a mother’s doubt and Naz’s long and lonely walk
So it’s over.
For the entire summer, The Night Of has been defined by its ambiguity. Freed by a hung jury, the show ultimately points towards financial adviser Ray Halle (Paulo Costanzo) but it never quite lifts the specter of doubt off from Naz’s now-buff shoulders.
But the damage is done. Naz is one of those war vets, who has seen things and done worse, and now has to reintegrate into society. And while as audiences we like to empathize, unless you’ve been to prison, the slow erosion from empathy to sympathy is critical. At the beginning, it’s easy to empathize with Naz. He’s a nerd trying to get into a party whose night goes wrong as he tries keep up with a girl who’s playing in a completely different lane. At the end, he’s an exile, disconnected from his community, disconnected from Rikers, disconnected from the audience.
He’s gone to a place we can’t follow and the result is heartbreaking. It’s been a long time in the making, even if his evolution was rushed in certain places. But we are all his mothers. We were never quite sure if he was a murderer.
In looking at the show as a whole, the complete dissolution of Chandra Kapoor as an intelligent, passionate lawyer is the greatest disappointment. She has been delivering expert cross examinations, one of the few minority female characters to grab a large piece of the cinematic pie. Already the show struggled to humanize the walking cipher of Andrea Cornish, especially in light of the criticism of HBO’s treatment of women, but I tried to write it off that the show ultimately wasn’t interested in the murder and the victim. Quite frankly, I hoped Chandra’s elevation would fix it, if that were ever even possible.
Except there was such a studied destruction of her credibility and character of Chandra in just a few episodes. I had joked earlier that Zaillian and Price were obsessed with undermining their characters in a way that might not be wholly inorganic, joking, “I’m just waiting for Chandra to shank a guy…” Instead, she’s kissing her own client and smuggling heroin in her nethers, all because of what? Our innocent unicorn? A taste for bad boys? The motivations just don’t exist. Same goes to her misguided attempt to put Naz on the stand. It’s as if Zaillian and Price conveniently decided that Helen would never deign to cross examine the actual murder suspect in the first place.
One of the best and most gripping movies I saw recently in the last year was Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, where Emily Blunt plays an FBI agent trying to uncover bad guys in a Mexican border war between drug cartels and government men so shady their entire faces are redacted. In that film, she is beaten, outfoxed, worn down, and just before the climax, the narrative’s perspective is torn away from her in favor of Benicio del Toro’s. It was just such a cruel, considered destruction of a fairy tale, that this plucky, smart woman was going to survive in a man’s world, but it worked because I believed it and it worked because Blunt’s despair rattled in your bones. The Night Of never manages that kind of empty nihilism despite the gift of time, and so Chandra is cast off not as the burnt-out deflated wreck of Blunt but as a cartoon coyote steamrolled 2-D flat. Amara Kahan deserved better.
The craziest part is that the show should know better. Helen’s cross-examination of Naz is a standout in the midst of already memorable courtroom proceedings. She doesn’t so much as eviscerate Naz as she does shuck away every piece of armor he gained at Rikers, denuding all illusions and all sense of certainty of his own innocence. When she’s done, the tatted-up inmate is gone and he’s just a scared little boy again, terrified of what may lie inside himself. She’s proved that we are capable of anything, and Naz’s final “I don’t know” is shaking.
That same darkness lies inside Helen. The first time she declines to bring up Box’s new suspect and evidence on Ray Halle is ugly math. She’s done the numbers, she has her guy, and disappointingly, Box doesn’t do too much to oppose her outside of a pair of dramatic walkouts. Consequently the little note of optimism at the end where they band together rings a touch false, even in the hands of two titanic character actors.
It doesn’t matter, all things are washed away in the calming baptism of John Stone’s closing argument. The scene is begging for an Emmy. You knew it would beg for an Emmy. Everything was leading up to this moment, and it still somehow lands. Can someone explain again to me how John Turturro was in Transformers? The final shared moment between John and Naz is everything. John has seen Chandra’s career destroyed and Naz irrevocably changed. His eczema has stretched its humiliating tentacles to his face in the polar opposite of Naz’s redaction, all of him visible and unhiding. The man who had zero interest in the truth at the beginning is now its champion, but it didn’t quite bring happiness.
Neatly mirroring the Naz-Stone relationship is the Naz-Freddy one. For the first time I started to see where Freddy’s motivations lay. It was never about having someone intelligent to talk to. You could feel the palpable hunger for something and someone innocent, that Naz was this other self he could never be. The scene where he allows Naz to leave Rikers without ever saying goodbye was an incredible catharsis, a mentor knowing his student would and could walk away. That Naz’s hands were washed somewhat clean of his own blood. It’s not quite true, but I guess in prison you grade on a curve.
The final conversation and codas of Naz and John are a pickax to the heart. The world keeps on turning, things keep on going, someone else goes to prison. It’s time lapse photography, but not for Naz. He sees Andrea’s face and he sees the death of his old self, and you’re not quite sure which is the greater pain.
At the end, John has reversed his “No fee till you’re free” policy. He wants $250 up front. The show wants you to believe he’s lost his already dwindling faith in the system, that the money was going to outweigh the innocence for him, but the cat quickly undercuts his own studied cynicism. It’s a surprisingly optimistic ending, but it ultimately lies in the chronology in which Zaillian and Price depict it. What do you end with? Naz on the beach or John and his cat?
I can’t help but think about Naz’s departure from Rikers, the anticlimactic yet powerful summation of everything The Night Of was about. It’s the visceral loneliness of it, where you’re never quite sure if Naz will receive some violent comeuppance along the way. It’s there in the minutiae of the procedures as he signs himself out and the cyclical nature of the guard’s introductory speech. And it’s in the slow grind of the doors as he’s finally free. His dad is there, a lone face amidst a long and lonely walk. You just know Naz’ll be making that walk his entire life.