I Am The Night
The premiere of the highly anticipated miniseries I Am the Night is very much a prologue to what the meat of this show’s narrative will be, spending a long time introducing us to its individual characters before finally getting them all at least close to the same storyline in the closing scenes. Our two leads have a connection to a mysterious figure named Dr. George Hodel, but it’s not yet clear how their arcs will intertwine or what any of this will have to do with one of the most infamous murders of all time, Elizabeth Short, a.k.a. the Black Dahlia — well, unless you’re familiar with the true story, theories about Dr. Hodel, or the truly bizarre story of Fauna Hodel. For now, the show and its director, Patty Jenkins, are content to set the table. We’ll see what they serve next week.
I Am the Night introduces us to its two major protagonists in distinct arcs, so let’s split them up for recapping purposes.
India Eisley plays a young lady who is introduced us Pat, but who soon learns that her real name is Fauna Hodel. The series is based on Hodel’s memoir, One Day She’ll Darken: The Mysterious Beginnings of Fauna Hodel, and the title of that true-crime biography refers to the fact that Hodel grew up believing she was a mixed-race child.
She’s introduced in Reno, late for school and telling her mother that she just wants to be normal like everybody else. It’s 1965, and Pat goes to a deeply segregated school, and she’s lost in between the racial groups, shunned by both white and black kids for being mixed-race, although the local police officers who are startled to see her walking with a black suitor are surprised to learn she’s not white. The title of Hodel’s memoir is spit back at Pat/Fauna by her mother later in the episode, and it’s clear that this young lady never felt white or black, confused by her own racial identity.
A horrendous fight with her mother — which is really allowed to breathe and play out in a more harrowing, sad register than it would be by a lesser director — leaves Pat wanting to know more about her background. Late that night, after her drunk mother has passed out, she finds her birth certificate, dated 1949 (which is a bit different from the real story, as the author was born in 1951, but Eisley can more believably sell 16 than 14). She learns that her mother’s name was Tamar Hodel, and that she was born in San Francisco, and she was named Fauna Hodel. She confronts her adopted mother the next morning. Mom isn’t happy.
While mom is devising the craziest “prank” ever, Fauna gets a hold of George Hodel via phone, who tells her to come to Los Angeles. Shortly thereafter, the Mother Superior rushes to Fauna and tells her that her mother has been called to God. Fauna rushes home to find out that mom is still alive, and the teenager understandably starts packing her things. She fights with mom and leaves, correctly noting that mom is vicious and crazy. As she boards a bus to L.A., a mysterious figure that has been following her trails behind.
At the Inspection and Adjusting Station, Fauna sits and chats with a man who sounds a little familiar from the George Hodel phone call just a few scenes earlier, but Fauna fails to recognize him. Why did George meet Fauna at the bus stop? And then why did he fail to pick her up in L.A.? Fauna calls another Hodel named Karina, who warns her, “Your grandfather is a very, very dangerous man. Stay away. Stay away from him.” Anyone who knows the true story of George Hodel, and the theory that he was a serial killer, knows this warning is tragically true.
Played by the great Chris Pine, Jay is a down-on-his-luck L.A. reporter, reduced to snapping pictures of starlets on balconies and breaking into morgues to get stories. Jay’s arc isn’t nearly as plot-heavy as Fauna’s, but we do learn a great deal about the co-lead of this show in just a few scenes. He used to be a big deal, but a major story, his service in Korea, and a string of bad luck have brought him down. It probably doesn’t help that he likes a bump of cocaine a bit too often. Pine deftly portrays Singletary as a classic noir character — the kind of guy who’s one bad beat away from suicide when his life changes abruptly.
Before that change comes, Jay’s conscience almost forces him to lose out on a big paycheck, although he needs a real story to give his life meaning. He comes right out and says, “Get me something, Peter, or I’m going to kill myself.” Which is not just tough-guy noir talk, as the episode ends with Jay throwing a belt over a support and preparing to end it when he gets a call. It’s telling that Peter, his old friend who tries to throw him a story, says of him, “Some stories don’t want to be told. Some stories will eat you alive.” It feels like the story that ate Jay Singletary alive isn’t done chewing.
After taking a brutal beating by a cop who really doesn’t like him, and just as he’s about to shuffle off this mortal coil, Jay gets a call from Fauna’s adoptive mother. She’s calling about a story that Jay wrote in 1949. She says, “You were right about him. You got to keep looking.” Of course, we know from the birth certificate that Fauna was born in 1949. What was Jay right about? It looks like the story of his life has another chapter for him to write, and it’s going to include Fauna Hodel.
• Quick bit of interesting trivia: India Eisley is Olivia Hussey’s daughter. Hussey is the Golden Globe–winning star of Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet and also starred in Black Christmas and Death on the Nile.
• TNT has really upped its game in terms of budget and production design. One of the first notes I took was, “How would this be different on HBO or FX?” And that’s still a question worth asking when the show gets more violent in upcoming episodes, but the production value is nearly indistinguishable. Again, it helps to have a truly talented director like Patty Jenkins in the chair. She brings a tighter flow to this premiere than most directors would, and clearly works well with actors, especially her Wonder Woman leading man.
• My biggest concern is how patient viewers will be with I Am the Night. I know enough about the Black Dahlia and George Hodel stories to have an added layer of interest, but worry that not enough happens in this pilot to really “hook” viewers. Then again, the TV landscape is changing, and people have more patience with drawn-out stories like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies than they did even a few years ago. Let’s hope the same is true for I Am the Night.