Earlier this year, much was made about Game of Thrones' decision to include full-frontal male nudity in one of its episodes. Twitter went wild, critics analyzed, and Emilia Clark, a longtime advocate of freeing the penis, was ecstatic. But The Night Of, HBO's new critical darling, is not Game of Thrones. That's why I was more than a little surprised when last night's episode introduced a new supporting character: a dead man's penis. It happens rather suddenly. The scene opens in the morgue. The coroner — who we later learn is named Harry — is doing what a coroner does: pulling various samples of fluids (urine, blood, etc.) from a corpse. It's all pretty graphic. Helen, the district attorney in charge of Naz's prosecution, knocks on the door with a question — "When you have a minute." But for Harry, ain't no time like the present. "Now, is good, what's up?" he replies. A little blood and guts is pretty routine. Helen wants his opinion on whether or not it would have been possible for Naz to get a cut on his hand from slipping on the knife while stabbing Andrea. She raises up a picture of the wound, but he instructs her to place it "over there." "Over there," is in-between the dead man's thighs, where, you guessed it, the famous dick shot (or should I say shots — they show it at least three times) comes into play. Like the audience, Helen looks mildly uncomfortable. She hesitates before placing the photograph next to the corpse's flaccid penis. This is interesting in and of itself, but what follows really clinches the moment. As Harry looks at the photograph carefully, the camera follows his gaze — the penis lurks in the corner of the shot. Helen and Harry then have a not-so-cryptic conversation about what she would like him to say in his testimony. "You're stabbing someone with a knife," she muses. "Sometimes, it goes so deep, it hits bone, which causes your hand to slip onto the blade. But it only slips once, even though you stabbed her 22 times. How common would that be?"
With 'The Night Of,' we finally see showrunners using male nudity to advance the story, and it's refreshing.
"How common would you like it to be?" he replies. After some back-and-forth of, "I'm asking, not telling," Helen reiterates: "Look at it really carefully." After two shots of penis, it's hard to imagine that she's referring to something else. Yet, the conversation is still one between two colleagues debating a legal case. Harry looks down at the picture, gives his professional opinion, and the scene concludes. Not to worry — there will be a third penis shot moments later.
Obviously, this raises (sorry not sorry for the pun) some questions: Is the casual, almost innocuous way in which this penis is shown meant to give viewers a glimpse into how the system works? After all, morgue employees see corpses all the time — and corpses are generally naked. Is it to make the scene extra-uncomfortable? Is it a signal that something shady is about to happen? Of course, there's always the possibility that director Steven Zaillian just made a random decision to show male nudity three times in an era focused on female exposure, but that seems unlikely. In some ways, the nudity fits better here than in Game of Thrones. That scene was purely for shock value. We never did see that random Braavosi stage actor, or his wart-ridden penis, again — he had no other purpose than to expose himself. This scene, on the other hand, adds to the slog of law and order that The Night Of has been trying so hard to convey from the start. Coroners see us at our most vulnerable: dead, naked, and splayed open on a slab of metal. To them, we're a job. That sense of routine just serves to reinforce the shock of what comes next: Helen implicitly asking Harry to give her favorable testimony on the stand, which basically condemns Naz. Like the penis, lying on the stand suddenly becomes shockingly banal — just another day in the criminal justice system. HBO has come under fire for its use of "sexposition" and excessive sexual violence against women in its shows. The nude scene in Game of Thrones seemed like a turning point, albeit a very symbolic one. With The Night Of, we finally see showrunners using male nudity to advance the story, and it's refreshing. In fact, it almost makes me wish they would put as much care and thought into the scenes that do show naked women. But hey, if The Night Of has taught me anything, it's that the system is far from perfect.