The Night Of ends, as T. S. Eliot might say, not with a bang but a whimper.
Well, that was disheartening.
I still believe that the first four episodes of The Night Of are near-perfect television, but a week after I proclaimed it as the best television had to offer for the 2016 summer, something started to feel off about HBO’s acclaimed limited series.
The show’s acting and cinematography have remained unquestionably great. Amara Karan, particularly, has been a revelation as Chandra Kapoor, Naz’s lawyer. With Karan, Riz Ahmed as Nasir “Naz” Khan, and Peyman Moaadi and Poorna Jagannathan as his parents, The Night Of is a boon for minority actors and for humanizing members of the Middle Eastern-American community at large. I hope that HBO adds them all to its stable of frequent collaborating actors, a place where the eternally great Michael K. Williams (Freddy) already resides.
But something went wrong for the show’s writing after it passed the halfway mark as characters continue to make odd, seemingly out-of-character decisions. Is it simply a mark of The Night Of’s limited 8-hour runtime that Naz’s descent into a life of prison crime feels like it happened overnight? It’s one thing to wipe the shine off of a “good boy” during a murder prosecution, but is the show’s intent to prove that Naz’s soul was always darker than his polished exterior hinted? Or is it supposed to show how the criminal justice system transforms even the best of us into hardened criminals? It’s that I don’t know is what bothers me the most.
Either way, Naz’s transformation from a young man who never drinks and was out of his element with a sexually aggressive young woman to a prison drug mule and murder accomplice seems difficult to believe. How can Naz go from struggling with his mother’s courtroom doubts over his innocence one minute to having him unambiguously help murder another inmate the next? It’s as nonsensical as Naz shaving his head and getting the words “sin” and “bad” tattooed on his hands during a criminal trial.
It isn’t only a Naz problem, either. Many fans cried foul when Chandra unexpectedly made out with Naz in his holding cell during “Ordinary Death” last week. Inevitably, video of the kiss makes its way to John Stone and Chandra is removed from representing Naz, and may be disbarred once the trial is over. But wouldn’t the next logical step be to look at the closed circuit video of all of her visits with Naz? How much worse will things be for her when it’s discovered she was smuggling drugs for him? She claims to have feelings for Naz, but why a young lawyer would seemingly throw her career and her future away for a prisoner is beyond understanding.
John Stone’s long-winded eczema storyline didn’t fare much better. After weeks of painful close-ups and trips to a handful of different doctors, Stone experienced a week of eczema-free life and the lawyer reacted with incredible hubris, showing his clear skin off to his support group with pride. Of course, the disease returns with a vengeance just in time for him to have to give the defense’s closing argument now that Chandra has been removed from the case. Is it coincidence that the eczema was seemingly cured during the weeks he fostered the deceased Andrea Cornish’s cat? Who knows. It seems that way, but the link is only ever tenuous at best.
For a show that’s done as well as The Night Of in capturing the feel of New York City, having Naz’s father randomly be Chandra’s food delivery man in a city of over a million residents felt completely implausible. Are these things in the show’s latter half merely coincidental, or is this the result of Steve Zaillian gaining a co-writing credit for the series’ second half? I doubt it, but it’s worth mentioning.
What’s frustrating is how these scenes have often come side by side with the truly exceptional. Every Detective Box (Bill Camp) moment has been brilliant, especially Chandra’s cross-examination of him in “Ordinary Death.” The accompanying testimony of the defense team’s forensic pathologist, Dr. Katz, was no different. John Stone’s stirring final argument after Chandra has bungled the case by putting Naz on the stand is a testament to John Turturro’s incredible acting skill, but it’s the bookend to prosecutor Helen Weiss’s (Jeannie Berlin) own bungled final argument. The unflappable prosecutor is suddenly troubled by thoughts of uncertainty about Naz and it occurs in this moment?
The question of Naz’s guilt or innocence is never directly answered. Detective Box ends up forgoing the early days of his retirement to further investigate the case due to his nagging doubts, and he discovers Andrea fighting with an unknown man minutes before she gets into Naz’s cab. Through some extra-legal police work (and Box doing police work is far and away the best part of The Night Of) he discovers that this unknown man is actually Andrea’s former boyfriend who has a history of fighting with women. Box also discovers footage of him driving onto Andrea’s street at the time of the murder and a financial receipt that Andrea was suddenly missing $300,000 and he was seemingly the culprit. Case closed? Sort of.
Prosecutor Weiss declines to drop Naz’s case in favor of this other suspect, but the judicial process does her job for her in the form of a hung jury. With Box’s newly discovered leads in mind, she opts to not prosecute Naz again, and the end of the series shows Box moving in to arrest the other suspect. Naz goes free, Stone goes back to pleading out minor criminals, and the world goes on. Naz is now a heroin addict with neck tattoos and his freedom, but the presumption of guilt in the eyes of every person he meets. I’m sure he’ll be fine out there.
Was the show always doomed to head in this direction as it moved towards solving the murder at its core? The cops and lawyers in The Night Of were always destined to play Sherlock Holmes and solve the case, but did it have to sacrifice all its characters in that pursuit? Naz has become a criminal in his brief time inside. His parents mortgaged their lives for his defense. His brother was thrown out of school. Chandra will likely be disbarred. Prosecutor Helen Weiss was fully prepared to convict a man she who she doubted committed a murder. John Stone is back to being a low-cost lawyer with eczema. No one, it seems, gets out of this endeavor clean (well, maybe detective Box).
Even as I loved the show’s first half, I freely admitted that The Night Of was never project of originality. It borrowed from a slew of other crime shows including Law and Order and The Wire. The Night Of was to be praised for its perfect execution, but, eventually, that perfection went away. It all seems a little hollow if The Night Of’s intent was simply another exercise in showing us that no one gets out clean. We’ve seen that before, and much better. In the end The Night Of was fool’s gold.