Near the end of “A Dark Crate,” John Stone watches as Andrea’s cat, which he found pawing outside of her apartment, is taken into a pet adoption center. Described as an “ugly cat” by the young kid working the desk, it will stay in a small crate for a maximum of ten days. If no one wants to adopt it by then, it will be put down.
Andrea’s cat is doomed to sit in that crate, unable to negotiate the terms of its imprisonment. That’s not the case for the subjects of The Night Of. Most characters in this mini-series are trapped by their circumstances, some in markedly worse situations than others, but they all have opportunities to improve their predicaments. However, it doesn’t take much for those opportunities to be snatched away — and when that happens, they’re left waiting for fate to run its course.
The idea of negotiating one’s own captivity holds together “A Dark Crate,” which accomplishes a lot in its relatively short running time. Writer Richard Price splits the episode into three story lines: Naz adjusting to prison life; Naz’s parents, Salim and Safar, dealing with the legal and financial cost of their son’s criminal trial; and John Stone doing his best to retain his client in the face of a legal system that barely takes him seriously. Along the way, Price introduces three new characters: Freddy (Michael K. Williams), a connected Rikers prisoner who wants to take Naz under his wing; Alison Crowe (Glenne Headly), an opportunistic lawyer who snatches the Khan case from Stone’s hands; and Crowe’s legal aid, Chandra (Amara Karan), whom Crowe uses as a racial prop to get the Khans on their side. “A Dark Crate” feels overstuffed at times, as if Price realized that he had only five episodes left to finish the story, but the episode also has moments of wonderful restraint, when it takes time not just to reveal character, but also to illustrate the casual dehumanization of the justice system.
Price and director Steve Zaillian place us just outside the prison walls so we can bear witness to the gray state of Naz’s enclosure. We then witness Naz’s first interview, a series of routine questions that serve to heighten Naz’s anxiety — “Are you a homosexual?” and “Do you take meds?” and “Do you have suicidal ideations?” — but just as Naz takes in the sights and sounds around him, another prisoner takes notice of him. Price quickly communicates that Freddy has connections on the inside and out, which he uses to negotiate for better food and drugs with the guards, in exchange for the safety of their families and fully paid rent. (“Many of us grew up together,” he explains.) When Naz is called in, Freddy gives him the lay of the land: The people in prison believe that Naz raped and murdered an innocent girl, so he will be looking over his shoulder unless he accepts Freddy’s protection. As a clean illustration of this threat, Naz’s bed is ceremoniously set afire by the other prisoners when he heads to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
In a sense, this prison story line has been played out hundreds of times, but The Night Of has a couple aces in the hole. The first: Michael K. Williams gives an intimate, compelling performance, even though he can no longer escape into a role because his delivery and cadence is so recognizable. The second: Price and Zaillian’s depiction of Naz’s life in such a brutally unfamiliar environment. Watch how Zaillian shoots the shower scene from side and back angles, creating the sense that danger lurks even when there isn’t any to be seen. Naz is completely alone, surrounded by people who want to kill him, and someone offers to help. What choice does he have, even if it means paying Freddy something in return?
Meanwhile, Naz’s parents are left to pick up the pieces. John finally brings up the uncomfortable conversation of his fee, and the possibility of a plea bargain, which doesn’t exactly curry favor with Samir or Safar. Plus, Samir’s cab will be impounded until the criminal trial is over — and the only way to retrieve it is if Samir, or the other two drivers who share part ownership, charge Naz with grand theft auto. Just as the walls seem to be crashing on Samir and Safar, Alison Crowe sees the prosecution’s first press conference and decides to move in on the Khan’s territory. She wins them over by painting a portrait of John as an inexperienced, money-seeking, plea-bargaining attorney who has no experience with murder trials, and seals it with a promise that she’ll take on the case for free. Of course, Crowe isn’t exactly an angel, as she baldly uses racial tactics to manipulate the Khans and omits the fact that she’ll gain publicity by taking on a high-profile, politicized case involving a Muslim 20-something.
Crowe’s characterization of Stone isn’t exactly off base, though. He is relatively inexperienced, he is looking for a payout (despite everyone’s insistence that he won’t get rich off the case), and his bread-and-butter are the drug offenders and prostitutes who generally seek plea bargains. Still, Price goes to great lengths to demonstrate that Stone isn’t just another ambulance chaser, but rather a bighearted person whose clientele happen to be people without many choices. As a result, every lawyer and cop thinks he’s a goof, a familiar face to pity. Watch as Helen, the lead prosecutor, talks with Stone like he’s a child — someone who’s finally sitting at the Big Kid’s table. It’s hard not to feel for the guy, especially when Naz tells him that his parents unceremoniously replaced him with Crowe, even though Naz likes and knows Stone more. He’s being pushed out of a case before he has a chance to take it on.
“A Dark Crate” presents a triptych of prisons: Naz in a literal one, the Khans trapped by their finances, and John alienated by his career choices and disease. No matter how much good he tries to do, he’s still the guy with the silly advertisements that promise “No Fee Until You’re Free!” Naz’s case gave him a purpose, a chance to prove that he’s capable of more than what’s expected. Now he’s out in the cold, like Naz’s father is out of a job and Naz is out of a bed. Of course, it’s not quite that simple. Though The Night Of doesn’t care to make a dark crate look any brighter, it’s not solely interested in the corners where people are stuck. The system may be indifferent, but individuals are not. Guardian angels still exist, even if their feet smell like Saran Wrap and Crisco.
Crimes and Misdemeanors:
- The episode’s standout scene: when Naz’s parents visit prison for the first time and witness the horrors of their son’s new home. Poorna Jagannathan’s subtle performance really shines during the scene, especially when she’s being searched. Her facial reactions convey such a profound array of emotions.
- Another great scene: when Box lectures the arresting officers about their reports and how it’s crucial to retain details that might compel a jury to their side. The puke factor finally comes into play, as Box conveys just how important it will be to illustrate the horror of the crime scene.
- John’s eczema support group is a wonderful touch. It illustrates how much Price is willing to shade in these characters outside of the immediate murder trial.
- Another stellar character moment that feels very true to life, courtesy of Peyman Moaadi: when Samir proudly tells Crowe that he didn’t sign anything Stone put in front of him to prove that he’s knowledgeable.
- The most devastating blink-and-you’ll-miss-it bit: Stone so badly wants to give Naz a last piece of advice before he leaves the prison, knowing that he might not see him ever again, but he can’t think of anything. “You’ll be all right,” he says with a comforting smile, even though he knows that won’t be the case.