While the first episode of The Night Of focused on a vicious murder and its aftermath, the second episode sets its sights on the slow, grinding wheels of the criminal-justice system. “Subtle Beast” deliberately pushes Naz to the sidelines for most of the hour, and instead follows lawyers, cops, medical examiners, and other judicial representatives as they do their jobs with casual determination. Less charitable or observant viewers might describe the episode as boring because it doesn’t move much plot forward, but those claims would miss writer Richard Price’s larger point: The system’s indifference toward its charges damns everyone involved, rendering questions of truth and decency all but irrelevant in the pursuit of a “win.”
“Subtle Beast” depicts the unsexy practical work that happens behind the scenes of a homicide investigation and subsequent trial — prisoner transportation, courtroom procedure, victim identification, and case-building. Like The Wire before it, The Night Of doesn’t gussy up these events by making them appear more glamorous than they really are. It’s mostly institutional coordination and paperwork, and director Steven Zaillian captures that grind with a sensitive eye, framing it as a necessary routine for those who work in the trenches.
The routine itself also serves narrative and thematic purpose. Beyond simply examining the building blocks of Naz’s case, Price indirectly explains the cold behavior of John Stone and Detective Box. These characters have been at the coalface for decades. They have seen everybody from all walks of life. There are no surprises anymore; there are only victims and criminals, and cases to be built or destroyed. For the audience, Naz is a sheltered kid thrown headfirst into a cruel system, but to the cops and lawyers in his sphere, he’s just another adult who committed a crime and wants to avoid punishment.
Moreover, Price uses procedural actions as a means to explore characters in depth, specifically how their approaches to the job reflect back on them. “Subtle Beast” marks our first chance to really get a closer look at John Stone and his place in the bureaucracy. A familiar face wherever he goes, cops and judges treat Stone with something between mild contempt and begrudging respect, like a terrier nipping at the heels of his betters. A cop sneers at him to go chase an ambulance, while a judge meekly smiles at his good fortune with Naz’s murder trial. He’s a helpful ally to those in need, but he’s also an opportunist trying to inch his career forward, even though others think he’s in over his head. Box tells him he’s not going to get rich off the trial, and even his ex-wife delicately asks him if he’s sure he can handle something of this magnitude. Whether he can, remains to be seen, but Stone’s confidence in the face of overwhelming odds is a comforting sign. After all, he only cares about two things: his work and his eczema.
We also learn a little more about Box, the seasoned detective determined to put Naz away. Near the beginning of the episode, Stone gives Naz the lowdown: Box is a good cop, which in this case means he’ll “do you over just inside the lines.” He’s an expert at manipulation, such as when he “graciously” allows Naz’s parents (played wonderfully by Peyman Moaadi and Poorna Jagannathan) to see their son, but only so he can tape their conversation. He speaks with kindness and grace to Andrea’s reserved, creepy stepfather (Paul Sparks), gently trying to determine her illicit activities; yet he’s also eyeing him to see if he’s also worthy of suspicion. A talented oppressor of the highest order, Box understands the rules of the game — which inevitably means treating everyone as if they’re untrustworthy — but he does so with a smile and a thoughtful look. It’s how he can speak glowingly about Naz’s parents in one breath, then unceremoniously ransack their home for evidence in the next. He’s a good cop with the menace of a bad one.
Case in point: Box’s attempt to coax a confession out of Naz, easily the highlight of “Subtle Beast.” Box pulls a number of tricks in the scene, first trying to convince Naz of Stone’s apathy towards his plight, saying that he thinks of him as just another client. He even offers him compliments (he’s a “good kid” living the “worst day of his life”) and returns his inhaler, promising him relief after he confesses. Mostly, Box plays on Naz’s desire to tell the truth — something that Stone routinely tells him is irrelevant in the eyes of a jury — but Box doesn’t really want the truth. He only wants a confession for his supposedly open-and-shut case. Zaillian aims for maximum tension as he alternates between close-ups of Naz’s naïve face and medium shots of Box working around the office, contrasting his casual demeanor with Naz’s fearful shyness. Bill Camp’s subtle body language indicates that Box’s tactic has worked in the past, but not this time. Though Naz seems ready to spill his guts, regardless of their truthfulness, he turns to Box at the last second and firmly tells him he’s done talking. Realizing the nice-guy act won’t work, Box quickly charges him with homicide and transports him to wait arraignment with the likes of other criminals.
Though Price pushes Naz to the side for most of the episode, he still remains the silent moral center of the miniseries. Naz only wants to tell his side of the story, which he believes will fix everything, but Stone keeps telling him to shut up, knowing that the public’s perception of “the truth” will roundly hurt his client in the long run. (“I don’t want to be stuck with the truth,” Stone tells him. “Until I have to be.”) He radiates shame around his parents, even when he convinces them that he’s not guilty. Price and Zaillian illustrate how Naz’s current situation has actually little to do with him; his life is in the hands of other people now, so all he can do is wait as he’s shunted off from one holding cell to another. The long final sequence of Naz being transported to prison devastates not only because he’s a young, wide-eyed kid who will soon be introduced to horrors beyond his imagination, but also because that’s now his life until other people say so. After one night of reckless freedom, Naz no longer has any agency. Neither Price nor Zaillian let the audience forget that. The system may be indifferent towards humanity, but The Night Of keeps it in the center.
Crimes and Misdemeanors:
- “Subtle Beast” is filled with many small, great character moments: Naz’s mother making him food to bring to prison and then later searching his room for possible “evidence” of wrongdoing; Stone being sent to the back of the line as he tries to enter the courthouse because he’s late for a trial; Box’s preference for classical music on the ride home.
- We’re sure to see more of Andrea’s stepfather, who immediately jumps to the top of the alternative-suspects list. When provided a picture of Andrea’s body, he tells the examiner that it’s not her, but when the examiner insists he sees Andrea in the flesh, he quickly changes his mind.
- This episode marks the introduction of best-in-the-business prosecutor Helen Weiss, played by the always-phenomenal Jeannie Berlin. Her caution in the face of Box’s confidence is a joy to watch. (“You sure he did it?” “No question.” “You blinked.”)
- Another wonderfully subtle moment: Stone informing Naz’s parents of where his arraignment will be held after they can’t find the information online. Stone may be a bit gleeful about being in the “right place, right time,” but his heart is largely still pure.
- The funniest part of the episode: After the judge reads Naz’s long list of charges, another prisoner awaiting arraignment says in utter disbelief, ” … fuck me.”