Warning: Spoilers about The Night Of and Criminal Justice will rain down throughout this piece.
As previously noted here at Vulture, Jessica Chastain recently got pretty fired up about The Night Of finale, specifically by the events surrounding Chandra, the defense attorney who, during the conclusion of the HBO series, makes some serious errors in judgment, then gets thrown under a swiftly speeding bus by her colleague. “I was loving #TheNightOf until that final episode,” Chastain tweeted in the wee hours, presumably after a late-night viewing of said episode. “Chandra becomes complete idiot overnight? Amara Karan (&women everywhere) deserved better.”
Chastain was not alone. In addition to Elizabeth Banks, several Night Of recappers aired similar grievances, as did one of the legal analysts that joined us during this week’s Vulture TV Podcast. They all believe Chandra deserved better. I do, too.
As played by the aforementioned Amara Karan with a believable mix of self-doubt and levelheadedness, Chandra is an inexperienced attorney, occasionally naïve, and prone to minor gaffes. But for much of The Night Of, she also proves to be a lawyer with great promise who’s adept at dismantling the evidence against her client while maintaining an aura of polite calm. That competency starts to falter in episode seven — that’s when she violates professional ethics and impetuously kisses Naz, the accused murderer she’s defending — then disintegrates completely in the last episode, when she smuggles drugs on her client’s behalf, puts him on the stand even though it’s a huge risk, and watches helplessly as her career implodes after footage of her Naz make-out session surfaces. The character’s behavior in those last two episodes feels extremely inconsistent with and unsupported by what we’ve seen before, not to mention hard to believe. But that only scratches the surface of what’s so frustrating about this character’s arc.
As conceived and written by Steven Zaillian and Richard Price, The Night Of uses Criminal Justice, the British series that inspired it, as the foundation upon which to build a comparatively more complicated exploration of an innocent man’s journey through the American legal system. Zaillian and Price replicated many of the same basic plot points, including many of the ones that relate to Chandra. In Criminal Justice, a skilled junior barrister named Frances Kapoor (Vineeta Rishi) is also thrust into a position that requires her to defend a young man (Ben, played by Ben Whishaw) accused of a murder he does not remember committing. As in The Night Of, a spontaneous, misguided kiss between the two proves to be Francis’s demise. But the details of that kiss and its aftermath are different in significant ways.
In the first series, the moment of intimacy between attorney and client happens following a rough patch in Ben’s trial; Frances hugs him in an attempt to provide comfort, but it’s Ben who goes in for the kiss, with Frances almost immediately pulling away. In The Night Of, Chandra is also attempting to provide comfort, placing her hand upon Naz’s and assuring him that she believes he is innocent, even if his mother doesn’t. But here, she’s the one who initially leans in for the kiss, and also lets the lip-locking get semi-steamy before disengaging. In both cases, the fact that things get physical feels far-fetched, but in The Night Of, where Chandra is clearly cast as the instigator, it feels even more absurd, out of nowhere, and insulting to women.
It’s insulting because, in broader TV terms, this incident is not an isolated one. Smart professional women frequently throw their integrity and career ambitions in the shredder for the purposes of TV (or movie) sex. If you’re a fictional female journalist, your legs are usually open long before your reporter’s notebook is, as Scandal, House of Cards, and Survivor’s Remorse have all proven during recent seasons. (I’m not even going to get into how many movies have fallen victim to the same trope — read Jada Yuan’s piece from last year to see just how pervasive this is.) This sort of thing happens so often that I started to get nervous during The Night Of scene where Chandra and John get together for drinks because I was convinced they would, unadvisedly and unrealistically, hook up. Turned out that disappointing moment came for Chandra later, and involved Naz instead.
In both Criminal Justice and The Night Of, the kiss serves a purpose from a storytelling perspective. In Criminal Justice — major spoiler alert here — Ben is found guilty of the murder and appeals the verdict, with Ralph Stone, Criminal Justice’s John Stone equivalent, arguing that the whole case must be thrown out due to the inappropriate relationship between defendant and barrister. Frances’s transgression is, in part, what ultimately saves Ben even though it kills her career. In The Night Of, Chandra takes the hit, too, but since the judge refuses to grant a mistrial, she loses her job and her good reputation only to watch John Stone, the anti-heroic white man, swoop in and deliver the closing arguments. Turturro is masterful in that scene, so I was glad to see him get the opportunity in that sense. But it was still outrageous to see Chandra, a woman and person of color, get shoved so aggressively out of the frame.
Now, it’s possible that Price and Zaillian, who directed the finale, actually want us to feel outraged about this. The victims in the criminal-justice system are often the ones with the least built-in advantages, and Chandra illustrates that fact from a different perspective. The problem is that Chandra's decisions are so baffling and Stone is lionized to such a degree in the latter part of the episode that it’s difficult to watch without feeling like Chandra got short shrift, not only within the context of the narrative, but also within the context of television more broadly. While TV is becoming increasingly more inclusive, historically, white men have stood front and center on our screens while everyone else is relegated to the margins. John’s reveal of Chandra’s moment with Naz, while intended to spark a mistrial and protect Naz, results in John owning the spotlight on closing-argument day. When it’s so rare to see both TV and real life cede the floor to someone who looks like Chandra, this stings on multiple levels.
It’s worth noting that Chandra also smuggles those drugs for Naz and doesn’t get caught. Committing that crime suggests she really isn’t fit to be an attorney, while also illustrating the degree to which the system has corrupted her. But her willingness to ignore her morals to such an extent, so late in the series, doesn’t jibe with the sort of person the show established her to be. It feels like something that was written into the series to make a thematic point as opposed to something this woman would actually do. (For the record, in Criminal Justice, Frances never acts as a carrier of illegal contraband for Ben.)
Of course, the fact that The Night Of viewers are still talking and thinking about Chandra so many days post-finale suggests that, in the end, maybe she wasn't entirely marginalized. Ultimately The Night Of is a show about John Stone and Naz. But Stone is able to nail those closing arguments and Naz is able to get out of jail largely because of the strong case Chandra builds. She does what so many women have done, on TV and in life: invests a lot of time and hard work in something, then watches someone else take the credit while she's rendered invisible. This may not make up for the show's missteps in developing her character, but Chandra, know this: There are a lot of us who see you.