Everyone Is Guilty on 'The Night Of'

An even grimmer than usual episode highlights how far all of the major characters have descended into the darkness.
August 22, 2016, 1:54pm

Riz Ahmed as Naz and Michael K. Williams as Freddy in a screenshot of 'The Night Of.' Courtesy of HBO

Spoiler for the latest episode of The Night Of_follow._

The easiest way to describe The Night Of is that it's a miniseries about a murder. That's the void at the center of the plot, the reason everything happens. But the murder is also the show's most disposable, clichéd bit. An upper-class Manhattan party girl dead after a wild night of risk-taking turns into a stabfest? That's the sort of first-act fodder that shows from Castle to SVU have made use of.

What makes The Night Of special is the way it keeps getting sidetracked from the whodunnit logic of the case and lingers on the way characters navigate the lines separating legal and illegal, moral and immoral—lines that fail to line up with each other, lines that everyone ignores anyway.

We saw this over and over again in Sunday's long courtroom scenes, slow back-and-forth exchanges free of musical stings or embellishments. On the way to judging Naz (Riz Ahmed), the court judges each witness, weighing their morality, ethics, or simple common sense. Naz's dim-bulb friend/Adderall customer slouches his way through testimony, painting the defendant as a drug dealer, and gets admonished by the DA (Jeannie Berlin, who owns these scenes with her impish charm) for being a shitty business student. The prosecution's forensics expert gets raked over the coals by defense attorney Chandra (Amara Karan) for his past mistakes. And Detective Box (Bill Camp) gets targeted for giving Naz his inhaler instead of keeping it as evidence from the crime scene, a violation of police procedure. Chandra claims he had removed the inhaler from the scene because it didn't conform to the police's narrative—we don't think of asthmatics as being brutal killers. But Box has a simpler explanation: He gave the inhaler to Naz "because he was suffering."

Can we get a ruling on whether this act of compassion was in fact a subtle attempt, in anticipation of an eventual trial, to make Naz look slightly more guilty? Sorry. Like roughly 90 percent of the citizens of The Night Of, Box is inscrutable.

Naz has something dark in him, whatever the jury in his case decides.

Questions of motive swirl around pretty much every interaction this episode. Why did Naz throw that kid down the stairs as a teenager, then chuck the Coke can at the other? Why did that charming-like-a-snake defense crime scene expert Dr. Katz (Chip Zien, a musical-theater actor who knocks it out of the park here) praise the prosecutor's expert at a dinner years ago if he thinks the man's work is so lousy? Why is Naz freebasing coke?

Oh yeah, Naz is freebasing coke now. The series' main character becomes more inscrutable as time goes on. In this episode, he's almost entirely silent, growing harder and more taciturn thanks to his time in jail. In the most brutal scene of this episode, he barely speaks to another inmate's mother in the visiting room as she hands him baggies of drugs she had stuffed in her vagina. He tells her that her son is "fine," then expressionlessly swallows the baggies. Her son is not fine, of course—Naz comes across his body in the Riker's bathroom a few scenes later. That leads to him telling Freddy (Michael K. Williams) about how one guy in Freddy's crew was forcing the woman's son to have sex with him. That brings us to the episode's second most brutal scene, where Naz distracts a guard while Freddy cuts the sexual assaulter's throat.

Whether or not Naz killed Andrea, it's disturbing to watch him slip so easily across the barrier between citizen and criminal, and the way Ahmed plays him, a tightly wound ball of doubt and anger, you don't get the sense that the show is telling us that anyone would do the same—Naz has something dark in him, whatever the jury in his case decides.

In fact, there are a lot of plot threads that won't get resolved with the reading of the verdict, which will make next week's finale fascinating to watch. Naz's parents have pawned seemingly all their valuables; they are despised by their own community for raising an alleged killer whose actions have led to a wave of Islamophobic attacks. His father's business partners are dead set on buying him out at rock-bottom prices, to which he replies, "You're thieves. I don't do business with thieves."

"You are the father of a killer," is the response.

Most heartbreakingly, Naz's mother (an outstanding Poorna Jagannathan) seems convinced that her son is a murderer. "Did I raise a monster?" she asks Chandra after storming out of the courtroom. The answer doesn't seem to matter—how does a mother come back from thinking, if just for a second, that her son is a murderer? And does it make a particle of difference what a jury says? Even after a not guilty, Naz will still have to carry the weight of what he's done in jail with him; his father will have to recover the pieces of his livelihood; his family will have to repair relationships that might be irreparable.

Even the episode's only tender moment has a bunch of danger attached to it. During an attorney-client meeting, Chandra sees Naz's vulnerability, or the rawness of his desperation gets to her, or they're just two lonely people in a dark room. Anyway, they kiss—an act of compassion maybe, but also definitely an ethical violation for a lawyer. "Fuck," Chandra mutters, realizing that rather late. Seconds later we cut to security-camera footage of the cell, reminding us that mistakes, big and small, rarely go unrecorded.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.