‘The Night Of’ – Ep 2 -3: “Subtle Beast” and “Dark Crate” and 1,001 Distractions

rethinking boredom: the necessity of quiet in ‘The Night Of’

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John Turturro as John Stone (HBO)

* minor spoilers follow 

More and more, I wonder if Naz did it.

In One Thousand and One Nights, the famous collection of folk tales, Scheherazade is the young virgin wife of a king who has killed all of his previous ones to avoid spousal infidelity. To circumvent her own death, she tells tale after tale, nested like Russian matryoshka dolls, each intricate and folding back on each other to distract the king until she can survive the necessary year. More and more I wonder if showrunners Zaillian and Price are doing the same thing, to distract us from Naz’s own guilt.

It’s an interesting tack. Sliding into Detective Dennis Box’s (Bill Camp) perspective has had the effect of transferring audience sympathy. We’ll always love Naz (Riz Ahmed) because he was first and because of his enveloping Bambi eyes. But Box is imminently watchable while slowly picking at the chinks in Naz’s gossamer-thin armor, manipulating Naz’s parents and casting doubt on ambulance chaser John Stone (John Turturro). His kindness is a knife wrapped in velvet.

Unfortunately, Zaillian and Price’s choice comes at the cost of a new voice. For a show obsessed with race, you relish the rare opportunity for a Muslim Pakistani to front a show on a premier distributor, but Naz is all reactive, reduced to pleading his innocence. Box’s conversation with him is less verbal fencing and more tapping on the aquarium glass. You never get the feeling Riz Ahmed gets to open up with the necessary subtle sharpness of his own till he finally names Box a “subtle beast” to his parents. It’s part of the requirements of Naz’s arc as he sheds his naivete, but you want more for him to do. Box and Stone threaten to usurp the show as older white men imbued with the majority of the narrative power. And they are powerful, nimble actors. When they talk, you can hear the cracking of the sheathes as they draw their swords.

John Stone in particular gets a fleshed out backstory with a possibly-broken, mixed-race family and eczema. A surprising amount of time is spent on the character’s eczema, which is an interesting, non sequitur subplot that echoes the wonderfully sad clarity of the Spoon Theory in discussing a very common disease and the daily tolls it takes on you. It’s just unclear how this is going to dovetail with everything. What is The Night Of trying to be? A brooding procedural? A black comedy? Or a realistic look at the injustices and dehumanization of criminal justice system?

Equally compelling but more thematic is the story of Naz’s father’s cab. Salim Khan doesn’t give a damn about it; he’s got a bit more on his plate, what with his son’s arrest and all the politely indignant dignity he’s exuding. But the impounding of the cab is affecting his friends, another ripple in the cause-effect pond that is normally overlooked and yet speaks volumes for characters we would never even consider.

It’s strange that these are the moments that linger in my memory when we have a host of compelling new characters. Jeannie Berlin is fantastically off-kilter as D.A. Helen Weiss. Glenne Headly shows up with a touch too-much writerly brio as defense lawyer Alison Crowe. Michael Kenneth Williams gets an even grander entrance as Freddy the prison house king who delivers rambling speeches while forcing you to take vows with your hand on a slab of raw veal. We’re getting diminishing returns with all the actors and actresses we’ve thrown in this giant prestige blender, but it’s not necessarily a problem of quantity. The Night Of is a quiet show thriving on quiet stories, and when it relies on plot and grandiose moments the seams begin to show.

The cop vs. lawyer show is one we’ve all seen, and it’s a good one. We’ve seen prison shows and whodunnits. They’ve stood the test of time for a reason. What we haven’t seen enough of is the thousand inexplicable layers of the justice system. The desk sergeant who checks Naz into Rikers. The guard who pats down his mother. The cab drivers and the junior lawyer and the eczema support group. It’s A Thousand and One Nights Of, and it’s time for Zaillian and Price to fully embrace their inner Scheherazade and dive into the distraction.

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2 thoughts on “‘The Night Of’ – Ep 2 -3: “Subtle Beast” and “Dark Crate” and 1,001 Distractions

  1. Nice post. You’ve written an absorbing post that asks some serious questions.

    I’ve posted about this show as well and I’ve written about the latest episode which aired this past Sunday, so I won’t get into that.

    But I would like to remark about your take on Riz Ahmed’s Naz. You wrote – “But you want more for him to do.” As a bound-over-waiting-for trial guest of the city of New York at Rikers, he has the least power, and the least ability to do more than he already has.

    His current location is hostile for him, I mean he’s even an outsider to the converted to Islam convicts within his cell block. He’s neither black nor Latino, and he’s disliked for his crime, for his being a natural born Muslim, and for his education.

    Plus he has to get acclimatized to his surroundings which will take some time –

    So, it is my view that while your comment is correct, Naz, unfortunately will have to endure for a bit longer.

    As far as his guilt or innocence – that is still up for interpretation isn’t it? It makes no sense for any viewer to prejudge him as guilty. He may have had means and opportunity, but there is no motive (so far as we know).

    As for any one else, which would make Naz innocent – we have neither means. opportunity, or motive for anyone -UNLESS the gate and doorway beneath the W87th Street building was left open by Andrea when she put out the cat.

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    1. Thank you so much! Love the thoughtful feedback and commentary!

      I absolutely agree. If I were Naz, I would be doing everything in my power to keep my head down in prison and not draw attention. In fact, a great deal of the tension of the show goes from his lack of power and knowledge relative to the jaded experience of everyone else. It will certainly take Naz some time to acclimate and find some of his voice and agency, but with 3 out of 8 episodes out of the way (and a 4th aired at time of writing), I’m worried about running out of time. We’re still in the infancy of his character arc, and I’m wishing for either more progress or more eps. But this isn’t Orange is the New Black.

      As for whether Naz is guilty, there’s certainly not enough evidence for the audience to judge. In fact, I believe it’s 70/30 in favor of his innocence. It’s just that it used to be 100/0. My guess is the showrunners are a lot less concerned with the murder and the clues due to the lack of data about the crime scene and Andrea Cornish. They seem to be much more interested in the dehumanization of the criminal justice system and the question of whether the truth is even important at all. Stone certainly seems to think so.

      Or maybe the showrunners are playing a deeper game. Who knows how many subtle visual clues (or not subtle hearse drivers and motorcycle drivers) they’ve been seeding throughout ep 1 and any flashbacks that I missed.

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