Man, what to say about Fish Night, the subject of this review. During my initial watch, it catapulted to my top 3 favorite episodes of LDR (the others were Good Hunting and Zima Blue), and was one I would regularly rewatch. Looking online though was a different story; it was fairly divisive, with people either loving it or hating it in equal measure. The second of the main “experience” episodes I referred to in my review for Helping Hand, I’ll outline why I was entranced by this episode along with why people weren’t.
Based on a short story by Joe Lansdale (of The Dump infamy), it revolves around two nameless salesmen, one an old veteran of the pavement and the other a young and optimistic go getter, after their car breaks down in the middle of the desert due to a broken radiator. After some heated words about whose fault it was that the radiator broke down, they decide arguing is pointless and make plans to walk to the nearest rest station during the cool desert dawn later. Before they go to sleep, the old man, marvelling at the wonders of the desert, has an interesting thought: the desert used to be a sea bottom inhabited by many strange and fantastic sea creatures, and that if the ghosts of men can inhabit the places they lived, then why can’t the ghosts of animals haunt the places they once called home. The young man doesn’t think much of it, and they both go to sleep. Later in the night, the old man is awakened by an unearthly light, and looks outside of the car to see a truly wondrous sight; the ghosts of prehistoric sea animals swimming around them. The old man wakes up the young man, who is also struck by the marvel in front of them, and they get out of the car to get a better look. After realizing they can interact with the ghosts, the young man strips down and joins the schools of ghosts, becoming one in the process. As he swims around in the sky, the old man notices something terrifying; the schools of ghosts have fled, and a ghostly megalodon has appeared, swimming towards the unaware young man. Despite the old man’s desperate calls, the young man doesn’t notice the megalodon until it’s too late, and is eaten. The old man watches as the ghostly blood of the young man drifts across the sky and the ghosts disappear into the desert, now truly alone and adrift.
As I said earlier, when I first watched this episode it quickly became a favorite. The animation, provided by Platige Image Studio, was easily the most beautiful animation I had seen by that point (I know I keep saying that, but this one is definitely at the top, if not the top 3 for pure animation). The present day elements of the episode are rotoscoped, reminiscent of the rotoscoped movies like Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly (both by Richard Linklater). This to me, both tied us to reality while hinting at the dream like events that happen later, kinda like in Waking Life. What really made the animation shine though were, unsurprisingly, the prehistoric ghosts. Their animation wasn’t rotoscoped, but likely based on cel shading from what I can tell (I’m not an expert by any means on the minutiae of animation, so bear with me). This gave the ghosts a much more ethereal, otherworldly feel. If I had to describe it, it was as if an alternate universe, for a quick moment in time, became entangled in the rotoscoped universe of the salesmen; in other words, the animation of the ghosts perfectly captured that feeling of otherworldly beauty. Also, the ghosts just looked plain beautiful. Like, I would have been as enraptured as the two men if I were there in the desert with them. In fact, in conjunction with the music, the moment the men stepped out of the car and truly see what’s going on around them was easily the most uplifting moment of the entirety of LDR.
The other thing on my initial watch that really endeared Fish Night to me was just how much like a Ray Bradbury short story it felt; in particular, it felt like the story Night Meeting from The Martian Chronicles (one of my 5 favorite books of all time). In Night Meeting, a young man, one of the first colonists from Earth, drives across the newly deserted Martian desert to get to a party after a long week on the job. On the way, he encounters a ghostly martian going to a festival in the opposite direction. They talk for a bit, each claiming they are in the present time, before leaving for their respective situations with each viewpoint hinted at being true. It’s easy to see then how Fish Night could be influenced by Night Meeting by the surface elements (the superposition of past and future in a nighttime desert in particular), but what I find Fish Night nailed, like Night Meeting, is the sense of wonder we get from a glimpse into the beauties of the deep past or the deep future.
On my rewatch the other day, that sense of wonder stayed with me. At the same time, almost in the inverse of my rewatch reaction to Sonnie’s Edge, I came to understand why people didn’t like the episode. Mostly, this came down to the ending, namely the young man being eaten by the ghost shark and leaving the old man alone in the desert. It comes out of nowhere, and it feels like the narrative was cut short in the process. This is understandable on its face, but I’m not sold. There are two reasons for this: first, a line of dialogue early in the episode said by the old man; second, the nature of this episode as an experience story as opposed to a narrative story.
For the first point, before the two men go to sleep, the old man notes, almost nostalgically, that those sea animals must have been happy, with not a care in the world. To me, the ending underlies his mistaken belief in this assumption. Sure, those animals might not have had a care in the world (at least in our capacity and conception if caring), but their world was just as fraught with danger, if not more so, than ours. The megalodon eating the young man is as close to a rebuttal to the old man’s words given by the universe as we can get. The second point comes from this being misinterpreted as a narrative story. Sure, as a narrative this falls flat with no completed character arcs and no real act 3, but life doesn’t have this kind of structure, and neither does experience. Therefore, if we instead consider this to be the distillation of a singular experience, everything makes more sense. Like Night Meeting before it, this episode is merely trying to convey the emotions and meaning the men experience in the moment, anywhere from the monotonous, to the wondrous, to the terrifying, and everything in between. From that standpoint the episode is a great success to me.
So to wrap everything up, this is an episode that can either be regarded as a beautiful narrative misfire, or a beautiful encapsulation of a singular experience. It may not be in my top 3 favorite episodes anymore (thanks to my re-evaluation of Suits), but the original magic is still there. I understand if you didn’t like the story Fish Night told because of how it turned out, I really do. I just ask that at some point, you try to look at it from the idea of just witnessing an otherworldly experience. Who knows, maybe you’ll come to love Fish Night just like I do.
Final Rating: A-