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'The Night Of' Has Become a Show About Hopelessness and Terror

The show's third episode shows how completely the system traps people accused of crimes.

by Harry Cheadle
Jul 25 2016, 1:37pm

Screencap from the third episode of 'The Night Of.' Courtesy of HBO

Spoilers ahead for the third episode of The Night Of.

The first episode of The Night Of asks the question: What would you do if you were accused of a horrible crime that you had no recollection of committing? By the third episode, which aired on Sunday night, we have our answer: It doesn't matter what you do. From the moment you are arrested, you give up control over your life.

The Night Of is about a murder, but it is not a murder mystery: The act itself, which formed the centerpiece of the fantastic first episode, has receded into the background. Even the police investigation appears to be essentially over, and we're given no new clues about that titular night. What's left is the long aftermath, which finds our major characters utterly helpless in the face of a system that has tightened around them.

First, there are Naz's parents, Salim and Safar Khan, played with a dignity that threatens to slide into confusion or anger by Peyman Moaadi and Poorna Jagannathan. They visit their son in Riker's Island, but there's nothing they can do. They are approached by John Stone (John Turturro), who offers to represent Naz for $50,000; they say nothing—who has that kind of money? A more polished lawyer from a big firm named Allison Crowe appears and says she'll do the case for free, and of course, they accept. Naz's father tries to get his cab back only to be told that since it was used in commission of a crime, there's a good chance he'll never see it again, unless he presses charges. The cop who tells Salim this is good-natured—sympathetic, even—but it doesn't matter what sort of face power has. The point is that it's power, and you can't change its mind.

Stone finds himself in similar straits. He starts the episode trying to wheel and deal his way toward the beginning of a plea bargain, but his sweaty, eczematic charm gets him nowhere with the prosecutors. He then does the legwork of a good, if under-resourced, defense attorney—visiting the crime scene, buying Naz socks—but loses his client anyway. He can't even do anything about the plight of the cat that lived in the dead girl's apartment, except bring it to animal control, where it's sentenced to be gassed to death in ten days.

But this is ultimately a show about Naz, and it's through him that we really get a sense of narrowed options and impossible choices. Riz Ahmed continues to be brilliant in his portrayal of the defendant, quivering with fear and nerves as he walks through a version of Riker's Island stripped of color. Other inmates, more experienced and violent than he, stare him down. The guards either ask him bureaucratic questions ("Homosexual?") or exist to do the bidding of the jail's prisoner-king, Freddy (played by Michael K. Williams, who also hosts a show on VICELAND).

It doesn't matter what sort of face power has. The point is that it's power, and you can't change its mind.

Without Freddy, this episode might have been a little dull. There is little in the way of movement on the case, no twists or reversals to drive the plot forward, so the introduction of a new predator into the ecosystem does a lot of work. In the show's understated way, we learn a lot about him in a few minutes of almost dialogue-free action: He's a former boxer who wields outsized power in Rikers—check out the collection of phones in his cell—and has a kind of intellectual self-confidence—look at his Norman Mailer book, or listen to the way he casually drops reference to the specific African region his ancestors hailed from. He's having an affair with one guard, apparently so she can smuggle goods for him, and keeps others in line by threatening their families on the outside. Freddy makes choices that matter; he gets what he wants.

Freddy's the sort of character who delvers koan-ish pronouncements about how the calves raised to become veal are kept in dark crates, the sort of character who is basically a mythological creature in a show about functionaries. (Try to imagine him and Stone occupying the same scene.) Williams served this function in The Wire, too, where his Omar broke every rule about the realism the other, less legendary characters had to follow, and he's a welcome presence in an episode that would otherwise lack much in the way of an antagonist (Bill Camp's Detective Box, who filled that role last time, is largely MIA here).

Freddy is the one who gives Naz his only choice of the episode. The young accused murderer doesn't get to pick where he sleeps or who his lawyer is or how the law will treat him, but he can accept Freddy's offer of protection or not. Naz is down the rabbit hole, but he's not himself ready to start a relationship with a full-blown gangster. Then, in the last scene of the episode, he walks from the bathroom to find a fire burning, the other inmates standing around it and staring him down, making various "I'm going to kill you" gestures. It turns out this isn't a choice either.

The system Naz has been taken inside is transactional in nature. No one does anything out of the goodness of their hearts, possibly because they don't have much in the way of either goodness or hearts. Crowe's proposal to represent Naz pro bono almost certainly comes with strings attached; that she brings a young South Asian lawyer (Amara Karan) with her to meet Naz's parents speaks to her extreme pragmatism, or her cold-eyed ruthlessness. Freddy, similarly, is not a man who does something for nothing. But your benefactors' motives don't matter when you don't have any other options. For now, the characters are left in the same position as the viewers: waiting for that other shoe to drop, and knowing that no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse.

Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.

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The Night Of