'The Night Of' Shows Us More Ways the Criminal Justice System Traps People

HBO's legal drama is not a show about justice, but the justice system. And never has that difference been more apparent than on Sunday's episode.
August 1, 2016, 4:35pm

Photo courtesy of HBO

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

The Night Of is not a show about justice—it's a show about the justice system, and the difference between the two has never been more apparent than during last night's episode, "The Art of War." The facts of the murder continue to fall into the background, and instead we watch Naz (Riz Ahmed) as he navigates the life of a jail inmate awaiting trial.

At this point, halfway through the eight-part miniseries, we still don't know whether Naz killed Andrea during the titular night—based on everything we know about him it seems unlikely—but guilty or not, he's still stuck in Rikers, and his parents are still hounded by the press; everyone is trapped in the middle of a nightmarish story.

The central choice of the episode is Naz's decision about whether to plead guilty to manslaughter and end that story at a single stroke. Everyone who knows anything about the law tells him to take the deal: his imperious, high-profile lawyer Alison Crowe ("We're way past 'I didn't do it,' Naz," she tells him); Freddy, the terrifying inmate who runs Rikers; even John Stone (played by John Turturro), who is still investigating the case even though Naz's parents fired him. The only one who tells him not to plead guilty is Crowe's young associate, Chandra (Amara Karan), who tells him not to say he committed the crime if he didn't.

We're made to understand that this is an enormously idealistic bit of advice, the sort only a fairly green lawyer would give. Courtrooms aren't concerned with the truth; they're arenas where two competing sets of facts do battle. Naz has few facts on his side—he looks guiltier than OJ Simpson did when he was arrested, and Naz doesn't have the money to buy the best lawyers in the world; after his plea, Crowe (Glenne Headly) informs his family that her services are no longer free. Fifteen years is a long time, but less long than the rest of Naz's life—he'd be around 35 when he got out, Stone reminds him, and "I'd kill to be 35 again."

The twisting nature of the legal system is evident in the story told by Calvin (Ashley Thomas), Naz's apparent guide to Rikers, an inmate who appears at his side and does some audience-friendly "here's what you should do to survive behind bars" exposition. According to Calvin, he's in jail because he went looking for his niece's killer, who got set free thanks to the judge in his case giving improper jury instructions. This got him so upset he went out to kill the man—but shot a busboy instead. We like to tell ourselves narratives end with things being set right in some way, a just equilibrium being restored, but that's not what usually happens, whether you're in court or on the street.

We're made to understand that courtrooms aren't concerned with the truth; they're arenas where two competing sets of facts do battle.

Naz, babe in the woods that he is, refuses to say he committed a crime he didn't commit. One curious thing about the show's protagonist is that he's never given any sort of friendly confidant to whom he could explain feelings, thus allowing the audience to gain only some insight into his interiority. Instead, we're doled out details about him sparingly, through his frightened, darting eyes, the way he pauses when he's deciding whether to trust someone. Maybe he's taciturn by nature, but he's certainly not made more talkative by his precarious situation. That said, Naz seems to be operating on an instinctual basis—he doesn't like Crowe, so he resists her pushy advice to plead guilty; and he is similarly wary about allying himself with the predatory Freddy. Putting yourself in prison by lying about killing someone just seems wrong, even if it might be the smart thing to do, so he refuses the plea at the last minute. The audience, just as naïve as Naz, can't help but feel proud of him. (Not that the show ever really convinces you he's going to take the 15 years—that would presumably make the show's last four episodes pretty dull.)

Beyond the major themes, the episode contains plenty of the grubby details of life that The Night Of is so good at portraying, especially when it comes to Stone. (If you don't like scenes that send the show off on tangents sometimes, you won't like the show. Full stop.) The defense attorney insists that the light stay on when he has sex with a prostitute he represented; he visits more doctors to get rid of his eczema, which has now turned his feet bloody and scabbed; he goes through the shady business of acquiring Andrea's records from a rehab clinic, which he then flips to Chandra for a profit. We also get more of Freddy, played by Michael K. Williams, who is the sort of prison philosopher-king who responds to an encroachment on his cellphone-renting monopoly by beating the offending inmate to a pulp.

Freddy seems menacing, but so does everyone else—even Calvin, the nice jail guide, reveals himself to be unhinged when he throws a scalding hot-water/baby-oil combination on Naz. Out of options, Naz approaches the only authority that can help him: Freddy himself, sitting silently and smoking in his luxurious cell. The Night Of has made a habit of ending on cliffhangers, so this is where the show leaves us this week. It's easy to guess what's going to happen to Naz's attacker, and it's likely not going to be any approximation of justice, legal or otherwise.

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