Caution: Spoilers abound in this post! If you haven’t started watching this show yet, don’t read this.
Being an author, I hesitate to promote screen-watching over reading, but if I am to be honest, it’s really hard for me to find a book that grabs me the way the best serial shows do these days. I’ll save my moaning about the decline of American literature for another blog post. Bottom line: I really like this show, because the people who are making it are excellent storytellers.
No one ever talks about a show’s writers. The average Joe doesn’t even realize screenwriters exist. They seem to think that the studio puts the stars on the set, turns the cameras on, and some kind of magic happens. In fact, it all starts with a great script. Richard Price and Steven Zaillian are the show’s creators, writers, and producers (Zaillian is also the director), and they’ve done a damn fine job. Not only is this story solidly built, it contains a lot of excellent points of character development that make this a far richer and more satisfying experience than many other shows I’ve seen in this style.
There are lots of ways they do this. I could probably write several posts about how well done this show is, but I’ve chosen to focus here on three relatively subtle points of character development instead. Why? Because I like to leave the obvious stuff to others. These are the things that you might not even notice, but which are the reason you find yourself thinking about the show days later, because these characters are real people to you.
1. The cat allergy
We have three main characters in this story: Naz, the mild, 20-year-old Pakistani kid who is accused of murder; Box, the grizzled, soon-to-retire detective who wants to put him away; and Stone, the precinct-crawling lawyer who believes not necessarily in Naz’ innocence, but in his right to a fair trial. Before the night of, each of these lives might have been said to be more similar than dissimilar. All three men are more or less of the middle class, all Americans, all New Yorkers. They deal with the same traffic, they walk the same sidewalks, they ride the same subway. After the night of, they become set apart from each other in life-altering ways. Yet one thing about them never changes, and that is the fact that all three of them are allergic to cats.
So who cares? Cat allergies are common. What does it mean for the story? Nothing much. But it ties them together in a powerful way. The whole time Naz is sitting in jail, we’re struck by the fact that he could be us. We (mostly) don’t believe he’s a criminal. We feel he’s a victim of circumstance who at worst has been set up, and at best got very unlucky. How odd it is, we think, that humans behave in this way–that some of us take away the freedoms belonging to others, that they make this their entire raison d’etre. And what if this happens to us someday? What do we do then?
In a gesture that shows us far more than could ever be explained in a thousand monologues about Turturro’s character, Stone, the lawyer, takes the victim’s cat home with him. This is against all protocol. It’s not even very New York of him. The cat’s existence severely disrupts his already-upside-down life. He has to keep it locked in a room, and can only approach it with gloves and a mask on. But he cares about it. He feeds it. He even talks to it as if it’s his spouse. “I’m going to bed now,” he calls through the closed door. The cat doesn’t care (when do cats ever?) but that’s not the point. The point is that he has someone to talk to, even if that someone chokes him to the point where he can’t breathe.
2. John Turturro’s eczema
Like Commander Queeg’s metal stress balls in Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, like Billy Bob Thornton’s vocal tic in Slingblade, like Lionel Essrog’s Tourette’s Syndrome in Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, the lawyer Stone has a personal foible, a condition that both defines and bedevils him: the skin on his feet is maddeningly itchy all the time. He cannot even bear to wear shoes. He coats his feet in Crisco, wraps them in Saran wrap, and parades around the city in sandals, even visiting his son’s high school classroom on Bring Your Dad To School day, to that young man’s endless embarrassment.
It’s only eczema. It’s just a skin condition. It doesn’t speak to his moral character one way or the other; it has nothing to do with whether Naz will be found innocent or guilty. But this simple condition, which at first seems so random it could have been picked out of a hat, comes to mean as much to us about Stone as do his feelings on the entire criminal justice system. We cringe when he rips his scabs open with a knitting needle; we are hopeful for him when he visits a Chinese naturopath; we rejoice when he can finally wear shoes again. As Naz’s case gets worse, Stone’s eczema gets better. Why? What does it mean? Does he thrive on the suffering of others? No, but we sense he has turned a corner somehow, and this hits us on a subliminal level. Naz’ case was career-defining for Stone; it was the biggest one he’d ever handled. He felt lucky to stumble into it. So is he an opportunist, or is he really a good person? Both, of course. Maybe his condition existed because he was unfulfilled somehow, and now that’s he found his purpose, his constitutional imbalances have been righted. Again, we don’t get a five-minute speech on any of this. The writers do what writers are supposed to do: they show us, they don’t tell us.
3. The “reveal” in Ep. 7
This is not a big reveal on the level of telling us what actually happened. It’s a small reveal about Naz, something we didn’t know, something his lawyer didn’t even know, and that is a small act of violence he committed while still in high school: he threw a full can of Coke at another kid’s head, injuring him.
Again, so what? Kids do stupid shit. And Naz was bullied. He was a dark-skinned Pakistani kid living in post-9/11 New York. Ignorant yahoos used this as an excuse to call him names and beat him up. He defended himself. We knew about one of these incidents already: Naz pushed a kid down a flight of stairs one day, after he’d had it up to here with getting pushed around. In other circumstances, we might be glad to hear this. Don’t we always cheer when the oppressed finally fight back? But Naz is accused of murder, and it makes us wonder if deep down, he’s actually capable of stabbing a girl to death.
This suspicion deepens when we learn about the Coke can incident. Again, if not for the murder charge, it wouldn’t mean much. But there is a murder charge, and on top of that, Naz lied to his lawyers (and therefore to us) about this. It’s not the first time he lied. But it catches one of his lawyers by surprise, because she learns about it from a witness on the stand–pretty much the worst time for a lawyer to learn anything.
Aristotle would have called this a “discovery”. A discovery is a thing we learn about a character that changes the direction of the story for us. Maybe this is only a minor discovery. Maybe nothing actually hinges on it. But it’s a vivid moment, all the more powerful because it’s small, and it’s yet another example of how these writers take a tiny thing, a commonplace object, and make it mean something.
If you’re an aspiring writer, this series abounds with imitation-worthy examples. Watch it a few times with a notebook in hand, and keep track of details like these three I’ve chosen to point out here, as well as any others you can spot. Your own craft will be the richer for it.