Now that HBO’s stark The Night Of has wrapped up, I’m not entirely sure I understand the point of the whole show. Don’t get me wrong, the show was well acted, and it had one (ONE) of the most compelling courtroom scenes I’ve seen in TV or movies in at least a decade. But I’m having a hard time singing its praises, mostly because I’m not sure what of the point of it all was. That’s not the best feeling on which to end a TV show.
Was the point that everyone makes bad decisions? You could argue that the entire show, from start to finish, was a series of bad decisions made on the behalf of most the characters. Sure, Naz makes unarguably the worst decision of the show — running away from a crime scene with a knife in your pocket — but he’s not alone. Throughout the course of the show we see: a detective get ripped apart on the witness stand because he removed evidence from a crime scene; a defense attorney both romantically kiss her client and smuggle drugs into prison for him; and a mother be convinced of her son’s guilt.
Each character suffers, in palpable ways, as a result of these decisions. It’s almost as if the writers of the show are merely presenting a statement that everyone, from every walk of life, makes bad decisions, and is forced to deal with the repercussions.
Was the point that one mistake can ruin your life? Not only your life, but the life of your family, too. If you think about Naz’s character arc, he starts the series as a quiet, shy, “good kid” stereotype. His family is the standard “hard working immigrant” stereotype.
By the end of it, his parents have to quit their jobs and find new, less-glamorous employment, they’re going to have to move because they’re neighborhood pariahs, and nothing will ever be the same within their own family dynamic. Naz, himself, is now addicted to drugs, he’s covered in prison tattoos and he has seen and experienced things in prison that most people will never see or experience. Despite the fact that he “got off,” he does not leave the story as an innocent man.
On the other hand, we also have Chandra who, in a moment of horrible character development, kissed her client, which is, you know, highly frowned upon. This woman may never work as an attorney again in New York City. Plus, she’ll have to live with the knowledge that she did something highly illegal. Much like Naz, Chandra will never be the person she was at the start of the show, again.
Was the point that the criminal justice system is a predatory beast going after the easiest prey? Throughout the show, the concept of Naz as a killer is explored in great length. The detective, from the get-go, does not like this quiet, nervous student as the killer, but he’s also the most obvious suspect presented. It’s not until the final episode, when the trial is well underway, that he begins to do some actual detective work. This extends to the DA* who also doesn’t feel confident in Naz as a defendant, but he’s also the lowest laying fruit. When presented with an alternate suspect, she declares that, at this stage, they have more on Naz, maintaining the show’s conceit that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is not a flattering portrayal, suggesting that the system is more concerned with prosecuting someone, rather than the right one.
Let’s not forget Riker’s Island, either. Naz is, rightfully, immediately identified as a wounded beast as he’s thrown into the mix with predators of all types. Freddy’s end revelations to Naz, about the smell of innocence on him, is especially poignant as it is clear Naz’s continued survival was solely at the hands of Freddy’s benevolence. However, despite keeping him alive, he also imparts prison wisdom and lifestyle on him, including several acts that could have landed him in jail for realsies.
Was the point that the criminal justice system utterly destroys lives? Along those lines, you could argue that the point isn’t so much that bad decisions can destroy your life, but that it’s the criminal justice system in general. Naz hasn’t been convicted of a crime, but he’s being held in Riker’s Island. The Riker’s Island. Holy shit. This then leads to the aforementioned realization that even though he is no longer in prison, he leaves a complete other person than walked in. In fact, I would argue that any of the prison scenes sought to prove the same point that Oz did, nearly a decade before: Prison is a bad place, mmmkay?
Was the point that real-life crime isn’t terribly exciting? I heard The Night Of described as a Law & Order episode dragged out into 8 episodes, and that seems mostly apt. The different being that there is no smoking gun in The Night Of. There is no dramatic courtroom revelation. That’s not to say the courtroom drama wasn’t riveting or dramatic (it was both of those things), but it’s not very exciting. We see Jack do a bit of investigatory work, but a lot of it is under-the-table and mostly him asking others to go on fetch quests for him. The truth is that so many TV shows have ruined us for real-life crime stories. Yes, I realize this is fictional, but it feels closer to trying to emulate real-life than most of its ilk.
The problem with this is that for the most part, The Night Of isn’t that dynamic of television. Yes, everyone involved delivered fantastic performances, but that only goes so far. You have great actors, delivering performances so well, it almost overshadows the fact that most of the characters do really, really dumb things, in a plot that moved at a glacial pace.
Top all of this off with the jury ending in a deadlock, and the series felt less like a held breath and more like a long sigh, punctuated with an even longer sigh. But, then, that’s how some cases end, right? Not with a dramatic “by God, he’s innocent!” exclamation, but rather with a “Eh, some of us don’t think he did it, and some of us do think he did it.” Which, if we’re being honest, felt like a cop-out on behalf of the writers, but I totally digress.
Was the point that getting to the who-dun-it isn’t that easy? Naz’s blackout aside, was the point of the series that it’s not always easy to determine who committed a crime? Was the point that, on occasion, we just grasp for the nearest, most convenient straw and go with it? That we don’t have a smoking gun, or a rare pair of tennis shoes purchasable only at a single store in Manhattan and limited to 40 pairs, as so often happens in Law & Order or CSI? Is the point that sometimes we just have to shrug off and assume who-dun-it?
Was the point to be a giant parable to Waiting for Godot? Seriously.
Someone asked me, recently, if they should see The Night Of, and I told them I wasn’t sure. I didn’t like the show — Chandra falling into the “falling for the bad boy” trope was shameful — but I can’t decide if I just didn’t like it, or if I actively hated it. Mostly because I can’t tell what the point of it was. Someone send help.
*Can we talk about, for a moment, how criminal it is that Jeannie Berlin doesn’t get higher billing in this show? She was my third favorite character throughout.