TNT’s six-part I Am the Night has gotten a bit lost in the current shuffle of infinite television. That’s too bad. The limited series is an unusual mix of true-life biopic, semi-true crime drama, and Hollywood noir fantasy. The visuals are very colorful. The mystery plot is a messy compilation of midcentury race relations and secret SoCal history. It doesn’t all work, and you sometimes feel that a complicated true story has been mashed into cable cliché. But the fifth episode, which aired Monday night, is a good demonstration of the show’s curious charms.
The episode’s titled “Aloha.” It’s written by Night creator Sam Sheridan, though the boldface name for me was director Carl Franklin. Franklin’s best known for filming the Denzel Washington neo-noir Devil in a Blue Dress. He’s a master at building tension. That skill’s on display in One False Move, his 1992 potboiler starring a career-best Bill Paxton, and Out of Time, the very sweaty 2003 thriller that turned “Denzel Washington waiting for a fax” into a thrilling action setpiece. (Small screen heads know Franklin as “the guy who directed the first Nora episode of The Leftovers,” an episode so good it practically re-piloted the series.)
Franklin doesn’t radically alter the look of I Am the Night established by previous directors Patty Jenkins and Victoria Mahoney. He has richer material to play with or just crazier twists. Journalist Jay Singletary (Chris Pine) begs his editor Peter (splendid Leland Orser) for two plane tickets to Oahu, promising a veritable A-bomb of reportage. Jay goes to pick up Fauna (India Eisley). His appearance offends Jimmy Lee (Golden Brooks), Fauna’s adopted mother. Things spiral quickly, and soon Jimmy Lee’s chasing Jay across the house with a knife.
The action downshifts to a leisurely slow burn when Jay and Fauna head to Hawaii. Fauna believes she’s heading toward a joyful reunion with her mother, Tamar (Jamie Anne Allman). Jay knows more than he’s telling: About Fauna’s grandfather George (Jefferson Mays), and his alleged connections to the Black Dahlia murder, and a terrifying 1949 molestation trial. “Heaven must look like this,” Fauna says. Looks can be deceiving. The land is lush green, but it’s always raining, or about to rain. A drunken sailor nearly assaults Fauna to the tune of “Wooly Bully.” Jay takes his sock off, fills it with a billiards ball, and smashes the navy man in his face.
That night, Jay sleeps out in their cherry-red convertible. Fauna wakes him up when he starts screaming through a nightmare. He muses about what it felt like to kill in the Korean war: “It’s like riding the chariot of the Sun God.” Franklin films Pine in direct closeup in the back seat. There’s an unadorned sadness in Pine’s thousand-yard stare. He looks a bit like some Sun God or other, nova-blonde hair and ocean-deep eyes.
Jay’s pondering madness Fauna can’t quite understand. And then, suddenly, she can. She finds Tamar, a woman living off the grid with two young children. Fauna’s mother is almost a parody of Cali woo-woo. Her children don’t call her mom. She names multiple daughters after a Robinson Jeffers poem. And she reveals that Fauna’s father wasn’t black. “I put Negro on your birth certificate because I just wanted you to belong,” she says. “I admire black people so much.” This is loopy logic, halfway Dolezalian, but then comes the final revelation. Tamar was raped by her father. Fauna’s her sister and her daughter.
This twist is arguable history, inarguably Chinatown-y. (Perhaps in deference, a late scene from the episode takes place in Chinatown.) It’s also been supremely obvious all season, but Eisley’s performance in the scene sells the way this surprise anvil-crashes Fauna’s psyche. See the gorgeous Hawaiian coastline, spoiled beyond reckoning by memories of assault and incest.
Then Jay visits Tamar. He sits by her at a campfire. Tamar holds a lazy cigarette, explaining that Hawaii is beautiful, but boring. “The men think they’re daring,” she says. “Talking about free love, walking around naked. Thinking that they’re pushing the boundaries.”
Tamar knows something about boundaries pushed, and Allman’s performance in this scene is just stunning, moving carefully from world-weary to amused, haunted to hilarious, almost flirty until you realize how scared she is. “The universe protects George,” she tells Jay. The reporter thinks he’s the first man to ever connect George to the Black Dahlia murder. Tamar responds with aristocratic privilege — becoming, for a moment, some earlier self, an heiress born on the inside looking out. “Everyone knew,” she tells him.
Too much of the Jay/Black Dahlia subplot feels like paint-by-numbers L.A. noir, with scar-faced corrupt cops and unlikely orgies of evidence. But the episode’s final scene returns to Fauna’s adopted mother, Jimmy Lee. Brooks’ performance has been splendid, full of maternal toughness and dissolving sorrow. She cries to Fauna on the phone, ecstatic that her daughter wants to return home.
And then she cuts off the call because George Hodel is in her kitchen. Franklin films their interaction with carefully architected details: The steak Jimmy Lee is cooking, the knife George starts to sharpen, the oil Jimmy Lee throws on her stove, the door George locks. And then the violence explodes at perfect random. A knock on the door, Jimmy Lee throwing a pan full of oil at George, George chasing her into the living room to stab her three times with a blunt knife. (Some symmetry: Jimmy Lee chased Jay with another kitchen knife.)
I wish I Am the Night didn’t keep reducing George to an omniscient boogeyman. And the show’s attempt to crisscross the horror of the Black Dahlia murder with the more complex history-quake of the Watts Rebellion feels exploitative in both directions. Still, I admire how Franklin’s deft eye for casual tension and quiet uneasiness energizes this series, turning a postcard-pretty trip to island paradise into a freaky-seductive journey downward to generational assault Hell. Franklin also directs next week’s finale. Worth catching up on I Am the Night now.