There are spoilers below, though nothing spoiled “The Night Of” more than the finale.
When a show is well acted and aesthetically pleasing – which the “The Night Of” certainly is– we tend to overlook its many other flaws. Most notably, the plausibility of the story. But judging “The Night Of” on its own terms, as a murder mystery, it was not only unsatisfying, but disappointingly simplistic.
I was surprised that the critics’ consensus was that the finale’s ambiguities benefitted the show. (“‘The Night Of’ Turned Out to be a Hypnotic Masterpiece of Craft and an Exploration of the Act of Seeing,” says someone who really likes to intellectualize HBO series over at The Atlantic.) Why do these Americans like tightly wound endings, they wonder? Well, I don’t know, maybe they like things that make sense.
Ever Get The Feeling You’ve Been Cheated?
Sure, wrapping a series up in a neat saccharine finale can be unsatisfactory and stupid. Then again, plastering your ending with ambiguity is often a way of covering up an undercooked story.
“The Night Of” writers took great care to create numerous suspects in the murder of Andrea — the embalmer, the step dad, ‘Duane Reade.’ A good mystery demands red herrings and dead ends to create doubt in the viewer. But if they aren’t even given a chance to figure it all out, they’ll feel cheated. I felt cheated. Because dropping the prime suspect’s motive on us in the second half of the finale of an eight-episode arch isn’t a tantalizing twist, it’s a complete cop out.
The financial dude was only brought to the viewers’ attention midway through the series; and even then, we were never offered a chance to understand his motivations or his role in Andrea’s life. Once the show pulled someone out of left field, though, they could have retroactively demonstrated how this suspect had been just out of our sight the entire time. Think, “Presumed Innocent.”
A critic at Vox argues that leaving these aspects of the story ambiguous “forces us to think about its weightier themes.” This seems about right. Although the show never veers into the didactic, “The Night Of” nudges its audience to meditate on its societal commentary rather than its believability. I suspect this is what appeals most to critics.
The lesson of the show is obvious: throwing young people into prisons only helps creates more criminals. And the scenes of Naz dealing with harsh life on Rikers Island (Michael K. Williams is great, as usual) are indeed intriguing. So are scenes in the courtroom, which illustrate the banality of the justice system. But there’s a problem that touches all of this.
Have These Writers Ever Met a Human?
If you’re producing a gritty, realistic cable series about urban life that treats the murder mystery as an afterthought, you have to stay within the boundaries of plausibility. So the worst thing about “The Night Of” is that it doesn’t understand human nature.
For starters, although we feel great sympathy for Naz, what exactly were cops supposed to do with a suspect who was found fleeing the scene of the crime, with blood on him, with the murder weapon in his pocket, who resisted arrest and admitted he was in the house when Andrea was murdered? It’s not as if The Man set Naz up or the justice system railroaded him. Naz acted in a way that no intelligent or rational, much less innocent, person would probably ever act, even in panic.
Or take the talented, bulldog, lead detective (Bill Camp) who’s incorruptible and lives for the job. Through the entire show, his mannerisms suggest he’s uncomfortable with the Naz conviction. Yet it takes him seven episodes to check the alibi of a man who not only showed up at the scarcely attended funeral of the murdered woman, but one that even a rudimentary investigation would have uncovered as someone who knew her. Unlikely. Stone is checking cell phone records in the middle of episode eight? Detective Box would have done it during episode one.
Then we’re supposed to believe that District Attorney Weiss ignored this evidence. It’s preposterous. Not because the district attorney (played brilliantly by Jeannie Berlin — basically everyone is great in this) seemed like an exceptionally moral person, or that a DA would never dispose or ignore of evidence, but rather that this DA — whom we learned earlier in the show is hyperprotective about her career — has virtually no reason not to turn over the evidence. She had done nothing wrong. It was the cops who hadn’t followed up on leads. She has a stack of other cases in her office. By failing to share the information with the defense, however, she put her career in jeopardy.
She didn’t seem like the type.
Then we’re supposed to believe that Nasir Khan’s young, idealistic lawyer – with a big bright future ahead of her — would fall for (and make out with) this sullen, introverted, drug-addicted murder suspect who spends his spare time having the word “sin” tattooed on his fingers? That’s far-fetched enough. We’ve all met meticulous, intelligent young women like Chandra, who have obviously sacrificed a lot building a career. Would the person you know help someone like Naz smuggle drugs into Rikers only a few days before putting him on the stand?
Getting back to Naz for a minute: It’s unconvincing that a generally well-behaved, conscientious, conservative kid, who feels guilty taking his dad’s taxi to a party, could be transformed into hardcore thug in only few weeks. Does Naz seem like a person who would get a neck tat right before a trial? Or someone who would swallow bags of dope that came from the orifice of a stranger? Or someone who bullies another thug over who gets to watch a TV show?
John Stone (John Turturro) was the most fully realized character on the show, and even his foot problems and that stupid cat (I’m not smart enough to know why the cat matters, and I get a sense that it didn’t matter at all) created an interesting tension. But we’re supposed to believe that this huckster lawyer, who is such a complete mess that he can’t even pull it together enough to get through a metal detector without incident much less take care of his ailments, can suddenly become a brilliant orator in defense of Naz?
Don’t get me wrong: the show gets a lot right. The tempo. The diversity and sense of the city. But it gets a lot less right than its fans seem to believe.