I Am The Night
“Pilot” (Episode 101)
January 28, 2018
I Am The Night, a six-episode period drama on TNT, premiered tonight. Like 2018’s successful run of the suspense thriller, The Alienist, I Am The Night is part of what TNT calls, “the TNT Suspense Collection.” The series is based on the life of Fauna Hodel and her 2008 autobiography, One Day She’ll Darken: The Mysterious Beginnings of Fauna Hodel (co-written with J.R. Briamonte). The show stars India Eisley (as Fauna) and Chris Pine (as Jay Singletary), and is directed by Patty Jenkins (Wonder Woman).
TNT’s official synopsis of the show is, “Inspired by true events, I Am The Night tells the gripping story of Fauna Hodel (India Eisley), a teenage girl who is given away at birth, and grows up outside Reno, Nevada. Fauna lives more-or-less comfortably with the mysteries of her origin, until one day she makes a discovery that leads her to question everything. As Fauna begins to investigate the secrets of her past, she meets a ruined reported (Chris Pine), haunted by the case that undid him.
“Together they follow a sinister trail that swirls ever closer to an infamous Los Angeles gynecologist, Dr. George Hodel (Jefferson Mays), a man involved in some of Hollywood’s darkest debauchery, and possibly, its most infamous unsolved crime.”
On to our deep dive recap and review of the Pilot episode of, I Am The Night … BEWARE OF SPOILERS!
Tonight’s episode opens up with a desert scene leading up to a small rural house with an ominous timpani sound. In the kitchen, we see a young, well dressed teenage girl having her hair done by an African American woman, Jimmie Lee (Golden Brooks), wearing a maid’s uniform. There is a typical teenager/parent back and forth, with the typical teenage responses, talking back to her mother about school not being important and she doesn’t want to be different. Good to know teenagers are all the same, in every era. We finally get a look at our main character, Pat (India Eisley): a doe-eyed, blue eyed, very innocent looking white girl.
Opening credits. The credits are done film noir style. Black and white images including a woman lying on the ground, hands reaching out, a girl’s legs with red shoes lying on the ground, a 1950s style cop car driving on a street with searing horns playing very staccato music which ratchets up the tension.
We’re in 1965. Three girls walk along train tracks on their way to school; they’re planning something. They arrive at school and a black boy flirts with Pat, telling her she’s sweet enough to go on his corn flakes. We see Pat in the lunchroom sitting by herself nibbling from a tray of cafeteria food. A new white girl is looking for a place to sit and asks Pat if she could sit with her. Some Mean Girls redirect the new girl away, explaining that Pat is at a Negro table. As you can imagine, they do it with all the haste and distaste that comes with that kind of statement.
Cut Jay Singletary (Chris Pine), and his pasty white skin, walking on the beach with a camera. He’s rocking a socks and sneakers look with an open Hawaiian shirt. He’s taking pictures of a balcony where a young girl in a bikini and an older man are kissing. The amorous couple is startled when they see him photographing them. The girl chases him down, claiming he’ll ruin her and she pleads with him to not do this as he runs away.
We’re back to our girl Pat. She’s hanging out in a parking lot with friends and making eyes at the guy who made the Corn Flakes comment earlier. Sharon (Iyana Halley), a girl we saw walking to school with Pat that morning and eating lunch with Pat, gets on Pat’s case about being light skinned and chasing black men; she’s itching for a fight. Walking away, Pat’s friend points out a man in a black car (Dylan Smith) watching them. This is not news to Pat; she’s used to him, adding he never stays long. They part ways and the car takes off.
Back to Jay, who is on a pay phone reporting on his beach escapades to an editor, Sal. He jokes that he didn’t get the shot and proceeds to endure the wrath of the angry editor. He yells back that he was kidding. He smashes the hand piece of the pay phone several times, much to the dismay of the kid waiting to use the phone after him.
Okay … a little over the top reaction, if you ask me.
Jay goes back to his car angry and frustrated, but he does a line of coke and, ahhh, he’s calmer.
We come back to Pat who is now pushing a bucket and mop in a crisp, bright white uniform in a Catholic hospital. She sees Lewis (Dabier) from school and the parking lot and now they steal a kiss. He promises to walk her home later. Next we see they’re walking home in the dark. They talk of getting married and future plans. As they kiss, a cop car pulls up. A white cop gets out and asks if she was being bothered by the colored boy. The cop doesn’t believe her when she tells him she is colored, but he lets them go on their way. Oh, the complicated nature of race relations in the 1960s.
We’re back to Jay as he enters the King Eddy saloon, a smoky, kinda empty, kinda seedy bar. Holding court at the bar is a seasoned reporter waxing poetic on what makes a great reporter to a cub (who’s adorably taking eager notes). The wizened reporter is taking long drags on cigarettes and tossing back some of the amber nectar. Finally his turn, Jay tells the boss man that he desperately wants off the private investigator beat. Peter Sullivan (Leland Orser) tells Jay there’s a press conference at the city morgue. A girl named Janis Brewster “was hacked.” Peter wants Jay to get photos. Their banter is a quirky balance to the seriousness we feel throughout the episode.
The cub reporter asks Jay if he writes for the LA Times. Jay laughs and tells him he’s a loser reporter for the Examiner. Jay feels the cub is taunting him and Jay squares for a “dance.” Jay exits and we get a little backstory on our protagonist …
Backstory Time! Jay was a Marine who served in Korea at the Chosin. At 18, he was a full time reporter for the LA Times but he messed up.
“There are some stories you can’t tell. Some stories don’t want to be told. Some stories will eat you alive.”
With this, some of Jay’s latent rage is explained and his self-sabotaging and self-deprecating behavior we’ve already seen makes a little more sense. Jay looks tattered, like his best days are behind him. His hair is a little shaggy, like he should have had a haircut last week.
Pat arrives home. Her mom is waiting up and inquiring as to where she’s been, sounding a 180 degrees from the sweet lady encouraging her daughter that very morning. Pat is being evasive. It’s quite clear that Momma has been drinking heavily and now she’s mad that Pat was out with Lewis; she doesn’t think much of him. Pat tries to change the subject by telling her mother that saw the white man again. Momma wants her to forget him and focus on making something of herself. Momma was supposed to be someone, the new “Lena Horne.” Jimmie Lee’s giving off vibes that her life did not end up where she’s planned it; she serenades Pat that she had sung for Sammy Davis Jr. but instead chose her daughter. She tells Pat how hard it was to raise a mixed-race child waiting for her skin to darken. Pat is upset and confused at what her Momma is saying.
Historical side note: There’s plenty of overarching themes of race relations in this episode: Pat is a mixed-race child being raised in the South(west) in the 1960s where racial bias was de rigueur. The lunchroom exchange and the cops stopping them walking along; this was everyday life. Add in the fact that 1965 was a hotbed of activity in the civil rights movement. The year our story unfolds included both the passage of the Voting Rights Act as well as the assassination of outspoken civil rights leader, Malcolm X.
Pat is in her room, thinking. She creeps into her mother’s room to the closet. Pat removes a shoebox and slinks back to her room, careful to avoid the cascade of clinking vodka bottles that tripped her up on the way in. Pat sifts through papers in the box. She finds her birth certificate and is in disbelief as she reads her real name is “Fauna Hodel.” If that wasn’t enough, we learn that her birth mother’s name is “Tamar Hodel,” and her father was Negro – name withheld.
The next morning, Momma is all sweet again. That is, until Pat asks who Fauna Hodel is? Jimmie Lee’s mood shifts … she’s mad after all she’s done for Pat. She accuses Pat of stealing from her. Pat wants answers. Momma says, she “always hated the name Fauna, that it was a stupid, fairy tale name.” Momma tells her that she is Fauna Hodel.
Let’s let that sink in for a minute. Jimmie Lee recounts the story of how Pat became her daughter.
Backstory Time! Jimmie Lee was approached by a white woman in a casino bathroom asking her to adopt her daughter’s child, tipping Momma $50. The white woman told Jimmie Lee that her daughter was only 15 and was impregnated by a Negro boy. Momma was childless and married to a respectable preacher so it was enticing. When Jimmie Lee said she’d take the baby, the woman tipped her another $50. Jimmie’s Lee’s husband encouraged her to take the baby, that it would make them a family. Now he’s not there anymore and Momma is bitter. Momma said she did her best with her. Then she shifts again; telling Pat/Fauna that her white family is rich and in Los Angeles. Her grandfather is a famous doctor in Los Angeles and one day she’ll be rich because of that name. Pat/Fauna is just left bewildered on the couch.
I have to hit the pause button here, no pun intended. The music in this show needs to be discussed a moment. David Lang, who composed the score for Requiem For a Dream (2000), composed the original music for this series and it frames each scene so majestically. The opening scene with the deep timpani as a harbinger of the drama to come. The title sequence holds lots of dark and foreboding images and sounds. The music in the scenes is very subtle at creating tension, suspense or mischief. Back to our regularly scheduled programming …
Jay is at the door leading to the press conference. He’s fumbling and telling the security guard he forgot his badge in the car. He’s told to go get it. Jay’s rummaging through his trunk and removes a white coat. FYI, Jay’s trunk is a mess but it lends credence to the feeling we have that Jay knows his way around a few sticky situations. He walks along the ambulance bay in his spiffy, official looking white coat, steals a stretcher from an ambulance and wheels it into the hospital.
Pat/Fauna is back at work with her mop. She’s angry and plotting something. This is the same music from the previous scene with Jay where he hatched his plan to sneak into the morgue. She slinks along the corridor and ends up crawling on the floor to evade the nun and nurse on the ward. Girlfriend heads towards the medical records room and removes a particular file from a filing cabinet. [Ed. Note: This episode is making me nostalgic for old-timey things like pay phones and filing cabinets. Remember when everything was on paper?!?]
The Morgue. Jay’s got his camera out and checking toe tags. Jay finds his target but quickly realizes that something is definitely not right under the sheet. The angles are just … wrong. Jay yanks back the sheet and the girl is a complete and utter mangled mess. Her head and arms have been severed clean off. Jay’s clearly disturbed by this, but takes his pictures as the intrepid reporter he is. He hears people approaching the morgue so he quickly covers her back up and then hides in an open cooler locker. You know, the coolers where they keep the dead bodies …
Jay leaves the door slightly ajar as four men walk into the exam room. One of them spots the locker door open and closes it, thereby reenacting one of my worst fears. Jay, now locked in the fucking dead body cooler, lights a zippo lighter and finds out he’s not alone in there. What to do, what to do? Laugh of course. Loudly and maniacally at where his path has taken him. Everyone has a coping mechanism, Jay’s is unfortunate for the circumstances.
The men open the door and Jay pops up saying he feels a lot better. Bwahahahaha, I appreciate his dark, morbid humor. The assembled men do not share my love of Jay’s macabre humor and he is summarily thrown out of the building. For good measure, he’s roughed up pretty bad by 2 cops. One throws Jay’s camera to the pavement, smashing it to bits while a beaten and bloodied Jay is tossed into the back of a patrol car. Right onto Calvin’s lap. Calvin, a black man, doesn’t look terribly surprised at the police’s actions. Jay introduces himself as the man who is there to keep him company. Did I mention that Jay is really bloody.
Pat/Fauna finds Lewis after her filing room discovery and asks him for some change. She’s looking through the documents she found and sees a name on an adoption decree: George Hill Hodel of Los Angeles. She’s on a payphone making a phone call when a man picks up. Pat/Fauna tells him her name is Fauna, his granddaughter. The man says how nice it is to hear from her, asking if she is being cared for. His voice is so beyond creepy and chilling; it’s the stuff of nightmares. He reminds me of Hannibal Lecter. The man, George Hodel, presumably, tells her that Tamar (Fauna’s birth mother) is not well. He invites Pat/Fauna to come see him.
With that creepazoid voice, there should be shudders down your spine.
A nun finds Pat/Fauna on the pay phone and tells Pat/Fauna that her mother passed. Pat/Fauna frantically runs home and rocks up to find her Momma quite upright, quite drunk, and quite chummy with the next door neighbors. This is the proverbial straw that has broken Pat/Fauna’s back. She starts packing up her shit.
Momma tells Pat/Fauna that she played the prank to let her know what it’s like to have your heart torn out and that everything can be taken from her. She shifts and tells Pat/Fauna that when she was a little girl she had blond curls and she had been accused of stealing Pat. Pat says she’s leaving to go to LA to her grandfather. Their whole exchange is so bitter and so hurtful, digging deep into the resentment they’ve felt for each other all these years.
Jay and Calvin have a chat in the back of the patrol car. Calvin warns Jay that Detective Billis (Yul Vazquez) is plain bad news with a heavy hand.
Pat’s identity has shifted to Fauna, so we will too. She boards a greyhound bus with her red coat, blue suitcase and Mary Janes (these look eerily similar to the ones spotted in the opening credits …). Our friend in the black car sees this scene. Fauna gets on the bus in search of her family, her identity, her place in the world, the truth. We’re hooked and have our ticket punched for this ride.
Jay is pulled out the back of a patrol car by Eddie Ohls (Jay Paulson) who served with Jay in Korea. Jay is pretty bloodied. His buddy works with Billis and has arranged for no charges to be filed, but it comes with a warning to beware the hand Billis is connected to. This is a throwback to the well-known corruption rampant in the LAPD in the 1940s, 50s and 60s (think LA Confidential). But, Jay is one step ahead here and removes a roll of film from his sock, salvaged before the camera was smashed to smithereens earlier. He’s pretty tickled with himself, actually.
Pat’s bus is at a roadside rest stop. A creeeeeepy man sits down next to her on a porch and offers her a smoke. She gives him some information that she’s going to Los Angeles to meet her grandfather. (Girl, I know you’re all innocent and what not, but come on!) His voice is as nightmarish as the one on the phone call earlier to Dr. Hodel. His voice has a put on effect, like he’s trying to sound a certain way, either that, or he’s a psychopath.
Jay is back home looking everywhere for a hit. He stares intently and crazily at a pipe high up on his ceiling. Chris Pine is to be commended on the acting here; for a man we have known less than an hour, Pine communicates Jay’s broken desperation flawlessly. You FEEL Jay’s pain in this scene, the feeling of hopelessness.
Jay takes his belt and loops it around the pipe but his attempted suicide is interrupted by the phone ringing. The fall to the ground is hysterical, it’s a credit to Pine, again, that he can go from desperate to prat fall so seamlessly.
On the phone, Jimmie Lee is asking if Jay’s the reporter who wrote about Dr. Hodel in 1949. She’s holding a weathered newspaper article that says Hodel was acquitted of moral charges involving his 14-year-old daughter. Jay is pretty shaken up. She tells him he was right about Hodel and to keep looking. She hangs up without identifying herself. Jay starts looking through his old files.
Fauna arrives in LA and calls Grandpa George. We cut to his house, which is uniquely and artistically designed, like an Aztec temple. A raging hedonistic [Ed. Note: This is what old school, Hollywood orgies looked like, I think] party going on. An Asian woman answers the phone, saying she’ll relay Fauna’s message. Fauna then calls her step-grandmother, Corinna Hodel (Connie Nielsen). Corinna is surrounded by wine bottles and has her back to us. She warns Fauna that Grandpa George is dangerous. We see a woman back at the party walking around with cupcakes on her nipples as Dr. George Hodel (Jefferson Mays) is informed that his granddaughter called. He’s got some damn freaky crazy eyes that are like blue cobalt – he’s the creeeeeeeepy dude from the rest stop.
Jay is looking at an old newspaper article declaring that Dr. George Hodel was acquitted and we see his picture. Bingo. Creepy psychopath confirmed.
This episode was enthralling. It lays down a lurid foundation for things to unfold along Fauna’s journey of self-discovery. The promotional summary references an infamous unsolved crime in Hollywood and the trailers reference the “Black Dahlia” murder from 1947. That the real life Dr. George Hodel figures PROMINENTLY in the “Black Dahlia” murder mystery assures that this will be an interesting plot line to see played out.
The characters are fascinating to me already; they’re richly portrayed and cleverly developing. I want to know where Fauna ends up and who she is. I want Jay to be at peace with himself, but also, keep his morbid sense of humor. I want Jimmie Lee to find some redemption and dammit, some rehab. I wanna know who the guy in the black Buick is.
Of the LA crowd we met in the closing minutes: Corinna Hodel, whose face we have not yet seen but is giving off a Hollywood bombshell vibe. Dr. George Hodel with that voice that sends shivers through me. And the trial involving Hodel’s daughter? I need more scoop on that, for sure.
I mentioned the musical score above too; this is something to keep paying attention to as it is so deeply connected to the characters and so moving. I’m a big fan of period pieces in all forms and the attention to detail thus far has been noticed and appreciated by this history buff. Tune in next week to see the next step on Fauna’s journey of self-discovery. I’ll be back with a detailed recap of that episode right back here next Monday.