Where The Night Of Goes Wrong on Race and Criminal Justice

L-R: Riz Ahmed and Michael Kenneth Williams. Photo: HBO

Try to pick a moment in the 15 years since 9/11 when The Night Of’s basic premise wouldn’t have a strong whiff of cultural resonance. The series takes a narrative blueprint about the cruelties of America’s carceral system, particularly for minorities, and builds on it. Riz Ahmed plays Nasir “Naz” Khan, a Muslim college student from Jackson Heights who’s largely obedient to the wishes of his Pakistani immigrant parents (Payman Maadi and Poorna Jagannathan). One night, he’ll make the impulsive decision to take his taxi driver father’s cab out to attend a party. On his trip, he picks up a girl named Andrea (Sofia Black-D’Elia), and together they do drugs and have sex; hours later, he wakes up and finds her bloodied corpse, though he’s sure he didn’t murder her. A trail of hasty decisions later and he’s being questioned by police officers, who find a blood-stained weapon on his person. This evidence, coupled with Naz’s eventual admission that he was at Andrea's apartment that night, lands him on Rikers Island.

From here, the show evolves into a more traditional crime-drama narrative, but throughout it weaves in commentary on what it’s like to exist as a brown, Muslim man in present-day America. To add to the sense that the world’s rigged against men like Naz, we see major and minor characters alike routinely hurl nasty invectives at him based on his ethno-religious identity. “Did you leave your bombs at home, Mustafa?” a passerby on the street spews at him just before he and Andrea enter her house in the first episode. Such casual microaggressions remind us that everywhere Naz steps is a proverbial minefield. “You leave your bombs at Homeland Security or something?”

Consider, though, who delivers these messages. In the universe writers Richard Price and Steven Zaillian have created, the chief agents of Islamophobia are black men. Moments like this become a thoroughfare of the series as it progresses. The Night Of traffics in pitting Naz against his black tormentors, while it takes more time to create nuanced portraits of white people upholding the corrupt criminal-justice system Naz is navigating.

You don’t have to look much further than what sets The Night Of in motion: The show is predicated on a timeworn savior trope, wherein a benevolent white male swoops in to save the brown victim. As critics have already pointed out, the first episode plods along hopelessly until lawyer John Stone (John Turturro) arrives. Stone’s very presence in the episode signals a tonal shift, a reprieve from unending misery; perhaps Naz will make it out of this alive, we feel, because he certainly won’t be able to do so himself.

Thankfully, as the series progresses, it does acknowledge how people in power perpetuate the system Naz is stuck within, and how little the truth matters in this system. There’s Detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp), who, in building a solid case against Naz for the prosecution, recognizes his weak spots and then attacks those vulnerabilities to gain enough material. We see Helen (Jeannie Berlin), the district attorney working on the case along with Box, coax a forensic pathologist to lie on the stand and say the gash on Naz’s hand was one he sustained from the murder, and thus proof of his responsibility. Even the pro bono lawyer who represents Naz at one point, Allison Crowe (Glenne Headly), reveals herself as manipulative and specious in her intent, speaking down to Naz’s parents and essentially confirming she’s taken on this case of the put-upon brown man as a showboating exercise to make herself look good.

But, for the most part, these are characters whose points of view you’re made to understand, and even sympathize with — after all, they’re simply working within a larger bureaucracy, and Naz does appear to be pretty damn guilty. But when it comes to the black characters, there’s a subtle villainization that occurs, and no one gets a role as full-bodied as the one given to Turturro. The show reaches its most troubling juncture when Naz arrives at Rikers. It turns the transactional relationship we saw earlier — one in which Naz instructs his black tutee — on its head, when the narrative forces Naz to “learn” from the black men he meets in prison in order to survive. At the end of the third episode, Naz comes back from a bathroom break to find that his fellow prisoners have set his bed aflame. Later, one of his jail mates, Calvin (Ashley Thomas), will douse him in baby oil and water, severely injuring his arm. Naz then strikes up a friendship with Freddy (Michael Kenneth Williams), who offers to take Naz under his tutelage and protect him. This friendship comes at something of a price — Freddy will also ask Naz to be a drug mule, and Naz deems it worth the risk. At every turn, his relationships with black characters are fueled by a sense of danger.

As a result of his relationship with Freddy in particular, we see Naz harden into someone barely resembling the shy, wide-eyed kid we met in the pilot. He shaves his head. The cadence of his voice shifts to mimic those of his black aggressors; his slightly stupefied stare gives way to a more sly, knowing disposition. He gets a tattoo on his knuckles. He begins talking back and holding his own against prisoners who taunt him. Rather than cowering in fear, Naz plays their game.

And it’s only as Naz mimics the traits of the black men around him that the viewer is made to question the fundamental nature of his morals. We see the most terrifying glimpses of this shift in episode five, when Naz brutally beats Calvin, helpless and rendered immobile as he’s pinned to the shower floor. In this moment, Naz seems consumed by feral aggression. Though Ahmed is an expressive, subtle actor who telegraphs this change ably, it was intended to introduce a sense of ambiguity, making us wonder if maybe Naz really was capable of committing a heinous crime like Andrea’s murder.

Rikers is a place that’s long remained a site of cultural fascination, abstracted in the popular imagination as a seedy place teeming with criminals beyond moral repair. Last year, it seemed that reports of human-rights abuses were beginning to complicate public ignorance. Over a year has now passed since Kalief Browder killed himself at the age of 22 after being held at Rikers for three years without being convicted of a crime. It took the very stories of these men — Browder, Bradley Ballard, denied their basic humanity — for the public to view Rikers’s prisoners as, perhaps, victims of injustice themselves.

Given the events of the past year, you may believe that a fictional rendering of Rikers reflects these newfound sympathies. Yet The Night Of seems to have been conceived in a political vacuum — one character offhandedly describes the island as a “fucking jungle,” a throwaway line that outlines the level of care the show’s writers have taken to portray Rikers’s prisoners as people who make life dangerous for Naz.

To some, providing a responsible, reasonably complex snapshot of our criminal-justice system may sound like an awfully big burden to place upon just one show. But The Night Of has been met with breathlessly positive overtures for its purportedly true-to-life portrait of criminal justice’s inequities, resembling the platitudes once directed at writer Price’s other prestige project, The Wire. And it’s true that the show infuses the crime procedural — a genre that has come to carry associations of paint-by-numbers writerly laziness — with carefully paced dramatic tension, an austere and self-serious aesthetic, and dramatically riveting actors. But The Night Of’s sophisticated look and feel unfortunately disguises its larger blind spots. The show seesaws between Rikers and the outside world, and the latter is drawn in richer, more careful detail than the former, with a particularly excruciating amount of screen time spent building sympathy for John Stone, his skin condition, and his relationship with Andrea’s cat. Those who inhabit Rikers, meanwhile, feel more like props. The action within the prison is driven by one main objective: to heighten the viewer’s suspicion that Naz is turning into a monster because of his fellow inmates, not to illuminate more damning truths about the criminal-justice system.

As we approach the penultimate episode of the series, the main tension hinges on the question of whether Naz will become one of “them” instead of examining how Naz and his fellow prisoners are casualties of the same carceral state. And for all of The Night Of’s observations on how corrupt and ineffective the criminal-justice system is, this is a truth that hasn’t come into sharp enough focus.