“Look before you leap, kid, that’s all I’m saying,” a police officer says to Pakistani-American college student Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed) late in the first episode of HBO’s new mini-series The Night Of. Accused of brutally murdering a young woman (Sofia Black-D’Elia) with whom he shared a debaucherous night, Naz doesn’t have the choice of leaping. He’s already been thrown headfirst into New York City’s criminal-justice system. Whether he likes it or not, he’s entered a callous, insensitive corner of the world, and he’s utterly unprepared for what lies ahead. How did he get here? Where did everything go wrong?
In “The Beach,” director Steven Zaillian and writer Richard Price begin to answer those questions by carefully depicting Naz’s last night free from the clutches of the law. Working in tandem, Zaillian and Price adopt the detail-oriented perspective of a crime writer, emphasizing a rough timeline of the night’s events, complete with key locations, chance encounters, and the procedural bureaucracy of a crime scene. Neither approaches the material with unfeeling objectivity, but rather they extend empathy to all of their subjects: Naz and his gut-wrenching situation, the graveyard-shift cops just doing their jobs, the witnesses who get roped into something bigger than they imagined, and a world-weary defense attorney who does the right thing when he could’ve kept on walking.
Price divides “The Beach” into two distinct sections: the events leading up to the murder and the immediate aftermath. The first establishes Naz’s regimented home and work life, from classes and tutoring ungrateful basketball players to helping out at his family’s store in Jackson Heights. On the night in question, Naz gets an unexpected invite to a Manhattan party, but since he doesn’t have a ride, he impulsively borrows his father’s cab. When he can’t figure out how to work the cab’s off-duty light, he finds himself in the presence of a beautiful young woman we later find out is named Andrea. Seduced by her mystery, Naz agrees to drive Andrea to the river (she wants to see “the beach”), but soon finds himself in her Upper West Side brownstone, plied with drugs and booze, playing five-finger fillet. They spend the night together, and Naz blacks out, only for him to awake and find Andrea’s bloody corpse in bed.
Zaillian, Price, and editor Jay Cassidy deliberately maintain a steady tempo throughout, accentuating the slow-motion car crash that is Naz’s bad night. From the moment the first title card appears as Naz leaves the safety of his house, we know what’s going to happen to him, and The Night Of wants us to marinate in that horror. Though the menacing sense of danger creeps up during the episode’s first section, it hits a whole new level after Naz flees the scene, almost daring us to watch through the slits in our fingers as the scope of the tragedy takes shape.
It’s not just that Naz finds himself caught up in this mess. It’s how the mess looks. Perception becomes very important in the second section, where Price introduces damning evidence that could potentially implicate Naz in this crime, even if he’s completely innocent. First, he flees the apartment without his car keys and has to break inside again to retrieve them (an event a neighbor witnesses from his window). After he takes the bloody knife and drugs from the scene, he’s promptly pulled over for a traffic violation by beat cops who are simultaneously sympathetic (“He’s just a kid,” one of them says) and suspicious because they figure he’s been drinking. When they’re called away to the scene of the crime, they take Naz in the squad car with them, and he watches as the cops survey a break-in that eventually turns into a homicide investigation. Before long, Naz is sitting in a police station awaiting his fate. Just when they’re about to let him go, they find the bloody knife on his person and pin him to the floor.
Zaillian and Price smartly place the audience in Naz’s shoes for as long as possible before shifting perspectives to the police — particularly the cunning detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp). We’re immersed in Naz’s pain as he makes casual mistakes and slowly freaks out as his world comes crashing down upon him. Riz Ahmed excels at imbuing the character with subtle facial expressions that scan as guilt and fear, as if Naz knows what the murder looks like, but he’s also certain that he didn’t commit the crime. It takes more than 55 minutes for the cops to identify Naz as their No. 1 suspect, and for that entire time, we’re privy not just to the details of this kid’s life but how it will look to a jury: A Pakistani-American Muslim spends the night with a young, rich white woman, wakes up to find her dead, flees, returns to the scene, and is later found with a murder weapon. The reality of the situation is largely irrelevant to everyone but Naz. The cops already know how this will play out.
That’s essentially what Box tells Naz in the interrogation room after they arrest him. “Judges and juries, they don’t like ‘I can’t remember,’” he says in a condescending but considerate tone. “They like honesty and remorse. They like that a lot. That counts for something to them.” Camp plays Box with professional precision, embodying the character with enough ambiguity to make him a compelling figure rather than a familiar one. In his scenes with Naz, Box assumes a paternal presence, treating him with care that reads as genuine, but he also manipulates Naz’s responses against him and tries to force a confession. Box knows that Naz is guilty and treats him as such, but he also recognizes that this kid got locked into something larger than he understands, and extends sympathy toward him anyway.
Just when it seems like the case is about to snap shut, Naz decides to ask for a lawyer. Enter John Stone (played by the wonderful John Turturro, in a role originally meant for the late, great James Gandolfini), a thoughtful attorney who catches Naz’s gaze out of the corner of his eye and decides to take his case out of pure pity. If there’s one major problem with “The Beach,” it’s the introduction of Stone, which feels too neat and conventional. He shows up just in the nick of time, strolling through the frame in that classic “I’m the protagonist of this show” kind of way, gaining our sympathies by asking Naz specific, blunt questions about his heritage and politics. Luckily, Turturro’s presence and delivery saves Price’s obvious writing as he imbues Stone with committed exhaustion, like someone who’s been stuck in the criminal-justice system for too long and has seen everything too many times. Stone recognizes Naz as someone who’s never been on the other side of the law, and he feels a sense of duty to take him under his wing. It’s not until the last minutes of the episode that he finds out Naz didn’t just “cut a girl,” but potentially murdered her. Now he’s stuck in the tall grass on a half-closed case. Stone looks at Naz with recognizable fear, as he innately realizes that the pity job has now become an open-ended catastrophe.
“You know what I wonder?” Stone asks the desk cop. “Where’d it all go wrong?” the cop responds curtly. That’s the million-dollar question.
Crimes and Misdemeanors:
- As a crime novelist and longtime screenwriter, Price has a precise ear for police talk and street language. This episode features some of the best cop dialogue since The Wire — it’s got gallows humor, matter-of-fact conversation, and casual bureaucratic fuck-ups. None of it feels like something we’ve seen a million times because it’s specific and delivered with purpose.
- Robert Elswit’s foreboding photography does wonders for the series, as he treats the frame like a shadowy Hell closing in on Naz.
- The scenes with Naz’s parents (played by Peyman Moaadi and Poorna Jagannathan) are devastating, especially when they can’t figure out where their son is, and simply wait by the phone to hear news. When Naz’s father finally gets word that he’s been accused of murder, he runs out of his house to see his cab is missing. Zaillian doesn’t linger too long on the scene’s heartbreak, but stays just long enough for it to sink in.
- J.D. Williams, best known for playing Bodie on The Wire, makes an appearance as a racist passerby who implicates Naz for Andrea’s murder. He’s fantastic and makes me want to watch Bodie scenes all day.