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'The Night Of' Shows How Terrifying and Boring It Is to Get Arrested

HBO's fantastic crime drama turns the routine stuff of bureaucracy into agony.

by Harry Cheadle
Jul 18 2016, 8:45pm

Screengrab from 'The Night Of.' Courtesy of HBO

Spoilers ahead for the second episode of The Night Of.

Almost nothing happens in the second episode of The Night Of. Prestige cable has trained viewers to appreciate the joys of slowly moving TV shows—Don Draper smoking and thinking at his desk, True Detective's long shots of landscapes—but even by those standards, HBO's gripping criminal justice drama comes at the viewer in a slow drip.

The episode's plot, such as it is, has everyone dealing with the fallout of the arrest of Naz (Riz Ahmed) at the end of the last installment. His parents struggle to arrange a visit with him; Detective Box (Bill Camp) tries to pry information out of him; cantankerous, gold-hearted defense attorney Jack Stone (John Turturro) helps him navigate the strange world of being arrested; Naz himself is freaked out by jail, pleads not guilty in front of a judge, gets denied bail, and, at the episode's end, winds up on Rikers Island. That's it—that's the whole 60 minutes.

So what occupies the show's time, if not moving the plot forward? Here a stretcher is being wheeled out to carry the woman Naz is accused of murdering out of her fancy brownstone. Here is a hand wiping a taxidermied animal head for prints. Here's that body on the coroner's slab, the rings being removed, an ugly-looking saw being fired up. There are shots of people walking down hallways, up stairs, through the bowels of a Manhattan courthouse. When the victim's stepfather is asked to identify the body, we're treated to a surprisingly long sequence where he's warned how grisly the photos will be, mistakenly tells the cops it's not her, corrects himself, then stumbles around in a fog of shock. The business that classical procedural shows glide over or simply skip is the only business The Night Of cares about. This is a murder mystery where the mystery is set to one side and dealing with the murder is mainly a matter of paperwork.

There have been countless shows about cops and lawyers and jails before. What makes The Night Of different is that it insists on showing you every step of Naz's progression through the system. You see him shackled, taken in a van from his cell at the precinct to the courthouse, led up to a pair of officers searching him and the other inmates. One is caught smuggling a cellphone in his rectum; the officers toss the contraband in the trash as Naz looks on, bug-eyed. They're placed in the cell. One vomits loudly into the toilet until another yells at him to shut up and kicks him. And we're not even in jail yet—after the trial, when the bus carrying Naz rolls across that long bridge and "Rikers Island" appears on the screen, we know what to expect, and what Naz must be dreading.

The world of the show is grounded in realism but can seem somehow primordial, a fable about bureaucracy. Naz's parents are told they can't see their son by officers reading names from a paper book like something out of Dickens. Nearly every scene is about someone being made to answer to one authority or another. Civilians are interrogated by cops, defendants have their fates decided by judges, and even Box is quizzed about the case by the prosecutor. The show's color palette and feel is relentlessly institutional as well: gray stone buildings, florescent light on cell bars, windows patched with tape behind which tired cops sit eternally. Going to jail is boring. Being arrested mostly means being made to sit on a variety of hard surfaces.

All of the spaces The Night Of takes us through—cells, courtrooms, police stations—are thoroughly male, and thoroughly dominated by men. The show's most prominent female character is the dead Andrea, and she appears in this episode only as a bloody body. If the gender politics here don't exactly inspire, the rules about police procedure are carefully calibrated to outrage. Can cops really record jailhouse visits in order to get fresh information, as Box does? They can. Can they take the computers of an entire family when only one member of that family is charged with a crime? Yup.

But the show doesn't really seem to be too concerned with advocacy. It's descriptive rather than prescriptive—what makes it powerful is the sense that we're descending, along with Naz, into an underworld where the rules are unknown to us but obvious to everyone else. The criminals lingering in confined spaces, the officers charged with watching them, the mechanisms of control and surveillance that surround every cell in the country—these are things that we usually have the privilege of forgetting about, but The Night Of wants us to remember, one agonizing episode at a time.

The Night Of airs on Sundays on HBO.

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