Midseason Check-In: HBO’s ‘THE NIGHT OF’ Finds the Devil in the Details

Let’s be honest here. The case for The Night Of isn’t made on originality. 

We’ve seen this version of prison in multiple HBO shows before. Specifically, it’s presentation of a crushing bureaucracy that chews up an endless progression of characters harkens back to The Wire, as does the deep complexity of its multi-racial cast.

In fact, The Night Of’s formula isn’t especially different from an 8-hour Law & Order episode. Andrea is found murdered in New York City, Detective Box examines a slew of evidence which points squarely at Nasir Khan, and a team of district attorneys are sharpening their knives to put him away while John Stone mounts the defense. “In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime; and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories. Dun-dun.” But the key difference between The Night Of and the shows whose shoulders its standing on is its continued perfectionism and focus on the minutiae of the legal process.

Each of the show’s four episodes thus far have focused on a different aspect of the criminal justice system, and have brought a different character to the forefront. It’s ever so subtle, but that’s what you should expect from a show as expertly crafted as this one.

“The Beach” – Nasir Khan and the Crime

Naturally, every criminal investigation starts with a criminal, and “The Beach” presents the story of Nasir “Naz” Khan as the night of his life quickly becomes a nightmare instead. Naz is a smart college student who just wants to party with the university basketball team and meet girls, but his night quickly spirals in an unexpected direction when he meets an alluring young woman who wants a ride to the beach.

Before long, Naz and his mysterious passenger end up back at her place, taking pills of her offering, doing bumps of cocaine, and drinking shots, all of which are out of the astonished Naz’s comfort zone. She asks him not to leave her alone for the night, and Naz, like any other tantalized young man, is happy to comply. Soon, they’re playing a bloody rendition of five finger fillet, and pulling off clothes. Naz doesn’t even know her name.

When Naz finally wakes up in the early morning hours he finds his one-night stand, Andrea Cornish on the police reports, naked and stabbed to death in her bed. He has no memory of anything after they slipped off  but he knows that any sane person would finger him as the obvious suspect.

“The Beach” spends the remainder of its 90-minute runtime slowly ratcheting up the tension as Naz is arrested for reckless (and possibly drunken) driving on his way home, but it’s still another half hour before the police realize that the wide-eyed Pakistani kid in their police station and their murder suspect are the same person. Again, director Steven Zaillian and writer Richard Price stretch the tension to its breaking point as Naz nearly walks out of the police station multiple times before the detectives discover the presumptive murder weapon in his jacket pocket. The Night Of has never been quite this intense again, and why should it be? The criminal has seemingly been caught.

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“Subtle Beast” – Detective Box and the Investigation

Episode Two opens with a flurry of blurry images. The camera slides in and out of focus while the ethereal voice of Andrea, the victim, replays conversation from the night of her murder. It doesn’t add anything to explain just how, and by whose hand, she came to be murdered a few hours later, but that’s the point. Naz can’t remember the night of. It’s all a blur to him, and, thus, it remains so to us. The case is yet to be solved.

The man who is attempting to solve it is Detective Box, the titular subtle beast. Twelve-plus hours into his arrest on murder charges, Naz is still struggling to fully comprehend his lawyer’s advice (or is it order?) to keep his mouth shut. Box seems like a nice man who just wants to help, and in many ways he is, but his ultimate allegiance is not to Naz. It’s to the state of New York and finding the person accountable for Andrea Cornish’s murder. If all the evidence points to Naz, it’s Box’s job to make the case for the prosecuting attorneys.

So much of The Night Of works because detective Box is, frankly, likable. Yes, he and Naz stand on opposite ends of the case, but Box doesn’t seem like a hard-nosed cop bending the evidence to fit his case. He seems like a world-weary detective after the truth. His gut is telling him that Naz doesn’t fit the profile of a brutal murderer, but what can he do? The evidence points strongly to his guilt. He’ll try and press Naz for his story. He’ll let Naz talk to his parents, but he’s always watching and taking notes, always prying Naz to say just a little bit more. A subtle beast indeed, and the episode ends with Box marking the station whiteboard to indicate Naz should be charged with homicide, and his arraignment the following day.

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“A Dark Crate” – John Stone, Alison Crowe, and Hiring a Lawyer

John Stone has been a part of the series since the premiere, but “A Dark Crate” finally focuses on his role like never before. Sure, he’s worked to help Nasir since his arrest, but now the Khan family has to make it official and hire the normally small-stakes lawyer.

Stone costs considerably less than any other defense attorney on a murder case, and that’s because he’s never tried this type of case before. He typically trawls police stations at odd hours, representing and pleading-out petty criminals. He’s an outsider to the world of the high-stakes criminal trial. He doesn’t have an expensive suit or a strong pedigree, and his chronic eczema might as well be leprosy. But lest you start to feel sorry for Stone, he’s no angel, just as Detective Box is no devil. He’s busy high-fiving judges about his good luck procuring such a high profile case while Naz adjusts to life at Rikers Island.

That’s why Naz’s family opts to dismiss Stone and hire Alison Crowe instead. She’s from a professional firm, and she offers to represent Naz pro bono. But Crowe’s pedigree can’t hide that she, too, is hoping to capitalize on the high profile nature of the case as she goes in search of a plea deal.

These are Naz’s two options to options to escape the dark crate of his imprisonment, and, unfortunately, the easy option is the free one. The Khan family doesn’t have any other options with limited savings, Naz’s father’s cab is impounded as evidence, and rampant racism surrounds the Pakistani-American family. Even if Stone is the only one to actually believe Naz might be innocent, the Khan family can’t afford to work with him (for now).

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“The Art of War” – Freddy and Prison Protection

Even while Naz fights for his freedom in court, refusing a sweet plea agreement that Crowe has worked for him, the system of inmate prison justice has already found him guilty, and his life is threatened at every turn. He is slashed while walking back to his cell block one day, and another inmate scalds him with hot oil the next. Naz isn’t even likely to see his court date at this rate.

Fortunately Freddy, an inmate with special privileges, takes a liking to him and offers Naz his protection. Expertly played by The Wire alum Michael K. Williams, Freddy is a former boxer who uses his powerful fists to put down those who threaten his clients. His fame and connections as a boxer even afford him special favor from the guards who allow Freddy to operate as he wishes.

Like everyone else in The Night Of, though, Freddy has his own interests, and his interest in Naz stems from the young man’s intelligence. Everyone in Rikers is street smart, but Freddy craves an intellectual equal who can keep him mentally stimulated. He hopes Naz will plead to a manslaughter charge as much as Alison Crowe does, and for equal self-interest. He wants Naz around to help keep him entertained with intelligent discussion. What will happen to his offer of protection when he learns Naz has opted to decline the plea deal and go to trial?

The first four episodes of The Night Of have been near perfection with no indication of letting up, and the most heartening part is its length. In an age when television networks still aim for 22-episode seasons and studios hope for enough seasons to ensure syndication, The Night Of has no such aims. As an eight-episode miniseries, it will hit hard and then leave us. There’s just once case to be solved here, and no need for a sequel. That’s what makes the show such a treat despite it’s dark subject matter. It’s dark and perfect like a decadent chocolate, and just a small bite is enough. The Night Of is the best show of the summer.

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