HBO’s The Night Of examines an intersection of microcosms within New York City, dramatizing how the judicial system is shaped by the police force and vice versa, which are both influenced by endless varieties of intangible human factors such as exhaustion, desperation, lust, loneliness, kindness, and both individual and systemic prejudice. Existing as an outgrowth of these relationships is the penal system, which appears to create and destroy more criminals than it redeems. In turn, the system fosters intricate business relationships between guards, gangs, attorneys, therapists, and unaware civilians caught in the crossfire of these machinations. Complicating matters further in the 21st century is our mass-surveillance state, which offers “objective” information that proves to be as shapeable and beholden to persuasion and interpretation as anything else.
Throughout the eight-part miniseries, director Steve Zaillian and screenwriter Richard Price critique this vast series of infrastructures, equating them to theater and filtering them through the story of a Pakistani-American college student, Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed), who’s accused of murdering a young Caucasian woman, Andrea (Sofia Black-D’Elia). The evidence is damning, as Naz is caught near the scene of the crime carrying a kitchen knife stained with the victim’s blood. But he maintains his innocence, which we assume to be true, as The Night Of’s first episode spends a long and absorbing stretch portending the coincidences that foster his downfall.
Something is clearly wrong with Andrea when Naz meets her, though Naz, an awkward braniac who’s inexperienced with women, hopes he’s about to enjoy the sort of encounter that more popular guys take for granted. After meeting through unlikely circumstances that later serve as catnip for Naz’s prosecutors, the couple proceeds to her expensive brownstone, consuming a prodigious amount of drugs, and, at Andrea’s insistence, playing a game where one plunges a knife into the gaps between their outstretched fingers. Naz accidentally stabs Andrea in the hand, which turns her on. As their night escalates, there’s a palpable sense of either a purposeful or inadvertent trap being set—a suspicion that’s accentuated by the pronouncedly menacing noir colors of Robert Elswit’s cinematography. It’s this knife that Naz will be caught with later, of course, but the question is whether it actually killed Andrea.
That mystery is the narrative through line on which Zaillian and Price hang their microcosmic vignettes. They wring considerable tension out of our anticipation of Naz’s inevitable arrest for murder, that tension exploding when two cases converge as a detective discusses Andrea’s murder weapon precisely at the moment another officer pulls a similar knife out of Naz’s jacket, after he’s picked up for disregarding a traffic sign.
Like Murder One, The Wire, and Making a Murderer, The Night Of mines our obsession with the minutiae behind the presentation and discernment of data, which is always inherently political, especially in the courtroom, particularly in an age in which information travels faster than light. Only a few comparatively innocent characters, such as Naz and his parents, Salim and Safar (Peyman Moaadi and Poorna Jagannathan), initially fail to understand that “truth” has nothing to do with the outcome of his trial. The verdict is decided by how Naz looks, by who he knows, by the jury’s predigested feelings on Muslims, by Andrea’s reputation as a promiscuous trust-fund drug addict, and by a host of other head-spinning variables.
Adapting the British series Criminal Justice, Price displays a characteristically peerless understanding of cops-and-thugs quotidian, capturing the nuances that inform and embody how people on both sides of the criminal fence relate to one another. His dialogue has the tangy, lived-in snap that one associates with Price’s novels and prior scripts, which deftly mix genre plotting with a deep-seated understanding of the realities of bureaucracies that exist to keep everyone in their place, operating by rules that no one entirely understands. The veteran actors deliver this dialogue with relish—the pleasure they take in their showmanship barely discernable from that of their characters, who are similar, if less publicized, show-people.
The narrative’s broad strokes are compelling, particularly as defensive attorney Jack Stone (John Turturro) begins to uncover the murder suspects who detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp) couldn’t be bothered to dig up, but it’s the textural flourishes that distinguish The Night Of from more formulaic courtroom fare, such as the continuing emphasis that Zaillian and Price place on the notion of ritual as cultural currency. We frequently see intake officers in police stations and courts, witnessing the rapport they do or don’t have with repeat offenders, or with foreigners they treat with contempt for displaying understandable ignorance to deliberately disorienting protocol. We often see Box or Stone exchanging embittered in-jokes with colleagues that convey a wealth of understanding of a world that gradually wears people down into indifferent, amoral cogs of figurative machines—an acknowledgement that’s symbolized by Stone’s painful foot eczema, which suggests years spent wading in muck.
But The Night Of is most notable for its portrayal of an American with immigrant heritage who must learn to live in two cultures at once if he’s to win his case and not get killed or subjugated in prison. Every gesture that Naz makes is a matter of life and death. If he shaves his head and tats up, he looks the part of the alpha dominant for Riker’s, which is wrong for the meek innocent he must play for the court hearing his case. Ahmed informs this irony with vivid physical tactility, gradually squaring Naz’s shoulders, walking with his chest and groin subtly out, and sporadically assuming the classic dead-eyed glaze of the criminal Naz was accused of being—to the point that it’s startling when a flashback to the night of the killing reminds us of the scared man he once was. Prison so fully actualizes Naz that we come to see the trial as a peripheral concern, growing disturbingly comfortable with his exploits in prison as he ascends its social ladder; a criminal factory appears to be on the verge of completing a new and exemplary model.
Naz navigates an extreme incarnation of a tightrope that those with immigrant heritage must walk, playing all sides toward the middle of “mainstream” white culture, to the point that his actual identity, whatever that is, is reduced to being beside the point. Naz’s true self, like everyone’s, is understood to contain shards of all the masks he dons, and so his dilemma also parallels the role-playing everyone must master so as to come out on the right side of the negotiations that inform their respective lives. For instance, Detective Box is a cuddly counselor-type with Naz, but he’s a bullish hard case in court and a shrewd and erudite collector of facts that best support his preferred frame of events in the field. Every character is allowed these multitudes in The Night Of, which evades preaching for its refusal to offer pat explanation for how our various facets cohere, because they don’t, not entirely. Naz’s coming of age involves his acceptance of life as subjective and malleable in accordance with the strongest willed and best connected.