A Long Night

Two of the most well-reviewed shows of 2016 repeat extremely tired tropes about masculinity and how it interacts with femininity and death.

Zoë Hayden
10 min readJul 19, 2016

The Night Of and The Night Manager have strikingly similar titles, and have received strong critical reception. The Night Manager alone has garnered multiple Emmy nominations, and The Night Of seems likely to get a few of its own next Emmy cycle. The plots aren’t really in the same wheelhouse when you take just the facts. Night Manager is ostensibly a kind of espionage thriller that is, as one of my Twitter friends put it, Tom Hiddleston’s James Bond audition reel; Night Of is a classic whodunit that plays as if mid-90's-era Law & Order took on the atmosphere and production design of Se7en. Both are compulsively watchable television, highly stylized and hitting the right grace notes of serialized storytelling. After watching the first episode of each show nearly back-to-back, though, I was struck by how their premieres followed the same basic arc — and was forced to wonder how the poor execution of their rising actions could go so unnoticed. (What follows contains spoilers for the first and possibly second episodes of The Night Manager and The Night Of.)

In BBC’s The Night Manager, Jonathan Pine is the night manager (oh-ho!) at an expensive Cairo hotel. Sophie, the beautiful girlfriend of a local gangster, inexplicably entrusts him with some documents that prove an illegal arms deal is about to go down, potentially providing the government with bombs and guns that could quell a rebellion (depicted is the very real coup that ousted Egypt’s President Murabak in 2011). Pine takes the documents and forwards them to British intelligence; in the process, though, someone is tipped off and the arms deal goes bad. Sophie is beaten horribly by her boyfriend, who suspects she had something to do with it.

In swoops Pine, of course, who whisks her away to a hideout. She seduces him, and they have a standard blissful sex montage (during which she reveals her real name, Samira, to him, which reads awkwardly like a hat tip to her “exoticism” — because what was the point of putting an Egyptian woman in a romantic situation with our very white, very British leading man if not to reveal her cultural secrets?). Pine goes back to work. But, he is informed that he can’t keep her safe, that the international criminal organization that they are up against is too powerful. She will simply have to convince her boyfriend that she doesn’t know anything. Pine tells her that all the promises he made to her were for naught, and she is understandably pretty upset. Back to Cairo she comes.

Nothing about this situation works. Pine finds her beaten to death in her hotel room, after a sudden and rather timely phone call from Angela Burr, an intelligence operative based in London. (Burr is played flawlessly by Olivia Colman, whose compelling presence changes the tone of every scene she’s in, making it feel real and, potentially, important.) Four years later, Pine is working in Switzerland after fleeing Egypt, and eventually makes contact with Burr again because he has encountered the international arms smuggling mastermind up close and personal — Hugh Laurie’s Richard Roper. Burr convinces Pine to go undercover, invoking both his military service and Sophie’s murder. Pine is easily swayed, because it’s the right thing to do, god damn it, but also because a woman he had sex with and made naive promises to ended up dead.

In case you hadn’t noticed by now — Sophie/Samira functions only to drive the plot. Her actions don’t make a great deal of sense, and we’re given no compelling reason as to why she wants to do any of the things she does specifically with relation to Pine. Surely an intelligent and kind woman might want to get out of a clearly abusive situation with a criminal boyfriend, and potentially destroy his business in the process; but she is drawn to Hiddleston’s Jonathan Pine as if by a supernatural force. She walks into scenes in slow motion, always from Pine’s point of view, framed in ethereal light, as if he is dreaming. Her beauty seems to only be showcased so that we can be shocked later by the bruises from her boyfriend’s attack. Her attraction to Pine seems to manifest because of his gentlemanliness and preoccupation with “saving” her. From a narrative standpoint, she has no choice as to her own well-being. It was either be whisked away by Pine or murdered by her boyfriend and his criminal enterprise. There was no third choice, and we are treated to gratuitous shots of her dead and bloodied body to emphasize that.

Sophie was the mere idea of a beautiful woman led intentionally to slaughter by her authors. Despite the presence of a strong and nuanced female character in Burr, it’s important to understand how their contrast makes very specific statements about femininity. French-Moroccan actress Aure Atika plays Sophie as glamorous and poised, like a high-fashion cover model. The trope is that the powerful gangster in an exotic city would have an extremely beautiful and feminine mistress; her beauty would speak to his power, and to what he can control and get away with.

Olivia Colman’s Burr depicted as tough, quick-witted, and practical. She is pregnant and is depicted in bulky sweaters and big winter coats. She’s passionate about her work, and about bringing down Richard Roper, but we see her from a variety of angles. We see her pregnancy, her ambiguous relationships, her professional status and reputation, and how she does business. Here, the script is comfortable presenting a woman who might have more complex motivations than what is immediately on the screen — something that it only deigns to do otherwise with Pine, and ham-handedly at that.

It’s an odd trick, then, to take a character like Sophie and use her as the diversion that sets the whole story in motion. She is merely the beautiful woman that Jonathan Pine can’t save, and as a viewer, I can’t figure out why I’m supposed to care about this relationship. The presumption that the viewer will care about Pine based solely on Hiddleston’s affect and talent balances precariously on top of the presumption that we will believe Sophie is important enough to bring Pine to a life of international espionage. (And if there was another reason, that begs the question, why wasn’t the pilot episode about that instead?)

No, the point here is that Pine’s masculinity (informed by his military past in Iraq and his ability to deliver service at a high level while taking very little for himself) is going to be challenged by something evil (Richard Roper/international arms smuggling/wealth) and he needed the death of something beautiful and his culpability in that brutal act to spur him along. And of course he needs a shepherd (Burr) to steer him right, to self-actualization. These are altogether poor caricatures, wreathed in the taken-for-granted assumption that beautiful women exist to be controlled or rescued by powerful men (another example is Roper’s girlfriend, Jed). It’s not exactly sophisticated or nuanced storytelling.

The Night Of follows a similar arc as our protagonist, 23-year-old Nasir Khan, heads out for a night on the town. After being invited to a cool Manhattan party by one of the college basketball players that he tutors, Naz’s ride bails on him, so he borrows his father’s cab so that he can get there from Queens. He doesn’t know how to turn on the “off duty” sign, so people keep getting in the cab. He manages to get rid of most of them, but then The Girl shows up and gets in his cab, and she is going to Change Everything.

The Girl tells Naz that she wants to go to “the beach” and tells him to go “uptown.” Her needs are vague and fantastical. When she says “I’m thirsty” Naz stops at a gas station and buys her beer. The script is so determined to give her a death wish that she flicks a lit cigarette onto the pavement right next to a hearse being filled up with gas, and the hearse driver accuses her of wanting to be his next passenger — either because she smokes, or because she could have gotten an ember in a puddle of fuel and set the whole place on fire.

Let’s be clear: nothing that The Girl does makes any amount of sense, and the viewer is meant to take all of this very seriously. Naz doesn’t tell her she’s being weird and kick her out. She is extremely beautiful, and white (it’s interesting how the optics of exoticism shift from what was depicted in The Night Manager — Naz is very obviously not Caucasian, and that in fact becomes a huge part of the storytelling as he keeps getting called a terrorist and an “Arab”). She’s wearing fishnets and asking philosophical questions. She takes him to “the beach” and gives him mysterious pills, and then takes her back to her house (a huge brownstone which she apparently lives in alone, with houseplants strung with Christmas lights and a creepy taxidermied buck’s head). She serves him a lot of tequila and then engages him in some knife play. She essentially talks him into stabbing her hand, and seems extremely turned on by this. They have a steamy sex scene. When Naz wakes up, he’s seated alone at the kitchen counter, and the fridge is open, and upstairs, The Girl is dead — brutally stabbed to death. There is blood everywhere.

In death, The Girl gets a name — Andrea — but it’s still up to a bunch of untrustworthy men to figure out what happened to her. Riz Ahmed is convincing as Nasir, who has no idea what is happening to him, either, as he’s shepherded through the racist and uncaring criminal justice system, though his whole experience is depicted as increasingly surreal. From his bizarre “date” with Andrea to his arraignment, he might as well be sleepwalking. He doesn’t have many choices in his movements from the moment she gets in his cab. First Andrea, then the cops who pick him up covered in blood and with the murder weapon, then Detective Box, then his attorney John Stone (played with a kind of elegant, noble brashness by John Turturro). Naz is quite literally trapped, and the show’s thesis seems to be, through two episodes, that the truth itself doesn’t matter — more depends on how you tell it, and if you do at all.

The show doesn’t seem overly concerned yet about who Andrea was herself, but rather what men see in her. Her stepfather is unfeeling and unaffected by her murder and doesn’t recognize her at first glance in her morgue photos. Detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp, who is better known on Broadway) seems to enjoy the artifice and stage direction of a homicide investigation, and while he tells Naz that he wants the truth, it’s pretty clear that he just wants him to confess so that he can shelve the case, see it cleared on the strength of hard evidence, and not dig deeper into any nagging questions he has about Andrea’s death.

What Naz saw in her was something else: a compelling reason to divert from his best laid plans. His journey to self-actualization, like Jonathan Pine’s, is directed by a cliche little different from a mythic siren song. Characters like Sophie and Andrea are hardly sirens, but what they bring along with them to the narrative table is blatantly in the same vein: passion and sex, leading to an inevitable death and moral downfall. It’s rather cheap and disappointing the way that scripts produced in 2016 can use any woman as a stand-in for temptation, and say subliminally with her mere presence and fantastical, sudden demise what is now in poor taste to write on the page. Instead of using screen time to hint at nuanced characters for their leading men to play off of (if they insist on having leading men), the writers of The Night Manager and The Night Of throw sex and death at these opening scenes, and hope that it sticks.

I’ve also tried to think about what these scripts get wrong that a favorite script of mine gets right — Robert Towne’s Chinatown. Evelyn Mulwray played off of Jake Gittes much the same way. But Evelyn wasn’t the impetus for the whole story; and when Jake got involved with her, there were reasons why. They matched each other intellectually, and Evelyn made choices throughout the story that could be tied to real and concrete motivations — to protect her daughter, to escape her father, to keep her secret, to get laid by her PI while she’s grieving her husband. When she dies at the end of the movie, it’s a commentary on a corrupt system that doesn’t value the truth or justice, but it doesn’t devalue her as a person. A lot can be said about the feminist implications of killing your female lead and ensuring that her daughter ends up in the custody of a rapist — in fact, it’s a pretty awful way to end your story. Though that is the point of Chinatown: the good guys don’t win, and they won’t, because money is power and power corrupts.

Towne’s script gives Evelyn’s story and character so much weight because it needs her to be a complete person for the end to be so crushing; since the story is all leading up to that gunshot, that car horn, that scream. Nothing in The Night Manager or The Night Of hints at an ending that impactful, because these stories have banked on emotional weight at the beginning of their stories carrying them through to the end. And that “emotional weight” was transmitted in the form of women’s broken, dead bodies — women that we really didn’t even get a chance to know or understand. Their beauty and their mysteriousness were traded as emotional currency to get us interested in stories about men.

I don’t object to stories about murder — I’m a crime show junkie; that’s why I even wanted to watch these shows. It’s just an extremely lazy thing to do, and certainly laughable considering how lauded these shows have been by critics. It’s easy to sell a show on its production value or the talent of its cast or its painstaking attention to detail and wry sense of humor — all of these things are requirements according to the current standards of high-quality television. But it’s evidently still really hard to write a good script with good characters who aren’t subservient to painfully obvious plot strings. The Night Manager and The Night Of didn’t bother to do that — but they’ve got everybody watching anyway.