'The Night Of' Was the Bleakest TV Show of the Summer, and It Was Great

A grim show about the horrors of the criminal justice system became must-see TV thanks to a set of amazing performances.
August 29, 2016, 7:54pm

Screenshot via HBO

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Spoilers for the last episode of 'The Night Of' follow.

The Night Of does not care about you. For seven weeks fans have been watching, concocting theories about the murder at the show's center, and waiting for answers to their questions—and for some semblance of justice to be served. Instead, we got a finale that was maybe the coldest anti–fan service since The Sopranos cut to black.

Who killed Andrea? It was the financial manager, a minor character who briefly appeared in the finale for a confrontation with Detective Box (Bill Camp) and didn't even get arrested at the end. Was Naz (Riz Ahmed) exonerated? Nope—a deadlocked jury and a reluctant prosecutor sprung him from Riker's, but the dirty looks he gets from neighbors suggest he's now a social pariah. Does Box get any reward for solving a case that he had no business solving? Nah—now he's a security guard at a university.

Was anyone left any better off post-trial? Let's go down the list: Box is in retirement and hating it; Naz is isolated and still freebasing drugs; Chandra (Amara Karan) is fired, and her career's destroyed after an ill-conceived makeout session with her client; John Stone (John Turturro) is still covered in eczema and representing low-level perps for $250. The only character who ended up a victor was Andrea's nonchalantly cruel stepdad (Paul Sparks), now a millionaire thanks to her death.

Unsurprisingly for a show that deals in various shades of steel-gray and black, The Night Of ended on neither a bang nor a whimper, but a series of doors closing and locking. Stone delivers the line that sums up the miniseries's overarching message while giving Naz some sage advice on his life after Riker's: "Right now, at the 21st Precinct, there's someone in the pen. They'll take 'em down to the Tombs, to court, to Rikers. Meanwhile there's someone else in the pen. Tomorrow, someone else, the next day, someone else. No one's even thinking about you anymore."

"No one cares about you" is not the sort of thing a life coach says—but then, life coaches generally have fewer open sores on their faces than Stone does. Plus, if there's anything The Night Of knows about, it's not caring. Freddy (Michael K Williams) leaks the video of Chandra kissing Naz, presumably in order to keep his protégé with him in Riker's. Stone sells out poor, naïve Chandra, revealing her tryst in an attempt to get a mistrial. Prosecutor Helen Weiss (Jeannie Berlin) ignores Box's evidence that someone else killed Andrea until it's clear that she can't win the case. Not that caring is worth a damn anyway—Chandra cares so much about Naz she buys drugs for him and puts him on the witness stand, allowing Helen to eviscerate him and manipulate him into admitting he doesn't know whether he killed Andrea.

The character with the hardest heart, though, is Naz himself. Before his release, he recruits new members into Freddy's gang, makes Chandra his drug mule, and prepares for a lifetime of prison crime. That hardness doesn't go away when he leaves Riker's: In an agonizing scene between Naz and his mother (Poorna Jagannathan), he confronts her over her doubts during the trial: "You thought I killed her." "Never," she says, and "OK, mom" is his only reply.

It's a quick exchange that shows just how cruel Naz has grown—or, maybe, how cruel he's always been. Instead of crying over the fact that his own mother thought him capable of murder, he turns it around on her like a knife: I know that you thought I killed her, and I don't forgive you. I'm going out to freebase now.

The Night Of has always been about the casual brutality inflicted on everyone through the bureaucracy of the criminal justice system: how it turns representatives like Stone cruel and callous, how it mistreats innocent people caught up in it, how impossible it is to untangle yourself from it. It's a slow show that rarely holds the audience's hand, refuses to resolve loose ends, and dropped some threads outright—like whatever happened with Naz's father's cab, and how Stone, obviously not a rich man, is able to buy all those subway ads.

What could have been a fairly grim trek through jail and court was livened up, however, by a cast of actors both known and unknown determined to knock even brief appearances out of the park, like an all-star version of Law & Order. In the finale, J.D. Williams (best known as Bodie in The Wire) turns his time in the witness box into a comedic set piece; Berlin caps off an Emmy-worthy performance in the series by deconstructing Naz; and Camp is similarly outstanding at displaying the depths lying under the schlubby appearance of an unhappily retired detective. Fischer Stevens, who plays the give-no-shits pharmacist, says about 20 words during the course of the show, and all of them are funny.

The world of The Night Of managed to feel lived-in and populated after a mere eight episodes—an accomplishment that few shows, even on HBO, manage to achieve. It's also not a very nice world: people are mean to each other, they fuck up when lives are on the line, and they ultimately don't do a very good job of saving one another.

But they still try. The last shot of The Night Of is Stone picking up his battered bag, putting on his big ugly coat, and sweeping off into the night to help some poor fuck try to get out of trouble he probably deserves. In the background is the cat—another life, along with Naz's, that Stone has just saved. Not much of a hero, maybe, but in these conditions we'll take what we can get.

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