close reads

How The Night Of Goes From a Bad Dream to a Justice Fairy Tale in One Scene

John Turturro in The Night Of.

The first episode of HBO’s atmospheric mini-series The Night Of unspools like a stomach-sinking bad dream. We’re introduced to our protagonist, Nasir Khan, and we watch as he slowly makes mistake after all-too-believable mistake on an unfortunate night. At the end of it, he’s handily transformed himself into the most cut-and-dried murder suspect imaginable, and he can’t even get away from the scene cleanly. He’s caught mere blocks from the crime after making an illegal left turn.

It’s sickening to watch, and it certainly doesn’t inspire any hope that The Night Of will be a comfortable series. The first hour suggests this will be a story about a young man falling through the cracks of the justice system. He’ll be ground up and spit out and made into a depressing, sadly plausible victim of his own mistakes and the excruciating dispassion of police, lawyers, judges, and the public.

And then, right at the end, just as everything looks impossibly sad, John Turturro strides into the series as John Stone, a small-time defense attorney. He’s rumpled. He’s slumped. At first, Nas only sees the back of him, but somehow just that trench-coat-clad silhouette is enough to make Nas spontaneously realize he should ask for a lawyer. (His neglect to do so up until this point made me cringe and rage; it’s like watching a heroine in a horror movie slowly descend a haunted house’s darkened staircase.)

John Stone glances curiously at Nas and leaves the precinct, busy with other things. He gets only a couple of steps outside of the building before running into a cop, and asks him about who Nas is and what he’s supposed to have done. Stone listens. He pauses, standing there alone on a city street, looking like he’s been transported straight from a ‘40s noir. And then — in the moment that alters the tone of this crime drama — he turns around, heading back toward the precinct.

After the previous hour of unfortunate mistakes and inevitable missteps, Stone turning around feels like a gift. Finally! Finally, someone will help him. Someone who knows what’s going on will step in and make things better. At this moment, The Night Of transforms from an unrelenting story of human error and a cruel, implacable justice system into something slightly, vitally, more hopeful. It becomes a justice fairy tale.

Part of why the turn-around moment works so well as a fairy tale is that it is so deeply familiar to us: The reluctant hero turning to go into battle taps into our basest narrative lizard brains. This bone-deep recognition is essential. It’s the thing that makes us sit up and sigh with relief after more than an hour of sinking further into our sofas.

There’s a moment almost exactly like this in the pilot for Showtime’s lackluster Roadies. The show’s passionate, young, feel-the-music protagonist, who’s declared all episode that she’s leaving the tour to go to film school, reconsiders, turns around, and begins sprinting back toward the arena at full throttle. The structure is essentially identical — the downward spiral, things falling apart, and then, the turn.

The difference is that the downward spiral on Roadies has none of the horrifying slipperiness and implacable weight of Nas’s fall. Things are going awry for this troupe of music-addled misfits, but Roadies never gives us the sense that this could actually be the day the music dies. More importantly, Kelly Ann’s helter-skelter sprint through a parking lot is hugely overworked and overwrought (it’s intercut with well-known film clips of people running back home, beginning with Gone With the Wind, for Pete’s sake). John Stone’s turn, comparatively, is sparse, stripped of nearly all the accompanying narrative trappings and so quick that you could easily look down and miss what happened.

It’s not that the Night Of scene is played to be overlooked or forgotten. There is no need for it to be ornamented with swelling music or drawn out for saccharine effect. It’s potent, this fairy tale, and it’s nearly skeletal in its minimalism. You notice it because it feels monumental.

It also softens the blow of the series’ thematic preoccupations. Like a lot of crime-centric TV in the past several years, The Night Of is about the crushing unfairness of being accused of a crime, and about the way massive institutions (especially prisons) dehumanize those who fall into their clutches. It’s about how easy it is for one person’s completely understandable mistakes to be transformed into a free fall through many circles of hell.

But John Stone’s turn differentiates The Night Of from other similar meditations on justice. Orange Is the New Black made its fourth season into a wrenching screed on the horrors of racism and corporate imprisonment. The podcast Serial uses its first season to explore the slipperiness of truth and fact, and ends without any answers. At least in its first episode, The Night Of feels like it’s going to be in a similar vein. And then it punts.

That’s not to suggest that The Night Of is worse, or better, than a show that leaves us mired in despair at the hopelessness of the justice system. But its turn toward satisfaction at the end — its introduction of Stone as the fairy god-lawyer — is a strange, unavoidably double-edged blade. On the one hand, yes, it undercuts a deeper message about flaws in the way we investigate and prosecute crime. Depending in part on how the series develops, the presence of One Good Man who can somewhat mitigate the system’s unfairness weakens its depiction of the troubling, fundamental problems with that system.

But it is also, unquestionably, the thing that makes this first episode work. It is a truth of television, even TV made and distributed in brave new streaming paradigms, that a good first episode simultaneously creates a craving and offers a hint of satisfaction. This is what will make you want to watch the next one. It will springboard you forward. This is the human reality on which procedural narratives were born, way back in the 19th century — we like it when the problems are solved. We are soothed by stories that work out. We like stories about crimes that get resolutions because they allow us to vicariously experience social disorder and a comforting return to status quo.

Even if later in the series, The Night Of becomes more desperate, John Stone turning around and marching back into battle is the crucial, essential scene in the show’s first episode. At a time when there is all too little real-world assurance that things will work out, and that the justice system is fair, and that good wins, the fairy tale at the end is what makes this first installment of The Night Of watchable. It is a testament to Turturro’s performance that John Stone feels like a deep, cleansing breath. It is a testament to the state of the rest of the world right now that, at least for a little while on TV, I’m happy to believe in the fairy tale.

The Night Of: The Scene That Changes Everything