The Night Of
“Beyond a reasonable doubt. We hear that term a lot. But what does it really mean? What’s its definition?”
John Stone, harried and riddled with eczema once again, asks this question during closing arguments to the jury. His answer? There is no real definition. “Reasonable doubt” is what we think and feel, and despite the fickleness of those thoughts and feelings, they have an immeasurable impact on a person’s life, both on a jury and in the outside world. Reasonable or not, every decision we make is shrouded in some doubt, some uncertainty regarding the full extent of our actions. To participate in this world, it’s essential to accept that certainty is never a guarantee. Most of the time, it doesn’t even exist.
The Night Of’s finale assumes the pain and ugliness of doubt to its very core. It answers some questions, leaves others unanswered, and asks a few more for good measure. It has relatively little interest in the whodunit aspects (though it takes a brisk walk down that road) and invests most of its 95-minute running time to the murky emotional consequences that the trial has had on its main actors. There are a few predictable moments, certain foreseeable narrative beats are hit, and at the end of the episode … life, in all of its uncertainty, moves on. In the cosmic ballet, this case is a drop in the bucket, a news story that will leave most people’s minds in a week, if not sooner. But for all those affected, it will be a cross to bear until the end of time.
While Richard Price and Steve Zaillian have maintained tight focus on the procedural elements of Naz’s trial during these eight episodes, you never get the sense that they’ve adopted a myopic, trees-over-forest perspective. “The Call of the Wild” confidently and precisely wraps up The Night Of’s main narrative while also pushing its atmospheric themes into the foreground. Box retires from the force ostensibly to go play golf, but the Job stays the same; John saves a young man from a terrible fate, but he’s still taking calls from anyone who sees his ad; Naz leaves Rikers and returns home to a family who will never quite understand what he’s suffered, and as he’s leaving, a whole new set of freshman are about to enter the Hell he survived. People leave and others arrive. Things change and stay the same. The world turns and turns and turns.
Yes, Naz is off the hook for Andrea’s murder, but not because the jury declared he was not guilty. It’s because they were completely deadlocked, and because Helen, after receiving some damning information from Box about a new suspect, decides not to prosecute further. After the long trial, the partially botched investigation, and a scandalized defense, Naz was essentially let off on a technicality. Twelve idiots on a jury couldn’t decide whether he was a murderer, so in the eyes of the criminal-justice system — the one that threw him in Rikers to fend for himself — he’s not a murderer. It’s a neat rebuke to anyone lusting after a “guilty” or “not guilty” verdict, and it also makes perfect sense within The Night Of’s main narrative. Did Naz kill Andrea? He doesn’t even know, as he tearfully admits on the stand. The mystery lives on.
How did we get to this point? As always, some things went right and just as many things went wrong. Chandra calls Trevor, Duane Reade, the creepy undertaker Mr. Day, and Andrea’s stepfather Don to the stand, all of whom provide testimony that would likely place reasonable doubt regarding Naz’s innocence in the mind of the jury. But then Chandra gets cocky and decides to call Naz to the stand to give his side of the story. It’s an obvious mistake fueled by either misplaced trust or affection, but regardless of reason, she has to score Naz drugs to get him up there, further placing her career at risk.
But Naz’s state of mind doesn’t really matter, because Helen absolutely eviscerates him on the stand after staying mostly quiet through the defense’s long list of witnesses. She presents him as unreliable, dishonest, and of questionable mind. She basically gets him to admit that his own perspective on his involvement in the murder is irrelevant, since he was careful enough to flee a crime scene with evidence that might implicate him, but careless enough to not call 911. And on top of that, he admits he harbors his own doubts about whether he killed Andrea. “You know at the beginning, I thought we had a 10 percent shot,” John sneers at Chandra in the hallway. “Now, zero. You just convicted him.”
Meanwhile, the loose threads in Andrea’s case keep gnawing at Box’s soul. He starts to obsessively look over tape of Andrea before she hopped into Naz’s cab (something he should have done to start with) and catches her nervously glancing over her shoulder. Was she being followed? After finding video evidence of Andrea fighting with someone outside a restaurant, he looks through credit-card receipts and cell records and discovers the name Raymond Halle, her financial adviser turned boyfriend who withdrew large amounts of money from her account. Box confronts Halle at a casino bar, confirming his suspicions, but when he brings this information to Helen, she shrugs and says, “We’ve got more on the kid.”
Then old John Stone shows up to the rescue. Freddy surreptitiously sends him video evidence of Chandra kissing Naz, which he eagerly presents to the judge with Naz’s blessing. But instead of receiving a mistrial like John hoped, the judge forces him to take the lead for closing arguments out of expediency. He reluctantly takes the role, despite not being an experienced criminal attorney, but as a result of the stress, his eczema returns with a vengeance. In an utterly heartbreaking scene, John starts scratching his entire body like a rabid dog; he chugs Dr. Yee’s powder, swallows pills, puffs his inhaler again and again, but it’s no use. His normal appearance has gone down to the tubes. His blistered body is pathos turned flesh.
Yet, John’s appearance ultimately allows him to inject humility and humanity into his closing argument, illustrating that Naz is still the young kid whom he saw when he was stuck in a holding cell, only now he’s a young kid who lived through the Rikers school, hardened by his environment and desensitized to violence and discord. He’s able to communicate to the jury in an articulate, down-to-earth manner that demonstrates multiple avenues of doubt, and it works, or works well enough for six people to question Naz’s guilt. “You’re free. Free to go home,” he tells Naz while the courtroom unceremoniously clears out around them.
But as The Night Of comes to a close, Price and Zaillian show how stories like these never end neatly, and never quite end at all. Box took a job as campus security at NYU (“Are you sure you wouldn’t rather slit your wrists?” Helen asks) but still decides to pick up the Halle investigation. It’s unclear if it will be another dead end or a promising lead. Naz eats dinner at home, but his relationship with his mother has forever been tainted by the insurmountable doubt between them. He leaves the house in a huff, only to find his community has turned on him. Alone and wracked with the cruel weight of freedom, he turns to the drugs that kept him company in Rikers, escaping into his own mind in the exact place where his life first went south. And John? Well, he’ll always be on call.
Yes, you can tug at plenty of plausibility threads that would likely unravel this entire series. The Night Of basically forces the audience to accept that otherwise competent, professional people can act incompetent and unprofessional, like Chandra with her unethical actions and Box with his investigative negligence. It also requires us to accept the legitimacy of Naz’s more incredulous actions, the short cuts that TV takes with the legal system, and a whole host of other moments and scenes that beg belief. Some of these will be a bridge too far for some, especially in a series that presents itself as a clear-eyed procedural.
But I don’t mind accepting those implausibilities because the series’ emotional acuity was consistently stellar. The Night Of is a show about how the justice system’s neglect and disregard for humanity trickles down to every single facet of society — law, order, and who gets caught in between. It takes the notion of the Job and unpacks its callous heart, but neither Price nor Zaillian wish to didactically explain any horrors to the audience. Instead, they present a cold world, then turn their eyes to examine people, their professions, their inner lives, and how they’ve been permanently affected by that world. Whether or not Naz committed the murder is largely beside the point; his life will never be the same. Meanwhile, someone else in the pen will be hoping for justice. And there will be another one the next day. And another one the day after that. What to do? “Fuck ‘em all. Live your life,” John offers. It’s much, much harder than it appears, which makes it the only worthwhile advice one can ever give.
Crimes and Misdemeanors:
- In a nice meta moment, the episode begins with two cops talking about cops on TV shows. “How about a series about a cop who doesn’t give a shit?” one says. “You write a show like that, the Job will throw you a parade.”
- J.D. Williams returns and lights up the whole show again with his few minutes of screen time, as Trevor tries and fails to invoke the Fifth Amendment.
- A chilling, icky moment? Helen quoting the prophet Muhammad during her cross-examination: “‘Hurry with all the strength of your legs to the one who needs help.’ Is that what you did for Andrea?”
- Freddy might have left Naz with a drug habit, but he also was eager to get him out of Rikers. Why? He smells like innocence.
- Finally, John tries to give up Andrea’s cat when the trial goes south, but as the very last shot confirms, he saves it yet again. Those two cannot quit each other.