'The Night Of' Shows How Hard It Is for Courts to Uncover Truth

The HBO crime drama has been very good at showing how slippery the notions of guilt or innocence can be.
August 15, 2016, 5:00pm
Screenshot via HBO

Some spoilers for the latest episode of_The Night Of _ahead.

Sunday night's episode of The Night Of opened with the most metaphorical shot of the whole series so far: John Turturro's John Stone, the closest thing the show has to a hero, sifting through a litter box and taking out the little chunks of shit.

The scene did two things. First, it reminded me that cats are more trouble than they're worth. Second, it established what the episode would be about. The night that set the show in motion is by now weeks in the past. All that remains is for those events to be dissected and held up to the light. After roughly 10,000 years of long shots of jail inmates walking down hallways and hushed arguments between lawyers, the trial is finally happening.

The Night Of has drawn a lot of comparisons to Law & Order, probably because that august procedural is the way most Americans learn about the legal system. But it's instructive to look at the way the two shows differ. Most obviously, in the Law & Order universe, the truth of a case—which is usually that the third person the cops talk to actually committed the murder—is arrived at through the efforts of the detectives and prosecutors, with the defense team ignored or painted as villains standing in the way of justice. But of course once charges are brought, a prosecutor's job is to get that conviction, not continue to investigate any and all possible leads. So in The Night Of, the case has split in two. Detective Box (Bill Camp) and district attorney Helen Weiss (Jeannie Berlin) are searching for evidence, as are Stone and his de facto assistant Chandra (Amara Karan), but each team is going down very different paths.

Our legal system rests on the fiction that some combination of police, prosecutors, and defense attorneys can work their way toward an approximate version of the truth of an event. The Night Of, so far, has been largely about how difficult that truth is to find.

The big revelation Box uncovers—the shit in the litter box, I guess, if we're going to keep on with that metaphor—is that Naz (Riz Ahmed) was once expelled from his high school after throwing another kid down a flight of stairs. That bit of information is disconnected from the case, but in context with the fact that Naz takes Adderall for fun (which we learned last week) torpedoes the image of him as a perfect innocent. Of course, the legal system never declares innocences—it just decides between guilty and not guilty.

The defense team, obviously, is focused on something, anything, that could help their not-guilty case. But this isn't so simple. The most terrifying moment of the episode is when Chandra confronts the mortician who told Andrea, the murdered girl, not to smoke at the gas station hours before her death. It seems fantastically unlikely that he'd be the killer behind all of this, but he's a hell of a red herring, staring the young lawyer down as he explains that certain women have a "vibration" that leads them to treat men like balls of yarn, a speech made more unsettling by how carefully he's painting the nails of a corpse. "Women like that are out to destroy you, sometimes you got no choice but to strike first, you know what I'm saying?" he tells Chandra, who obviously does not know what he's saying. By the time he tells her to read her Bible, she's completely terrified, and still rattled when she comes back to Stone, who waves the whole thing away.

Our legal system rests on the fiction that some combination of police, prosecutors, and defense attorneys can work their way toward an approximate version of the truth of an event. The Night Of, so far, has been largely about how difficult that truth is to find. Physical evidence is always filtered through the human bias of experts; eyewitnesses are unreliable for reasons that may not have anything to do with the crime; and motives are simply nonsense.

When asked by Chandra about the time he pushed the kid down the stairs, Naz doesn't demonstrate remorse or even regret. "It was like pushing open a door," he says in the episode's most powerful moment. "You know what I felt after? Bad for my mom... Other than that, I felt nothing." We want our murderers to be wicked, we want narratives that paint them as such—that's the whole reason years-old schoolyard fights are dragged in front of juries at murder trials. But what if a life is really a bunch of events and decisions strung together without much in the way of cause and effect? What if Naz is angry and troubled and has a stone of hate secreted away in his heart, but is also totally blameless for Andrea's death?

Sorting through all that is difficult for a viewer with a god's-eye view of the proceedings; it's downright impossible for the characters caught up in the drama. A search for truth is a more complicated and more demanding quest than most people are prepared for. Chandra, for one, is clearly struggling with the demands of the case. She's stressed over her opening statement; she's terrified by the mortician; worst of all, maybe, is the fact that she believes in Naz's innocence. "That ain't important," replies the jailhouse prisoner-king Freddy (Michael K. Williams). "Only a new lawyer wouldn't know that."

The only one equipped for all this, it seems, is Stone, who finally gets relief for his eczema thanks to a Chinese doctor's mysterious powder. He moves through this episode like a shark in the background, zeroing in on Andrea's shady stepdad and throwing out advice to Chandra on matters of jury selection ("no sailors") and opening statements. Grubby, shady, solitary, consumed by an almost monkish passion for his often perverse work, Stone is exactly the sort of guy you want in your corner if you ever end up in Naz's shoes—and exactly the sort of guy you would never want to be.

"I broke up with my boyfriend," Chandra confides to Stone in a drunken conversation while they're discussing jury selection.

"Oh," Stone replies, brought up short but only for a microsecond. "Fuck that, who cares? This is important." And he might be an asshole, but he's not wrong—when the act of finding the right facts is a matter of life and death, who cares how you feel?

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.