The following contains spoilers through Night Sky S1E1, “To the Stars,” on Amazon Prime (written by Holden Miller and directed by Juan Jose Campanella).
Welcome, dear reader, as we begin to review the Amazon Studios series Night Sky with Episode 1, “To the Stars.” The episode takes its title from the plaque hanging above the entrance to the hidden capsule under the York’s shed. A little inside joke, but also their marital shorthand for talking about this amazing mystery lying beneath their back yard. When Irene wants to go there, she asks Franklin if they can “go see the stars” tonight.
Of course, the real “stars” here are Academy Award winners J.K. Simmons and Sissy Spacek. Amazon’s deep pockets are bringing some serious firepower to this show. No doubt these two are both at a point in their careers where they can be pretty selective about what projects they sign up with. Simmons just killed it in 2017’s Counterpart, an amazing sci-fi series that still holds a 100% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was criminally cancelled by Starz after only two seasons. Spacek was on another recent favorite of mine, featuring in Season 1 of 2018’s Castle Rock anthology on Hulu.
When I first learned that Amazon was going to drop this series all at once, I bristled at the idea a little bit. Knowing that I was going to love this show, I wanted to stretch it out and enjoy the ride for as long as possible. However, as I watched and rewatched the pilot episode, I’ve come to realize that it is a bit slow paced. Purposely mirroring the slow pace of the elderly lead characters portrayed in the show, no doubt.
Personally, I love what they are doing with that, giving the story some breathing room to build a nice solid foundation and make me really care about these people. But I can also recognize that nothing really “happens” until the final scene of this premiere episode. Would it have been enough to hook people into coming back the following week for the second episode? I guess we’ll never know. Maybe next season the release schedule can be stretched out a little bit and we can all talk more. Fingers crossed.
We start at the beginning, when Franklin first met Irene. Franklin is a local boy. He’s a manual laborer, having his own carpentry business, and a bit of a pool shark. Irene is a college girl. An English major no less, who eventually becomes a beloved teacher in the community. The two of them click together like magnetic Lego blocks. The young couple start out their relationship with the same playful charm we see from them throughout the episode as the older couple.
This initial memory comes to us courtesy of Franklin’s daydreaming, as he stands in front of the microwave waiting for dinner to heat up. Now that we’re in the present, we immediately settle into their routine. It’s “living dangerously” to eat the food that might have been contaminated by the silverware left in the microwave, but the very real danger of using too much salt is to be avoided. After dinner, Irene retires to the living room while Franklin fixes a leaky gasket on something. And then they teleport to another planet and watch the stars while doing the daily crossword. For the 856th time.
You see, the premise of the show is that some years past, the Yorks discovered an underground chamber in their backyard. This chamber is a portal to a companion chamber on the other side…of the galaxy, perhaps. We don’t really know how far away they are teleported. The distant chamber has a large viewing window looking out at the amazing, although barren, alien vista. As Franklin quips, most people when they want to get out of the house, they go to dinner or maybe a movie. Then again, as Irene replies, “most people don’t have this.”
In bits and pieces, we learn that the Yorks had a son, Michael, who died some time ago. He was old enough to have been married and had one daughter, their granddaughter, Denise. She slips in that her mother just celebrated her 10-year anniversary with a new husband, and Denise herself is a graduate student now. So, it’s feeling like he must have died some time while she was still pretty young. There is maybe an implication that he might have committed suicide, and even a further hint from her doctor that depression might run in Irene’s side of the family.
In Irene, the sense of loss over their son and the sense of wonder that the portal brings seem to hold a precarious balance, the one cancelling out the other. She apparently does not talk of Michael very often. In one moment when she’s let her guard down and shares a memory of him hating to have his nails cut as a child, Franklin tells her that he likes hearing her talk about him. It doesn’t happen very often is the implication.
Franklin seems to be more accepting of their son’s death, and more satisfied with his life in general. Irene is not in that same place. Where Franklin daydreams of their past life together, Irene daydreams of the stars. She considers it their riddle to solve. She believes there was a reason they found the portal. Maybe if she can find that answer, she will also answer why her son was taken away from her.
Another theme that is really well conveyed in this episode is the sense of fear that comes with old age. For Franklin, it’s an accumulation of little things. It’s his neighbor presuming he needs help mowing the grass. It’s asking the tow truck guy if he has to report this, when Franklin forgets to get gas and they end up stranded on the way home. It’s neighbors sending Facebook messages to their granddaughter about their evening walks, and her pressuring them to move out of their home of 50+ years.
Irene has had a larger scare, with a fall six months prior that put her in a wheelchair. According to Denise, she could have died even. The wheelchair is optional now, but she uses it out of an overactive sense of precaution whenever they go out. Of course, she’s also choosing to not go out very much. There’s definitely a sense that this event took a lot of the wind out of her sail.
Are You Here to Fix the Window?
Irene gets another big scare when she decides to visit an old friend, Sadie Norton, whose husband has just recently died. The nursing home where Sadie lives is nice, clean, and seemingly very active—but also a place of horrors. Just sitting in the lobby in her wheelchair, Irene is almost whisked away by one nurse who mistakes her for a resident and begins scolding her for being out of her room. Chandra, the former student who rescues her, paints a grim picture of despair. She has no pity for the residents who don’t know what they want or need anymore, only for herself not being appreciated for what she does for them.
Initially, Sadie seems to be doing well, recognizing Irene and joking with her. Then, after a pause, she repeats her initial question, “Are you here to fix the window?” and our hearts sink. Sadie is only a few steps behind her husband. Her forgetfulness extends to the niceties of polite society, as she point-blank tells Irene that they were never “friends” and that she actually found her to be quite surly.
This preview of physical and mental breakdown seems to be the final catalyst that pushes Irene over the edge. She tells Sadie the secret of their portal to the stars. She believes that makes her special. In fact, she is “the most special person you’ve ever met in your life.” Then she confesses that she’s sick, and scared, and not so sure anymore that she is special after all. She’s been waiting for the answer to the riddle to reveal itself, but she can’t wait any more.
Franklin, of course, has picked up on all of this. It’s not just the constant daydreaming about that other world either. She has been trying to nudge Franklin into having more of a social life. Go play pool with his old friend, Randy. Make new friends with the neighbor, Byron. She doesn’t want to feel that the only thing he does is take care of her.
That evening, Irene gives him the “what would you do if I died?” talk. Franklin’s reply is that he would die too. She finds that unacceptable and makes him promise that if she goes first, he’ll sell the house and move on. After all, he just confessed that looking at that other sky sometimes scares him. The only reason he doesn’t want to move is because he knows she doesn’t want to move.
Later, as they lie in bed together, Franklin sings to her “their song,” Elvis Presley’s “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You.” The lyrics, in fact the last fading stanza as he falls asleep, match his initial response. “Darling, you’re all that I’m living for.”
The poem that Irene quotes in her letter to Franklin is “The More Loving One” by W.H. Auden. It’s interesting that she only quotes a portion of the poem, because in particular there is one line in the middle of the quote that she leaves out. That line reads, “If equal affection cannot be, let the more loving one be me.”
She is quoting the poem in a literal sense, as one who loves the stars that do not share that love in return. She believes that she is going to her death, anticipating that she will see their dead son, Michael. Although she is about to be killed by the stars who do not give a damn, she loves them anyway.
But of course, in their relationship, Franklin is the one who chooses to be the more loving one. Irene is making a selfish move here, and she knows it. Maybe that is why she omitted that particular line, perhaps even subconsciously. She begins the letter saying that she would never hurt him, but she ends with an injunction to be strong. She knows very well what this will do to Franklin.
With her hand on the airlock door, Irene hears a noise behind her. She turns to find out that she is not alone in the chamber. There is a man, lying on the floor behind her. “Please,” he implores her. “Help me.” Irene is paralyzed in disbelief. “Who are you?” she asks, and the credits roll.
A couple of quick takes on the rest of the episode and other tangentially related things:
- Irene tells Sadie that she is sick, but everything we saw from the doctor’s office visit implied that she is physically fine, just not following orders on her recovery plan.
- Does Irene really remember her former student, Chandra, or is she just humoring her? I suspect the latter.
- Byron and Franklin seem to both be in a relationship where the wife is the smart one and the husband is just a simple man.
- Did the stranger come from outside the portal? Franklin earlier reminded Irene that the mice he had put outside the door “didn’t last a minute.” Strongly implying he couldn’t have, unless perhaps he is an alien.
- Assuming they are actually being teleported to that other world, its gravity matches the gravity of Earth.
Best lines of the episode:
- “You like Elvis Presley songs?” “Elvis? Isn’t he a bit over the hill?” “You’ll come around.” “Is that right?”
- “Well, they told me not to marry an English teacher, but I went and done it anyways.”
- “You ready to make history?”
- “Most people want to get out the house, they go to dinner or maybe a movie.” “Most people don’t have this.”
- “There’s a reason we were the ones who found this. It was meant for us. This is our riddle to solve. Don’t take that away from me.” “Of course not.”
- “You know, I’m a simple man. I see grass, I mow it.” “You see a property line, you trespass it.”
- “What do you think, time for the Banana Splitters to ride again?”
- “Well, it is a doctor’s office. Complaining is encouraged.”
- “We’re just going to stick where we are. And if that means I keel over dead walking up the stairs, or pruning the roses, or wheeling your Nana around all hours of the night, well then so be it.”
- “Are you here to fix the window?”
- “Sheep dip. I forgot to get gas.”
Well, that was a great episode with some really great performances by our two leads. This show is letting us know right out of the starting blocks that it’s going to be a more thoughtful sci-fi, which is to be expected when those leads are in their 60s (J.K. Simmons) and 70s (Sissy Spacek). I don’t anticipate too many car chases and pew-pew action scenes. All the best sci-fi uses the fantastical simply as a means to explore the human condition.
I wanted to limit this article to just the pilot episode because it really stands alone, with plenty of depth to be plumbed on its own. The next article will cover Episodes 2 thru 6, following the pattern in which screeners were released to reviewers. Then we will wrap up with a third article covering the season finale as Episodes 7 and 8.
That’s all for now. Please let us know your thoughts and feelings about this week’s episode, and any theories you have, in the comments below.
All images courtesy of Amazon Prime Video