As we move into the second half of what may be the weirdest show currently airing on TV (non-superhero division), the big question is: What do we want from I Am The Night, down the stretch? Do we want it to start pulling all its threads together, and tying them off? Or do we want scene after scene of psychedelic “happenings” and sudden stabbings?
The first third of this week’s chapter, “Matador,” is the driest stretch of the series since the expositional overload of episode one. It’s all about moving Jay Singletary and Fauna Hodel back into the same orbit, after he scared her away at the chili parlor last week. It’s also about returning to the themes of the book, One Day She’ll Darken: The Mysterious Beginnings of Fauna Hodel, by having this young, obviously white woman (no matter what race she’s been led to believe she is) stirring up a mini-scandal among her black family, by spending time with the hunky Terrence Shye (Justin Cornwell), who also gives her an education on the bigotry he faces every day.
(Of course this isn’t necessarily an education Fauna needs, since she’s been raised as black in Nevada, but… whatever. Repeatedly, writer Sam Sheridan makes Fauna just as naive as she needs to be, to coax other people into explaining things he wants the audience to understand.)
In order to save some time—and again, I do appreciate that I Am The Night moves its plot along at a pretty good clip, compared to other prestige mysteries—Fauna’s semi-date with Terrence takes them to the spot where their mutual friend Nero was found dead. There, a homeless man mentions that before Nero’s corpse turned up, he saw a man driving around the area in a Buick. This might well be the car belong to George Hodel’s lackey Ivanovich Viktor Sepp, whom Fauna has spotted tailing her countless times.
Meanwhile, an increasingly haggard and desperate Singletary keeps feeling like he’s close to figuring out a connection between Bloody Romeo, Black Dahlia, and George Hodel, such that every interaction he has in this episode eventually works its way back around to the case. When he grabs a bite at a diner with his war buddy Ohls—now busted back to beat-cop for helping Jay, as he predicted—he grills his friend’s veteran partner about what he remembers about the Dahlia killer, whom the force back then dubbed “the Werewolf.” When Jay corners his editor Peter Sullivan outside a bar Jay’s been banned from, he mentions that Corinna Huntington (formerly Hodel) has been calling him at home and baiting him.
To placate Singletary, Sullivan says he can’t officially give Jay an assignment to write about Black Dahlia, but he does pass along an invitation to a Corinna Huntington-hosted art-show. Coincidentally, Fauna’s invited to the same wild freak-out. And so, about 20 minutes into “Matador,” the episode finally starts getting interesting.
That’s not to say it suddenly gets good—at least not in any of the traditional definitions of “quality television.” But it’s definitely more enjoyable when I Am The Night leaves its gumshoes in the closet, and instead just has Jay and Fauna wondering through one of the Hodel or Hodel-adjacent wonderlands. Here, both of them are led through a spiraling arrangement of black-and-white-clad models, while The Rolling Stones’ “Play With Fire” simmers on the soundtrack, until they individually reach one of the art-show’s inner sanctums.
Fauna walks past thin sheets of cloth—with performers’ faces and hands pressing against the opposite side—until she reaches a room where a pair of scissors is being passed around, and the audience is taking turns cutting pieces out of a motionless Corinna’s dress. After the session abruptly ends, Mrs. Huntington requests a private audience with Fauna, where she raves once again about her ex-husband’s advanced concepts of art and existence, and she warns Fauna not to be a “literalist.”
(Pressed to give an example of what Corinna means by the term, Fauna rather quickly cites President Kennedy saying “America has tossed its cap over the wall of space” as an example of something not to be taken literally. She also passes judgment on Corinna’s little shtick with the scissors, saying, “I think you just wanted for us to be responsible for you.” This is what I mean by Fauna’s level of wit and awareness shifting from dim to bright based on what any given scene needs.)
As for Jay, he disappears from the episode for a while after arriving at the party, turning back up only after Sepp bludgeons Fauna from behind, takes her to a sub-basement, and threats to “slice off your calf and fry it and eat it and puke it up in front of you.” Singletary swoops in to save the day, viciously stabbing Sepp to death. He’s prepared to leave the corpse where it is, until Fauna persuades him to clean up the mess. It’s all very sudden, very bloody, and very much in keeping with the “sensation over sense” attitude of I Am The Night.
“Matador” flags after Corinna’s big shindig is over, largely because a big chunk of the final third is dedicated to a reunion between Fauna and her mean-spirited adoptive mother Jimmie Lee Greenwade; and those scenes are always a slog, both as drama and as entertainment. The one upside to Jimmie Lee coming to Los Angeles is that maybe she’ll finally spill what she knows about Fauna’s parentage, and the show can stop hinting around something that’s been fairly obvious since episode one. (In case it’s not obvious to any of you, I’ll refrain from stating it outright. But as previously noted in this space, the “secret” is literally printed on the book jacket of One Day She’ll Darken.)
The episode rebounds though at the very end, when Jay receives another Corinna Huntington invitation, to tour the Hodel-sponsored museum exhibit “New Perspectives, Lost Horizons.” It’s while staring at a hall filled with surrealist paintings and abstract sculptures that the wastrel reporter has a revelation: The Bloody Romeo and Black Dahlia corpses have been slashed and dismembered in deliberate patterns, to look like classic avant-garde works of art.
Okay, now that’s kinda nifty, in a disgusting, very wrong way. I Am The Night, you have our attention again.
- This episode gets knocked down half a grade for the relative paucity of memorably offbeat dialogue. The top “Is this cool or awful?” line this week is when Jay wakes up with a hangover and asks, “Where’s the dog? … The dog that shit in my mouth?”
- Actually, wait, there’s one more memorable clunker. While Sepp’s hanging around the Hodel estate, waiting to be berated, a prospective female patient and her partner are also there for an appointment. By way of making conversation, the man asks Sepp, “He’s a genius, right? Best doctor in the city? Maybe in the country? Right?”
- How much of a sicko is George Hodel? Even his chess pieces are, like, perverted little cones. That’s wild, man.
- I’m past the halfway point in Fauna Hodel’s One Day She’ll Darken and really the only connection the book has to the miniseries are the few scenes each week on TV when the black community questions Fauna’s racial identity, and the even fewer scenes when Jimmie Lee psychologically and physically abuses her. Now that Jimmie Lee’s back in the picture, I suspect next week we’ll get back to more of the story told in the book… which, by the way, includes a barely teenaged Fauna sleeping around with older men and getting pregnant, none of which is even hinted at in I Am The Night. But given how clumsily this show has handled these elements so far, I repeat my question from the start of the review: Is more of the family stuff what we want?