Spoilers ahead for the fifth episode of The Night Of
The Night Of drips out information so slowly and carefully that it was Sunday's episode, the fifth of the eight-part HBO miniseries, before I realized that, oh yeah, we don't actually know much about the protagonist, do we? Naz, played by Riz Ahmed, went through just a few character-establishing scenes in the first episode (still the series' best) before getting arrested. Since then, he's served as our everymannish guide to the digestive procedures of the criminal justice system. As such, we didn't really need him to have a personality of his own. We knew he was wrongfully accused of murder and terrified of what was happening to him, and that was enough.
After the latest episode, where Naz's motivations and movements on the night of the murder take center stage, we're left wondering: What if he's not so wrongfully accused after all?
We first get the sense that Naz is not pure as driven snow early in the episode, when Freddy (the prisoner-king of Riker's, played by Michael K. Williams) and his associates invite him to finish the beating of the inmate who attacked Naz last time. At first, Naz is horrified by the sight of the bloodied bully laid out on the shower tile, and gives him a half-hearted kick. But one stray insult from the man on the floor and Naz is kicking the life out of him and has to be dragged away. It's the first hint of violence from him, and viewers aren't the only ones surprised—Freddy is looking on, intrigued.
As he tells Naz later, during a rather unnerving midnight cell conversation, "You got some secrets in you, don't you? And some rage. I like it."
Freddy said in the last episode that he was interested in Naz as one of the only other educated men in Rikers, but now a new reason to care about the alleged murderer has emerged: Even if Naz wasn't a criminal before jail, he's clearly got potential to transform into something darker while inside.
Naz's state of mind is the focal point of the other characters as well. Detective Box (Bill Camp) makes a welcome return after a couple of episodes on the bench, and he spends his time reconstructing Naz's movements before the murder. The investigation turns up footage of Naz refusing to give a pair of guys a ride in his borrowed taxi before accepting Andrea, the victim, as a passenger. We know that Naz's infatuation with her was innocent (right?) but to the prosecutor, "He doesn't want two guys in the cab, he wants one girl... This is him making the decision: She's it... This is premeditation."
Another blow to Naz's defense comes in the form of the toxicology report, which finds the expected cocktail of ecstasy, K, and alcohol in Andrea's and Naz's systems—but amphetamine in Naz's alone. After getting the result, the prosecutor barely contains her glee as she crosses off "good boy" on a chalkboard listing Naz's positive traits.
The defense team of John Stone (John Turturro) and Chandra (Amara Khan) is blindsided by the news of the amphetamine. Why didn't Naz tell them about the amphetamine, which was probably as innocent as Adderall? "Because we don't know him," Stone matter-of-factly answers.
We really don't. Ahmed goes from a babe in the woods to a creature of the woods in this episode, joking with Freddy and his crew, buzzing off all his hair, standing in front of the communal rec room TV to demonstrate that he won't back down, taking out his hidden anger on a punching bag. In these moments, his blankness doesn't connote confusion, but hidden depths. When Stone confronts him about the amphetamine in the jail visitors' lounge—the episode's tensest scene—the defendant seems barely interested. He has drugs to smuggle for Freddy, and in the moment his case (let alone his life pre-murder) seem distant objects on a faraway shore.
Beyond Naz, the episode does a good job of showcasing the show's ensemble cast. You have Box on the case like a slightly bored bloodhound, Chandra replacing Naz as the viewer surrogate in her questions about drugs and defense attorney-ing, and the prosecutor (the fantastic Jeannie Berlin) is making sure the medical examiner knows what to say on the stand. Admittedly, a lot in this episode seems merely to be a prologue to the inevitable trial—not the best parts of what's been a fantastic show, but necessary business to move through.
Finally, there's Stone. We're seeing what makes him such a dogged advocate for his clients—if defending petty criminals is a parade of humiliations, well, so is pretty much his entire life. He explains to hostile and bored teenagers why the world needs defense attorneys; he saves Andrea's cat from getting put down even though he's allergic to it; he zaps his eczema under brutal UV lights and wraps his feet in cling film; he can't get an erection, then gets one via Viagra only to be brushed aside by the prostitute who is his sorta-girlfiend. This takes up a lot of time and could be a grim slog, but Turturro can sparkle through even the grungiest sequences. If you're not charmed by him saying goodbye to his cat through a door just after taking a boner pill, you have no soul.
Stone is also the only one really working to solve the murder. Box and the prosecution aren't considering other suspects, obviously, but the lawyer has to—hence his skillful shaking-down of Andrea's drug dealers and his zeroing in on a mysterious bystander named, um, Duane Reade. This was the guy staring at Andrea and Naz as they went inside her apartment on the first episode, a shot so unsubtle it might as well have been accompanied by a duh-duh-DUHHHHH musical sting.
We're going to have to wait at least a week to learn his story, however. At the end of the latest episode, Stone has lost Reade's trail and is alone in the dark. It takes a lot to learn a little in the universe of The Night Of, and that's true no matter which side of the TV screen you're on.
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