What sets HBO’s 2016 miniseries The Night Of apart from other crime shows and whodunit mysteries is that the series take its time detailing the absolute brutality and detached cold machinery of the criminal justice system in all its ugly facets — from the affect it has on the person incarcerated, to the incarcerated individual’s parents, the victim’s family (the process of trying to claim the body even), the prosecutors, police detectives, defense attorneys and how the “churn” affects the corrections officers, turning them into jerks. Most shows stay away from that slow-burn grind, but The Night Of, despite only having eight episodes to work, gets into that nitty-gritty grind.
The show follows Naz (played by Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani-American college student in New York who, after a night of sex and drugs, wakes up to a dead woman with no recollection of what happened. The police find the presumed murder weapon, a bloody knife, in his jacket pocket and he’s sent to Rikers Island and charged with murder, sexual assault, resisting arrest and other charges.
As with a lot of these whodunits, the presumption at the beginning from a viewer point-of-view is that Naz didn’t do it. That there’s been some sort of mistake and the rest of the show is figuring out the mistake and the actual culprit. Well, we do … sort of get there, but the show isn’t about that. Instead, it’s more the banality of the machine that eats Naz up.
Remember, Naz has not been convicted. He’s only been charged. Our court system in the United States leads with a presumption of innocence. However, Naz is thrust into Rikers Island, one of the most notoriously awful jail systems in all of America, and welp, survive kid while you await trial. And notoriously, that could be years. (It’s not actually in this case, but it has been the case in real life, like the infamous case of an individual waiting three years after being accused of stealing a backpack.)
A note here: Rikers Island is considered a jail, not a prison, because it’s only supposed to be a temporary holding facility for those who are serving either short sentences or are awaiting trial. Prisons are for those already convicted to long sentences.
Meanwhile, on the outside, is John Stone (played by John Turturro), Naz’s defense attorney who is one of those classic New York defense lawyers who has a, “No fee before your free,” signs on the subway system. He has a reputation in the system as being a “precinct crawler,” as one person puts it. He mainly defends those accused of drug offenses or prostitution, not alleged murderers. People think he’s in over-his-head, and I think initially, Stone’s own motivation for taking the gig is thinking he’ll get a nice pay-off for it. Later, he argues in his closing that Naz didn’t have the vibe of someone guilty.
Naz’s parents are largely left in the dark about what happened to Naz until he’s able to phone them, and then when they come to the precinct, the police officers are that proverbial cold and detached front-facing employees, and not quite helpful.
Then there’s Dennis Box (played by Bill Camp), the near-retirement detective who Stone refers to as a “subtle beast.” That’s because he tries to get Naz, or any other defendant, to talk to him without a lawyer present. He makes it seem like he’s friendly and the “good cop” on “your” side. He also says, if you don’t do X (whatever he wants, whether it’s a swab of Naz’s penis or something else), how’s that going to look for you? Even when Naz gets smart and asks for a lawyer, a different cop says, “You know how bad that looks?” It’s all manipulation, which, Naz’s naïve, ignorant self doesn’t realize at first.
Again, a note here: The police are not your friend. Shut up and get a lawyer. Even if you didn’t do what you’re being accused of, that doesn’t matter. Shut up and get a lawyer. Even if you think you can reason with the detective to explain how you didn’t do it, shut up and get a lawyer. Even if the optics to a naïve public “looks bad,” get a lawyer.
In this case though, to be fair, you can’t say the police or Box necessarily “railroaded” Naz. He had a bloody knife in his jacket. He was with the victim the night of her murder. And he ran from the scene. That said, sure, obviously, as we later learn, the police and Box should have followed up and checked out other suspects instead of getting tunnel vision. Tunnel vision in detective work is more problematic than a out-and-out “railroading.”
You also can’t claim that Box was discriminating against Naz for being a Pakistani-American or as some erroneously pointed out, an Arab, or a Muslim. Box didn’t care about any of that.
So, let’s back up. Naz was a timid tutor for someone on the college basketball team and gets invited out to a party in Manhattan. His friend is unable to secure a ride and Naz walks back into his house (where he lives with his parents and younger brother). Isn’t it incredible how life turns on the smallest of choices? What if Naz had stayed home that night? He had the ready excuse (no wheels). Instead, Naz takes his dad’s taxi (the dad shares a taxi medallion with two other guys).
From there, Naz continues to make a series of bad choices. First, after picking up Andrea (played by Sofia Black-D’Elia), who would later become the murder victim, he accepts drugs from her. That’s bad enough, but he doesn’t even ask her what the drugs are! If you’re going to do it, at least inquire what you’re about to ingest.
Then, when they get to Andrea’s house (which for this viewer was already raising red flags — how is a 20-something girl in New York affording a house like this?), they play mumblety-peg. That’s when you spread your hand out and smash the knife down, trying to avoid stabbing yourself, or alternatively, where you stab in between the spaces of your fingers as fast as you can. Naz plays this game with her! And even does it to her. Then does more drugs!
But, it’s worth pausing here to say: That cascade of bad choices from Naz doesn’t make him a murderer. Stupid, sure, but not a murderer. And yes, he continues his run of bad choices when he finds her body the next morning. He not only runs with drugs and a knife in his jacket pocket, but returns to the house by breaking in to retrieve his taxi cab keys. Again, that still doesn’t make him a murderer.
A minor note I made while watching as the reported breaking and entering turned into a homicide was how nonchalant the New York City Police Department seemed. I guess that goes along with how the entire machine is apathetic, but still, even once the body is discovered and gets called into night shift, the gears are moving so slow. I chuckled when the cop calling it in called the death “suspicious.” You think?
Andrea was gruesomely killed. She was stabbed 22 times and there was blood everywhere, primarily all over the walls, which begs the question: If Naz did do it, why wasn’t there blood all over his person? Or jacket? Or shirt? The only blood they found was on his hand (which they later argue was cut from stabbing her). The lack of blood on him never gets questioned or brought up by either side of the aisle.
One of my favorite smaller storylines throughout the show is Naz’s mother, Safar (played by Poorma Jagannathan). When the initial call comes in from Naz that he’s been booked for murder, she seems like someone who got hit back a Mack truck and is floating through the most surreal waters. And she holds on to that naïve belief that this is all a misunderstanding and can be corrected near-immediately. She also, like Naz, has zero understanding of how any of the criminal justice system works. For instance, she also believes Box is a nice guy. And in a sweet moment, brings Naz homemade food while he’s in jail, which of course he’s not allowed to have.
That’s the thing, folks. Even though the criminal justice system apparatus comprised of jails, prisons, the courts at every level, prosecutors, defense attorneys and the police make up a huge chunk of what the government does, most Americans have no idea how that system actually functions and operates on a day-to-day basis until they are enmeshed and ensnared within it.
Over time, Naz’s mother begins to crumble and doubt Naz. She actually asks Chandra Kapoor (played by Amara Karan), who also represents Naz, “An animal did that. Did I raise an animal?” She stops going to court and isn’t even there when Naz later is released from jail. But she also endures a lot. As examples, she loses her job and in one of the more uncomfortable moments when she visits Naz, she has to get felt up by the corrections officer to check for weapons or contraband.
Let’s get back to the defense. A good chunk of the show follows Stone, who suffers from a severe case of eczema, affecting his feet primarily, but it can even get to his hands, neck and face. He goes to an eczema support group. I felt the show spent an inordinate amount of time on his nasty feet and condition, but I suppose that was a way of establishing Stone’s plight alongside Naz’s.
Another thing about the court system: It’s expensive. Sure, everyone is entitled by right to a public defender, but you know, if I was charged with murder, with all due respect to public defenders, I would want my own dedicated private defense attorney. But they’re expensive! Stone, who is certainly charging less than a higher-end defense attorney would, wanted $75,000 initially. The family negotiated him down to $50,000, but it’s like, they don’t have $50,000! This is why people take plea deals.
In fact, a maddening thing about the system people don’t realize is how often plea deals happen and how rarely trials happen. It’s better for both sides (prosecutors and defense attorneys) to get someone to take a plea deal. Naz is pressured with that. Take manslaughter and 15 years mandatory rather than risking a trial and life in prison. That sort of downward pressure happens a lot in our system. It made me sad that Stone was pushing it. The family didn’t like that.
That’s when a high-end defense attorney does stop in. Allison Crowe (played by Glenne Headly), who said she will do it pro bono, meaning for free. I’m not entirely sure what her motivation was for stepping in. It seemed primarily to get her face on the television. She was a real jerk, including to Naz’s family, and contrary to her assurances, also tried to get Naz to take the aforementioned plea deal. When Naz defiantly didn’t, thank goodness, she said, okay, we’ll go to trial, but now it’s going to cost you tens of thousands of dollars. Womp womp. She quit. That’s when her assistant, Chandra, comes in to continue representing Naz.
Chandra, at that point in the show, seemed like the only honest-to-god good character in the show (aside from Naz’s parents, of course). Well-intentioned and trying to do right by Naz by giving him his Constitutionally-protected right to a fair trial and defense. Unfortunately, my main criticism of the show is the poor writing of her character. Inexplicably, they have Chandra apparently fall in love with Naz and kiss him. Not just kiss him, but in front of security cameras she absolutely had to have known were there. That’s obviously unethical behavior for an attorney. That’s bad enough. Then the writers have Chandra brings DRUGS INTO THE JAIL FOR NAZ. Come on. Again, that’s the only major aspect of the show I rolled my eyes at hard because it wasn’t true to Chandra’s character. It sucked, no other way to say it.
Back in jail, Naz starts out as an idiot again. He was killing me. Dude, stop looking at everyone. Keep your head down. I know that’s easy to say from the outside, but jeez, have some level of street smarts. Anyhow, we get introduced shortly to Freddy (played by Michael Williams), a former boxer turned inmate, who apparently shadow runs the jail. Believing Naz isn’t like the other inmates (in that, he’s actually innocent), he offers him protection. “You’re like a care package for my brain,” he tells Naz. For some reason, it takes Naz a few close calls (his bed getting set on fire, getting slashed on the arm and getting hot water thrown in his face (which he blocks with his arm)) before he takes the deal. Why did it take him so long?! Again, easy for me to say on the outside.
Over time, Naz gets subsumed into the jail “culture,” if you will, to survive. He shaves his head. He gets a number of jail tattoos, including one of a wolf, which is a continuing motif throughout the show. That is, Freddy’s favorite book he later gives to Naz is, The Call of the Wild by Jack London. And in general, Naz has to transform himself from a sheep to a wolf to survive. And he begins doing heroin along with Freddy. Later, after Freddy and his gang beat up the inmate who threw hot water in Naz’s face, Naz brutally beats him down. It’s hard to watch. It crushed my dang heart. Worst of all, he’s complicit in Freddy murdering a fellow inmate by distracting the corrections officer on duty. Again, crushing to watch how the system completely destroyed an innocent man. Even once exonerated, Naz will never be the same, as evidenced by him continuing to do heroin after exoneration.
It’s interesting. Naz started as the tutor for someone else, and then becomes the one being tutored (by Freddy) on how to navigate jail waters.
I will say, I think Naz’s devolution, if you will, is believable, but the timespan is rather quick. The murder is in October and the trial is in February. So, we’re only talking about a four-month span here. First, that’s quick to get to a trial, and second, that’s rather quick for Naz to change so much.
One of the best parts of the show is that even though Freddy is clearly flawed (he killed someone in cold blood), his interest and protection of Naz was genuine. There was no turn. Heck, at the end when Naz is exonerated and for some reason has to go back into jail to get his belongings, I was nervous and holding my breath thinking he was going to be killed. Nope. Freddy never turned on him. I’m glad about that.
Freddy did get me thinking, admittedly, that Naz might have actually killed Andrea. After Naz brutally beats up that other inmate, Freddie mentions that Naz has a lot of range inside of him. We later learn that Naz attacked two classmates post-9/11 for their bigotry. That happened in fifth grade, but still. I did think it was possible he killed her! Even up to the last moments when Naz returns to the beach, I thought they might show a flashback of him stabbing Andrea. Sorry, Naz.
I also don’t want to be one of those people, but I can’t help but point out that even prestige shows on HBO get the court system wrong, at least in my experience. For example, guilty pleas don’t work that way. When Naz was initially going to do the guilty plea, it’s not the district attorney who would be the one asking Naz questions; it should be the judge. And never in my experience has a DA or a judge asked the defendant to recount how the night in question happened.
Another thing worth pointing out about the criminal justice system is that it’s not science-based, largely. DNA is the only area that can hold up to some sort of scrutiny. Otherwise, it’s he-said-she-said and quackery science. The best example of this is the DA coaching the coroner about the cut on Naz’s hand coming from the knife.
Also, prior bad acts are typically inadmissible as that would prejudice the defendant. So, being able to talk about Naz’s fifth grade assaults on those two classmates shouldn’t have been allowed to be heard by the jury.
And the only time you see prosecutors and defense attorneys get nearly nose-to-nose with witnesses on the stand are in television and movies. That doesn’t happen in real life. In real life, prosecutors or a defense attorney may approach a witness to give them a document to read or another piece of evidence (an exhibit) to examine, but even then, they first ask the judge for “permission to approach.”
Also, I’ve never, ever heard of a judge asking a jury what their count is in front of the courtroom. The jury answers that they are deadlocked six-to-six. But I’ve never heard of that happening.
That all said, I thought Stone and Chandra did a convincing job of establishing reasonable doubt. There’s the step-dad who had the financial motive. The funeral director who was there that night and interacted with the victim and is just freaking weird. And there’s the second dude on the street near the victim’s house who has a prior record of breaking and entering and using a knife of the victim’s on the victim.
It crushed me, though, to see Stone and Naz throw Chandra under the bus in attempt to get a mistrial declared after the video of Chandra kissing Naz comes to light. Instead, the trial continues and Stone has to give the closing argument, something he’s not accustomed to, plus he has a bad flare-up of his condition. I thought he gave a great close, though. It wasn’t over-the-top and instead, fit right in line with his character.
I didn’t suspect Ray Halle, the financial adviser for Andrea and her mother, until Box was looking at the security footage of someone arguing with Andrea the night of the incident.
So, I’ll give credit to Box and the DA. Box, even after retirement, did start second-guessing and re-evaluating the case and zeroed in on Ray. The DA, after the jury was split six-six, declined to re-try the case by impaneling a new jury and went to Box to go after Ray. Good on them.
Finally, what was up with the cat? The show spent an inordinate amount of time with Stone and Andrea’s cat from her house, which he takes in, despite being allergic. He goes back and forth with the shelter, saving the cat from certain death. Then, at the end of the show, we get an ASPCA commercial akin to the sad-as-hell Sarah McLachlan one. Yes, for real.
The metaphor seems obvious enough: The cat is like Naz for Stone. Showing that despite his limitations (or allergies), there’s a part of him willing to do what it takes to protect the innocent and the unwanted. The message being that even criminals, whether they’re innocent or not, deserve fair representation in our system. There’s actually a funny interplay where Stone goes to a career day at his son’s school and a student asks if Stone would defend Hitler. Theoretically, sure. Because that’s our system. Innocent or the worst of the worst, they deserve a fair trial. In fact, it’s that the worst of the worst also get a fair trial that the innocent can be protected, hopefully, too.
Overall, my pedantic quibbles with how the court system is presented and my annoyance with how Chandra was written (she deserved so much better), I thought this show was a brilliant character study with the character being the cold, detached criminal justice system and how it keeps on churning like a machine and how even the innocent, like Naz, get caught up in it.
That’s the bottom line. No matter your contact with the criminal justice system, it’s life altering. There’s no escaping it unscathed. And Naz’s brokenness at the end of the series was heart-breaking to watch.
And true to the machine, Stone was back on another case at the end.
The first episode of the series is one of the best episodes of any show I’ve ever seen and I’m not quite sure the rest of the series lives up to that high-bar set, but it’s well-worth watching.