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Summer 2016 TCAs: What’s the Deal with John’s Eczema on HBO’s The Night Of? 

Photo Credit: HBO

Anyone that’s been watching HBO’s The Night Of has noticed that lawyer John Stone has a very specific quirk, an affliction even, that follows him in many of his scenes. The itchy, unsightly, and incredibly mundane condition called eczema. I call it mundane for a reason.

Wikipedia tells me that anywhere between 10 and 30 percent of Americans have eczema at some point in their lives. Confession: I’m one of them! Honestly, just to have a main character on a television show living with eczema is unheard of.

The Night Of has taken a common skin condition and turned it into a significant metaphor for the frustration and difficulty of life and, in this case, the constant battle that is the criminal justice system.

Photo Credit: HBO
Photo Credit: HBO

Last week, TV Goodness was able to attend a panel featuring the cast and creators of The Night Of during the Television Critics Association summer press tour. The role of John’s eczema on the show was an unusually major topic of interest.

Case in point: Actor John Turturro, who plays Stone, was asked the broad question of what his connection to the character was. He said via satellite, “Well, I don’t have eczema, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Before I discuss the show’s symbolism associated with eczema, I want emphasize how unique it is to see something like this is in a show. It’s deeply vulnerable. When his feet are out, John is laid out for the world to criticize, to demoralize, to judge.

I can relate. I once had a cashier tell me that they too got a bad sunburn once and that aloe vera really helps. That was a sweet response. For every one like that, I’ve gotten many more which were just wide eyes that glance away quickly, a flash of disgust. It’s fine. I don’t take it personally.

Photo Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO
Photo Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

But to see a character go back and forth to a doctor, to stand in his kitchen with his raw, peeling feet covered in Crisco is something special, aside from anything symbolic. It’s just much more intimate than we usually get to be with the characters we turn in to watch each week. Sure, we don’t all have eczema. But maybe we have acne, or a big nose, or a lazy eye. We all have our “deficiencies” which expose us to the world. It’s all so refreshingly ordinary and we don’t get to see a lot of ordinary parts of life in television.

Let’s be clear: the featuring of John’s eczema in The Night Of has been triumphant; John Stone is real in a way no one else is on the show is. During the drama’s TCA session, the people both in front of and behind the camera on The Night Of were asked to explain the eczema in the show. Executive producer and writer Richard Price said, “I think when you have a malady that’s so personal and— it becomes part of who you are.”

But let’s get to the bigger picture. John’s eczema isn’t just featured to make him more relatable. When asked about the decision to include this detail on the show, Executive producer, writer, and director Steven Zaillian hadn’t initially planned on it being so prominent. He said, “In the British series, he does have eczema. I think there’s one shot of it. And when I say we ran with it, it kind of gradually became a kind of symbol, you know. And it developed in a very natural way, but it spoke to who this character was.”

Whether or not it was intentional, the writers have made the frustration of dealing with an autoimmune condition a metaphor for the frustration and endless difficulty of the criminal justice system.

Price was open about the fact that it was never the plan for the eczema to be so symbolic, but that in retrospect, it does make sense. He said, ”Once I started reading the reviews, people picked out that the eczema was a metaphor…for the frustration of finding a solution… it’s sort of a metaphor for the entire frustrating judicial system. And I guess it is.”

Photo Credit: HBO
Photo Credit: HBO

And not just that. It’s a metaphor for John’s journey; his path to success. The back and forth, the two steps forward and one step back, is clearly depicted in John’s eczema struggle. He’s at his breaking point when he agrees to try the Crisco and saran wrap combo, only to have it result in feet that “looks like takeout sandwiches” according to Price.

He’s airing his feet out in sandals, and treating the rash with this and that, he never thinks it’s going to get better, which is a lot like how John treats his law career. But with the progression his career faces throughout the show, it’s not entirely out of line to suggest the possibility of an eventual calming to his foot eczema coinciding with the close of this monumental case.

Of course, when Turturro was asked if the two were connected, he replied, “Yeah, I have to say I have to take the Fifth on that one.”

The Night Of airs Sundays at 9/8c on HBO.

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