The finale of HBO’s acclaimed limited series, “The Night Of,” will air this Sunday night in a 95-minute, long-form episode. There is no shortage of questions for this twisting, turning crime drama to answer. Richard Price and Steven Zaillian, the show’s creators, have guided viewers through a murder investigation that inverts much of what we expect in crime narratives.
Typically, a lead character, like Nasir Khan, appears at his most guilty as the story begins, only to have that guilt chipped away. While from the beginning all of the evidence of Andrea Cornish’s murder points to Khan, he was presented as a nice kid, one we couldn’t imagine stabbing a pretty girl 22 times. But even with the emergence of alternate suspects, revelations about Khan’s past—including violence, drug dealing, and lies—make him look better for the murder in episode seven than he looked in episode one.
As “The Night Of” wraps up, the following questions need to be answered for the viewer, or proxy jury, to make an informed decision about Khan’s guilt or innocence. Barring a flashback that shows us Khan’s memories from the moment of the murder, when he claims he was passed out on Ketamine, there is likely not to be definitive evidence proving Khan did or didn’t do it. Answers to the following five questions will go a long way to help determine if he is, in fact, a murderer.
1. Were the Creepy Alternative Suspects At the Scene?
If Khan didn’t kill Andrea, two women-hating creepy dudes are presented as plausible alternatives. Creepy hearse driving guy, who predicts Andrea’s death in a brief exchange in episode one, is the Scooby Doo option. He’s a character we meet early on, and then only once more, whose ideas about women fall somewhere between Son of Sam and Henry VIII. Did he follow Khan and Cornish? Is he a whacked-out serial killer?
What about Andrea’s stepfather, the cougar-baiting Lothario who wants Andrea’s deceased mother’s money? He has the most compelling motive of any suspect, but could he have done it? Him following Khan’s attorney, John Stone, perhaps suggests he could have been following Andrea the night of the murder and saw his opportunity to pin it on Khan, but that still feels like a long shot. On the other hand, he would have had access the missing knife, a plausible murder weapon.
One other alternate suspect exists. But I refuse to believe HBO would pin the death of a healthy young woman on Duane Reade, a ubiquitous New York City pharmacy chain.
2. What Does The Cat Know?
Andrea’s cat, adopted by the severely allergic but also lonely defense attorney after her murder, is either an important clue in the case, or an intentional misdirection. We see way too much of this friendly feline for it to be written off as inconsequential.
Does the cat’s presence outside the side door after the murder suggest that someone other than Khan let it out while sneaking in the house? Could the cat or its hair provide some additional physical evidence? Sometimes a cat is just a cat, but this cat gets an awful lot of screen time for a snuggly creature meant only to show us Stone’s soft side.
3. Did Prison Make Khan a Thug, Or Is He Just A Thug?
Nothing is more common in dramas involving prison than the unassuming, non-black guy learning to be tough and survive from the black guy. But doesn’t Khan take to his role as prison thug a little quickly? This isn’t a case of the kid simply punching some guy to prove he won’t back down. Khan, in a very short period of time, is involved in a prison beat-down, smuggles cocaine, shaves his head, gets prison tats, smokes crack, and quickly climbs the convict social ladder.
As evidence of Khan’s violent past emerges, we begin to wonder if he was ever really the good Pakistani kid we were supposed to believe him to be at the top of the show. After all, he does steal his dad’s cab while high on Adderall. That’s not exactly exemplary behavior. Predisposed as we are to the idea that our broken prison system creates more criminals than it reforms, maybe Khan fits in there so nicely because it’s where he really belongs.
4. What’s Up with Detective Box?
When Detective Box shows up to search the Khan family residence, he mentions that he is a father. It seems like a throwaway line until later, when he is struggling over the death benefit in his pension paperwork at the bar. Surely, as a father the answer would be easy, but apparently it is isn’t. Is Box’s child dead? Does that explain the sad opera music he listens to, or his kindness in breaking the chain of evidence to give Khan his inhaler?
From the beginning Box has his doubts. His gut doesn’t like the narrative. But at the same time he makes no effort to investigate any other suspects or create any alternative theories of the crime. Is Box worried that the final case in his long career could send an innocent kid to prison for life? Or is the grizzled detective immune to such concerns?
5. Will Chandra Get Kicked Off the Case?
I’ve never been to law school, but I imagine at some point they mention it’s a bad idea to hook up with your client in a prison cell. The blossoming romance between Khan and Chandra is one of the stranger subplots in “The Night Of.” Here is a young woman who is risking what appears to be a promising legal career to make out with a client she barely knows.
It’s not clear if the busy guard nearby saw that kiss between the lawyer and her client, but surely we saw him for a reason. Could this malpractice lead to a mistrial? Might she be kicked off the case, leaving Stone to take over in the courtroom, finally proving he is a good attorney? Whatever the case, this breach of attorney-client decorum looks to figure into the future of the ongoing trial.
If the current trend of artsy but vague crime stories from “Serial” to “Making of a Murderer” holds up in “The Night Of,” we may never know the truth about Cornish’s murder. With so much evidence pointing to Khan, the creators of the show have done a masterful job putting any doubt in our minds at all.
But could that be the rug they are about to pull from under us? We will find out Sunday night—maybe. Solid endings for solid suspenseful television series have proved elusive, from “Lost” to “The Sopranos.” There is reason to think “The Night Of” could continue that pattern. But even if the ultimate question remains unanswered, by the end of Sunday’s finale we are sure to know more than we do today.