[This is a review of The Night Of finale. There will be SPOILERS.]
This summer, TV was largely dominated by two shows: Netflix's nostalgic Stranger Things and HBO's The Night Of. While the former wears nostalgia on its sleeve and, arguably, sells itself via that same wistful remembrance of a decade far older than many who fell in love with the series, the latter brought with it nostalgia of a different sort. Adapted from the BBC series Criminal Justice, this eight-hour journey through the legal system was a reminder of HBO's once dominant brand of television, and its track record for making the kind of discussion-worthy programming that makes you want to tune in week after week, even if only to be part of the ongoing conversation.
Brought together by two often-brilliant writers in Steve Zaillian and Richard Price, and featuring equally memorable performances from Riz Ahmed, John Turturro, and Michael K. Williams, The Night Of has been the kind of dramatic piece of TV that serves as a reminder that Sundays may still belong to HBO even after Game of Thrones has come and gone. It goes beyond the simple comfort of a compelling mystery, proving interesting outside the confines of answers to the central crime. It actually feels a little bit like reassurance that everything's going to be okay once we wrap up in Westeros. As they did with this series, HBO will find another high-end, hour-long drama like this to come along and have everyone talking.
That's not to say The Night Of is perfect – far from it. But beyond the "why the hell did he do that?" questions raised by the almost weekly actions of accused murderer Nasir 'Naz' Khan (knuckle tattoos spelling SINBAD, anyone?), the near fetishizing of Jack Stone's sandal-clad, psoriatic feet, the decision to have Naz's lawyer Chandra (Amara Karan) plant a sure-to-be damaging kiss on her increasingly suspicious client, and the amazing coincidence of Naz's father, Salim, delivering Chandra's takeout, there were enough masterful strokes to make it easier to look beyond those formulaic bumps in the road.
Key among them is last week's pre-retirement party pause outside a bar focused on the back of Sgt. Box's head as he contemplated… the case, retirement, life – you name it. Normally, moments like that can feel like they're reaching for meaning that isn't there, or worse, leading the audience somewhere the show has no intention of actually going. That still may prove to be the case with The Night Of, as it enters into its finale, 'The Call of the Wild,' with basically every question asked in the premiere (and since then) waiting on an answer. That certainly justifies the super-sized episode – it may even necessitate it – and whereas many shows that break beyond the confines of the usual television hour tend to wallow in their own digressive creative impulses, Zaillian works judiciously to craft a conclusion without committing the series to any hard answers.
There is little satisfaction in the way The Night Of concludes, because it does so with a great deal of ambiguity. Even so, that ambiguity allows the series to reveal more about the players in this drama than it does the truth behind the murder of Andrea Cornish. When Chandra puts Naz on the stand, she does so with the belief that the jury will be as charmed and convinced of his innocence as she was, and she winds up, according to her co-council, practically assuring his conviction. Seeing the accused on the stand is usually the time when courtroom dramas deliver their big moment. That's certainly true here, but the big moment comes in the uncertainty Naz has regarding his own culpability for a horrific crime. And at the same time, for the accused to be unsure whether or not he brutally murdered someone and to readily admit it on the stand sets the stage for the rest of the finale to unfold.
A lot of what The Night Of had going for and against it was the familiarity most viewers had with this sort of drama. There's a core mystery waiting to be solved, but there's also an incredibly high stakes trial unfolding throughout. Viewers have been trained to expect a smoking gun to the mystery, and for one of the many red herrings the series has introduced to be the real killer – or for the show to swerve at the last minute only to reveal Naz really did murder Andrea in a drugged-out frenzy and then play the "unicorn" with the smell of innocence on him as a last-ditch effort to escape a life sentence. Given the prevalence of these choices in popular fiction, none of them are particularly appealing, but the show has to end somehow, right?
It was interesting to watch as The Night Of carefully considered all of its choices, bringing everyone from Duane Reade to Andrea's stepfather Don Taylor to Trevor Williams to the stand as a reminder just how many red herrings were introduced throughout the previous seven episodes. It was equally interesting to see how the series' final decision was to essentially provide one last red herring in Paul Costanzo's Ray Halle, opening the door to a likely suspect, but no more likely than, say, Nasir Khan. But as Sgt. Box's – and eventually DA Helen Weiss -- attention shifted to Halle, the question of Nasir's guilt became less and less important to the series, as the narrative itself settled into the ambiguity surrounding the truth of Andrea's murder. Instead, The Night Of was clearly more interested in seeing what the effects of spending time in Rikers were on a young man and how those influences would shape him going forward.
In the end, The Night Of became a collection of moments, some good and some not so good. The story's ability to shift between Naz's supposed necessary devolution in Rikers to Stone's psoriasis, the herbal remedy that backfired spectacularly, and the cat's appearance in the final seconds of the series, and then back again may have been its strongest asset. That strength in moments that seemingly exist outside the main crux of the plot became most evident when Naz assisted Freddy in Victor's murder. The show effectively turned on its main character, the one "cloaked in innocence" and made him the type of criminal he was accused of being. Heading into the final episode after seeing that only added to the uncertainly; Naz could conceivably have been the one to kill Andrea. And even though the series wants the viewer to think that DA Weiss and former Sgt. Box are going after the real killer, Halle's guilt, like Naz's is never proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
There's something arresting in the series' willingness to embrace such ambiguity, especially as it focuses on the fallout of a series of bad, selfish decisions that may or may not have resulted in the taking of a young woman's life. That Andrea's death was the catalyst for Naz to embrace prison life in startling fashion, to wind up with some sketchy tattoos and a heroin habit feels strange and a little gross. It was as though the series remained unsure how to treat its victim like anything more than the cause of Naz's misfortune. Ultimately, it's difficult to know how the show wants its audience to feel about Naz, which, in a sense isn't too surprising as that sort of emotional ambiguity is in keeping with the factual ambiguity floating around the case. That doesn't mean the series wasn't entertaining, though, because it was reliably entertaining. It's just that, at the same time, the series was almost deliberately unsatisfying, which, if nothing else, makes it interesting in a way many shows aren't.
The Night Of is available in its entirety on HBO Go and HBO Now.
Photos: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO