“Nicky” is more dreamlike than any of the episodes before it, not just because of the music and editing—though the last two minutes lean hard into the dream-like music and editing—but because the entire narrative hangs together like a dream. Nicky floats in and out of different scenes, and people float in and out of her proximity, with little or no explanation. Her friends disappear in the blink of an eye. Puck pulls her away toward an unclear destination, for no reason they’re willing to say aloud. Awhina flags Puck down and then immediately moves on. Puck hands Nicky a set of pajamas and then leaves the room without saying goodbye. She passes by Bryn being sick in the garden, Poppy and Thea looking after Awhina in the bedroom, Puck laughing at Deme and Zander in the hall. More of the cast shows up in this episode than in any other, most of them for less than a minute.
The episode therefore works to the extent that you can deal with uncertainty. We’re entirely inside Nicky’s head. There’s no cheating—no camera angles or music or lingering shots that emphasize anything Nicky wouldn’t find important. The camera keeps its distance. We see only what Nicky sees, and by and large, we learn only what Nicky learns. Why is Awhina looking for Bryn? The answer isn’t in this episode. Why does Bryn blow up at Puck? You might be able to tell from information in “Puck” or “Bryn,” but nothing in “Nicky” will tell you. Why does Puck latch on to Nicky? Nicky herself has no idea, so the episode provides no obvious clues. These questions have answers, and they take only a little thought to figure out, but that little bit of thought is important. It aligns the initial viewing experience of “Nicky” with the experience of Nicky, who doesn’t know most of these people, and who has no context in which to understand Bryn or Puck or Awhina’s actions.
In contrast to the impenetrability of the plot, much of the dialogue in “Nicky” is pointed. Nicky and Puck basically speak in nothing but thematic statements (digressions on the fashion of rock stars excepted). Neither teenage nihilists nor teenage activists are known for keeping their life philosophies quiet, so the conversation doesn’t read as particularly forced or unrealistic, the way it might if two adults met at a party and immediately started arguing about the meaning of life. But we’ve already seen Nicky and Puck have this argument, in “Petra,” and their conversation here covers no new philosophical or personal ground. Nor is it as funny or tense as the conversation in “Petra.” In fact, it drags a little, something no other scene in Bright Summer Night has yet done.
Tellingly, the most interesting—and revealing—part of Nicky and Puck’s conversation has nothing to do with philosophy. Puck, trying to elicit a reaction from Nicky, steals a drink from a passerby and splashes it on Nicky’s shirt. Nicky leaves the room, and Puck follows her, saying, “Are you angry at me, Nicky? Tell me that you hate me.” “It’s okay, Puck,” Nicky says. “I forgive you.”
It’s been clear from the start that Puck intentionally alienates people to cover up their real desire for connection, and here’s a concrete example of that: Puck antagonizes Nicky, spills a drink on her, but also follows her from the room. And though Nicky’s speech in the wash room about kindness mattering more than being cool tells you something about her, her reply to Puck tells you the same thing much more convincingly. One character’s actions match their philosophy, and one’s don’t. Puck talks a lot about nothing mattering and no one watching, but when it comes down to it, they want to matter to others. But Nicky both speaks and performs kindness, and the giraffe pajamas prove pretty well that she doesn’t care about being cool. There’s no artifice to Nicky. She’s not covering for anything.
Nicky knows who she is, and she’s bursting with things to say, but she has no one to say them to. That’s the story of “Nicky”: a girl wandering through a confusing world, looking for someone who will listen to her. Perhaps that’s why the tone shifts when Puck disappears. For the first time in the episode, Nicky is alone, and the music turns “eerie” and “unnerving,” as the closed captioning accurately puts it. Then she stumbles across Awhina, who’s high out of her mind, and is perhaps the one person at the party who’s happy to sit and watch the girl in the giraffe pajamas rap about climate change. The music clears—still dream-like, but now pleasant, almost triumphant—and Nicky finally gives her performance. Now that Nicky’s story is resolved, the camera leaves her for the first time in the episode, pulling away in a series of jump cuts until she’s just a blur in the background. The music turns eerie again as Deme and Zander and Lena run by, Puck laughing behind them, heading straight toward the next episode.
It’s an incredibly effective sequence, of a kind with the endings of “Lena” and “Bryn,” with its moody, off-kilter open-endedness. Some of the most memorable endings in film and television are questions; they leave you in the middle of a thought, with the unsettling feeling of having run off a cliff. Think of the spinning top in Inception, or Jack and Ana Lucia staring at each other in Lost’s “Collision,” or Dawn’s hand reaching out to but not quite touching the cadaver in Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “The Body.” None of BSN’s endings are quite that good (“The Body” is in the running for the best episode of television ever made, so, y’know), but they’re in the same family. They stick in your mind the same way. The Candle Wasters know how to end an episode.
Still no water, hmm?
I laughed for a full minute when Nicky put on the giraffe pajamas. If TCW were really committed to transmedia, they’d have had a note thanking Beatrice Duke for her contributions to costuming. (Although I note that Harriett Maire and Jake McGregor are credited as Beatrice Duke and Benedick Hobbes, which is kind of hysterical in its own right.)
“And I shall sing that they shall hear, I am not afraid!”