Cat’s Paws and Chekhov’s Gun: Feline and Foot Symbolism in “The Night Of”

Deserved praise has been heaped on Steve Zaillian and Richard Price’s just-completed HBO mini-series The Night Of (based on the 2008-09 British series Criminal Justice) for its rich texture, attention to detail and social sensitivity toward New York’s Muslim community (if perhaps less so toward its black community). Two of the series’ prominent supporting players, the male calico cat (played by Bam Bam) found at the murder scene and defense attorney Jack Stone’s (John Turturro) eczema-plagued feet, also have received kudos for their fleshing out character and offering comic relief from the show’s bleak portrayal of inner-city life. Perhaps because they played no obvious role in the main murder mystery plot, however, the cat’s and feet’s contribution to the show’s layered symbolism has slipped under the radar.

More than merely adding color and comfort, the cat and feet uncannily mirror the zig-zagging arc of the other main characters and the murder mystery itself. Writer-director Zaillian has spoken to some of the metaphorical significance, describing in a piece for Medium how, when Stone first takes the cat to a shelter, “its stark walls and cages resemble a prison cellblock. . . . And as the cat with no name is carried by a volunteer past the chain-link cages housing loud dogs, it’s an experience not unlike [murder suspect] Naz’s when he’s first taken to Rikers by a corrections officer. The outlook for both is grim.”

But the feline (and unmentioned foot) metaphor goes deeper. Like Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed), the college student arrested for the brutal murder of young Andrea Cornish (Sophia Black D’Elia); police detective Box (Bill Camp), torn between the chance to end his career on a high note and nagging doubts about Khan’s guilt; novice lead attorney Chandra (Amara Karan), wobbling her way through her first court case; and Stone himself, seeing the case as a godsend for raising his client base above its perennial petty-criminal level—the cat’s and feet’s fates hang precariously in the balance.

The cat’s prospects are even grimmer than Naz’s, it turns out, as Naz likely “only” faces a life sentence if convicted while, as Stone is told by a shelter worker, the cat will be put away after ten days if not retrieved. Stone ultimately spares the cat’s life in the nick of time, not once but twice—both times mirroring Naz’s circumstances. The first time, after Naz has moved into safer and comparatively cozier quarters at Rikers thanks to a veteran prisoner (Michael Kenneth Williams) who takes him under his wing, Stone takes the cat to his apartment but, because of his allergies, sequesters him in a closed-off room. The second time, after Naz is released from Rikers, the cat is not only given free rein of Stone’s apartment. His species is given pride of place in the series, as his prancing across the hallway in the finale’s closing shot bookends another cat’s scampering across a nighttime street in the first episode’s final image.

The more subtle symbolism of Stone’s moldering feet, a propos their attachment to his person, parallels the similarly topsy-turvy trajectory of his involvement with Naz’s case. Trudging in sandals from one dermatologist, alternative healer and quack to another in desperate search of a cure, his eczema’s seeming improvement at one point and relapse at another matches the hopeful leads and dead ends of his quest to absolve Naz. In the end, much like the cat and Naz, he’s back at square one—both physically and occupationally: his feet itchy and smelly as before, his job back to seeking plea bargains and reduced sentences for a rogue’s gallery of petty criminals. The best he can get for them is a judge hip enough to instruct one of his scruffy black clients, who expected to get the comparatively light “Jew time” a well-heeled, white-collar convict had just received: “You want Jew time, do a Jew crime!”

Playwright Anton Chekhov laid down the law for dramatists when he issued his famous decree about the “necessity and irreplaceable” function of all major narrative elements. Now known as “Chekhov’s Gun,” the edict commands writers to remove “everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

The Night Of’s cat’s and lawyer’s paws were not left hanging. They were wielded with dexterity and fired with precision. Whether they hit the bull’s eye is for the viewer to decide.

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Vincent Brook teaches at UCLA, Cal-State LA, and Loyola Marymount. His latest book is Silver Lake Chronicles: Exploring an Urban Oasis in Los Angeles, with a second Silver Lake book and an anthology on Jews and Hollywood forthcoming.

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