Simply put, "The Season of the Witch" is the best episode of The Night Of thus far. A pure procedural that alternates between the prosecution and the defense making their cases, an hour like this one was bound to come along given the focus on Naz's trial, and simply watching the pieces fall into place carries its own delight. Richard Price and Steven Zaillian draw stark lines to divide the teams: John and Chandra work together to suss out an argument for Naz's innocence, and Helen and Box shore up the timeline so they'll have a better chance at trial. And all the while, Naz thrives in Rikers under Freddy's protection, hardening to prison life faster than his bowels can work through four eight-balls.
Price and Zaillian get a lot of mileage from "The Season of the Witch" by simply pacing its investigative elements like a thriller. As Box walks through the night's events, for example, the episode cuts to John patrolling New York for leads, inevitably placing the audience at the edge of their proverbial seats. However, what separates The Night Of from other procedurals (like Law & Order, the main comparison that's been thrown around) is that Price has a clear-eyed, unsentimental perspective toward the justice system. Both sides have no qualms cutting corners to score their victory — Helen all but coerces a medical examiner to claim that a cut on Naz's hand was a result of the stabbing, and John shakes down Andrea's drug dealer with false threats — and though they pay lip service to the human life that hangs in the balance, Naz is largely incidental. This is a game, and they're playing to win. Price never lets the audience forget the utter tragedy of that fact.
But that doesn't mean these characters aren't human, as evidenced by the show's interest in John Stone's personal life and interiority. "The Season of the Witch" goes past the eczema and straight into other humiliating aspects of Stone's daily existence, like his pitiful experience with career day at his son's school ("Would you defend Hitler?" one student asks him) and failed experiments with Viagra. At this point in the mini-series, Turturro has imbued so much life into Stone that he dominates scenes just by showing up, and he demands our full sympathy with small actions, like giving Andrea's cat a "stay of execution" even though he's deeply allergic. Stone may not be the most reputable of attorneys, but he's arguably the only one in The Night Of who recognizes the nuance of human character.
Case in point: The toxicology report that proves Naz had amphetamines in his system before the night of Andrea's murder. Though it was only Adderall (he's a college kid after all), Stone reams Naz out during visiting hours for lying to him and giving the prosecution the opportunity to paint him as a less-than-perfect kid. He details exactly how something as small as taking a study drug might throw this case into jeopardy. Helen and her team already have constructed some nonsense pre-meditation angle because he didn't immediately kick Andrea out of the cab ("He's lying in wait," she claims gleefully), and all it takes is another character flaw to make him seem like a drug-abusing murderer.
Obviously Naz isn't that, but he's no longer the person he was before he entered prison, either. He has power and influence under Freddy, and he now feels free to throw it around. He aggressively changes the channel on the TV just because someone makes a mild threat against him. He shaves his head to change his image. He starts working out to look more menacing. Oh, and he beats his baby-oil-and-hot-water attacker to near death. Some of this behavior is necessary because of the environment, but it's nevertheless a tragic sight. This otherwise good kid has to change because the system dictates it.
Of course, life under Freddy's protection isn't all wine and roses. He requests something from Naz in return, mainly to smuggle drugs during visiting hours. Naz practices swallowing grapes in his brand-new solitary cell to prepare himself, even though he innately understands it's never going to be enough practice for the actual moment. He can't pay attention to John or Chandra as they talk to him about his trial because he's fretting about the balloons that'll soon be passed over to him. When he finally gets them, Naz not so subtly pops them in his mouth one by one in front of his lawyers, only for John to give him a piece of advice: "I know you gotta do what you gotta do in here, but if you get caught with that, this case is over."
But Naz also gives up a crucial piece of information that has yet to be explored by the prosecution or the defense: Trevor (J.D. Williams, always likable and charming even when his character spouts racist bile), the witness who walked past Andrea and Naz that night, had a friend with him whom he didn't mention to the police. John catches up with Trevor in a laundromat and cajoles the truth out of him: The guy's name is Dwayne Reed, and he was previously charged with a battery of crimes, including assault with a knife. Despite pleas from Chandra not to confront him, John foolishly tracks Dwayne down to the back room of a bodega, and just when they sit down to talk, Dwayne books it into the dark corners of the night. We're left on the image of John in a dark alley, armed with a crowbar, searching for the person who might actually be Andrea's killer.
"The Season of the Witch" isn't the best episode of The Night Of just because it's exciting, or because it features some of Zaillian's best direction to date (the bodega scene is arguably his finest hour), or because of the aforementioned narrative pieces, but because it demonstrates what a mini-series like this can do at its very best. The Night Of is a measured look at the criminal-justice system and how its slow, grinding wheels compromise the humanity of everyone who dares to set foot in it. It takes its time ingratiating the audience into its milieu, getting us acquainted with the various environments — the courtroom, the police station, Rikers, John's apartment — until everything feels like a natural extension of the mini-series' world. Sure, this is standard prestige-TV stuff, but the best shows make it look easy and organic. When all of that legwork leads to an episode like this, it pushes the story to a whole new level. With three episodes left to go, The Night Of is making its case as the most subtly confident show on TV.
Crimes and Misdemeanors:
- Wonderful to see Peyman Moaadi return in this episode, as the co-owners of Salim's cab push him to charge Naz with grand theft auto so they can return to work. As advertised, it's devastating.
- The comic highlight: When John gets rejected by his regular prostitute for an out-of-towner just as he takes his Viagra. Especially the way Turturro pushes her first customer out of the way with a cheeky, "Get the fuck out of here. Come on. Go."
- Fisher Stevens also returns as John's pharmacist to embarrass him yet again, this time by loudly asking for the Viagra.
- The scene where Chandra and John agree to work together is classic "get the gang together" stuff, but Price and Zaillian play it very well, emphasizing the characters' professionalism and sense of responsibility.
- John's interactions with Andrea's cat are beautiful. He places him in his son's room and locks the door so his allergies won't act up, but he buys him toys so he's not bored. He also lets him know when he's going out. One of many great character moments.