The Night Of's Heart Of Stone
How a dark procedural commentary on criminal justice uses its protagonist, and his relationships and reputation, in just the right way.
There isn't much to John Stone's "relationship" with Pauline Rodriguez, at least in terms of screentime. Pauline is primarily the McGuffin that puts Stone in contact with Naz, and outside of that, she has what's apparently a standing business relationship with Stone, familiar enough to allow for mildly antagonistic teasing. I think we've seen the last of her when she works it down the street in her high-heeled boots, recommending a machete as the "cure" for Stone's foot problems, and though I kind of wish we could see a spin-off, 33 Short Films About Stone Getting Pauline Bailed Out Of Jail, just based on the dead-drop business Pauline is doing in the background of the scene pictured as she collects money she'd stashed under a mailbox lid, the character's served her purpose.
But their relationship stands for all of Stone's other relationships, in a way, including ours to Stone. For starters, all of Stone's interactions seem to involve mildly antagonistic teasing and/or Catskills-y sarcasm: the pointed banter in the precinct bullpen, with Stone snarking that the detective should show him "that chokehold" he used on a suspect that got him in dutch with IAD and the detective snarking back that he'll happily demonstrate now if Stone wants to step outside; Stone's nonplussed response to his son (whose full name is "Dwight Gooden Stone," not for nothing) changing report topics from Thurgood Marshall to Jamie Foxx because Marshall is "boring," and calling after him that he should at least write about Denzel (Dwight, as the door's closing: "Already taken!"); the rapport between Stone and his ex, the relatable mix of fond and tired; the bail-court judge's sincere "'right place, right time,' good for you" in response to Stone's scoring such a high-profile case, and Stone's sincere grin of victory in response. It's not so much the relationships themselves, which The Night Of wisely leaves elliptical; it's the rhythm of them, the ease with which we can recognize them (thanks in part to Turturro's ur-New Yorky delivery -- he even throws in an "again with this").
Stone is schleppy, but confidently so, and that combination is encapsulated perfectly in his exchange with the courthouse security guard about taking his shoes off. Yeah, the eczema's nasty, but Stone's got a dedicated chopstick to scratch with -- and a perfectly Dr. Zizmor-ian subway ad to prove he's for real. And Naz and the viewers need that exact combination of qualities, a figure of fun and a beacon of hope, because otherwise, the situation is just too bleak to contemplate, for him and for us. "Subtle Beast" spends a lot of time in claustrophobic close-up, or jamming up the sync on the audio and the video (as Naz emerges from the transport van and goes through intake, the sound is migrainily heightened and paired with a slightly slowed down visual that gives the audience an excellent window into how noisy and boring and generally disorienting jail is). The episode's shots linger long and often on the unintimidating shabbiness at the corners of official business, dripping faucets, scratched-up tabletops, frayed file folders, constant creaking.
Every room is too bright and too dark.
Director Steven Zaillian composes his scenes with an eye for the details Naz would fixate on, stare at like they were visual life preservers, and Stone functions in much the same way for Naz psychologically -- not just because he's Naz's attorney but because he's that link to the outside. He's part of the system, as Box dramatically informs Naz in an attempt to undermine Stone's instructions not to talk to anyone, and the props department has tipped us to that already when Stone goes through the metal detector at the courthouse:
It's a disorganized dog's breakfast of crap spread out over like a dozen pockets, and containing Stone's actual breakfast, a hard-boiled egg, because of course Stone isn't the guy who brings a Special K bar or grabs a pork roll egg and cheese down the street. He has an egg. In his coat, one pocket over from the Purel, one pocket up from the dogeared business cards held together with a vintage rubber band. It's a perfect downmarket prop note for a guy who's as dinged-up as the system, but hasn't cracked, and Turturro's darkly humorous rendering of that guy is just what we need to keep The Night Of from feeling too oppressive and dark. In among the tight shots of the skull saw and the rough pores of the victim's stepfather, waiting at the morgue, among the junkie puking and continuous clanging and rectal de-cell-phone-izing of the Tombs, is Stone, unsure what posture to adopt as he waits to exit the 1 train under his own subway ad. (Sgt. Klein, who's probably also done after "Subtle Beast," serves much the same purpose, dryly asking Box if he needs him to argue to seal the performance for Naz's parents, or just let the moment breathe.) This imperfect person is the perfect break from the flinchy tension Naz -- and we on his behalf -- spend much of the show feeling.