks off from a softcore magazine overstates the case by a good margin.

It’s bizarre details like these that leave The Night Of feeling hamstrung from reaching its considerable ambitions. Naz’s Harvard t-shirt redundantly reminds us of how out of place he is in the prison van, with the “Rikers Island” subtitle reinforcing the gravity of his situation, in case we didn’t yet get the point. Regardless of Naz’s guilt, he’s in over his head, and, two episodes in, The Night Of fails to develop him beyond the statement of this fact.

Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.

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