HBO has hit upon critical acclaim yet again with miniseries The Night Of but is it just a well-executed and fairly standard crime drama?
The courtroom setting is one that television is excessively well-acquainted with, often used as a narrative tool where secrets are revealed and the truth finally comes out. While such a space is undeniably useful in story-telling, the real-life courtroom operates under distinctly different precepts. Many cases don’t make it to a federal court, and those that do rarely end in something other than a guilty verdict. The state simply won’t prosecute a case that they aren’t sure they’ll definitively win. The notion of the true facts of a case miraculously being revealed in a courtroom are fantastical.
Moreover, the absolutes of ‘guilty’ and ‘not guilty’ are far from simple. It is the burden of the state to prove a defendant guilty, and they are legally presumed innocent until proven otherwise. Lawyer John Stone (John Turturro) makes a speech about ‘reasonable doubt’ in the finale of The Night Of, telling the jury that the phrase has no definition and is up to their interpretation. A ‘not guilty’ verdict does not mean that the defendant is ‘not guilty’ but that there is ‘reasonable doubt’ as to whether they are guilty or not. These are the narrative pre-occupations of The Night Of.
Enter Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed), a promising Pakistani-American college student who borrows his dad’s taxi cab without asking to go to a party. On the way there, Nas becomes lost and accidentally picks up a young girl named Andrea, with whom he takes drugs, sleeps with and wakes up after a blackout to find her stabbed twenty-two times. Memory loss is a trope of bad fiction, but The Night Of uses it not as a blank to be filled in later in the narrative, but as a method to make both Nas and viewer unsure as to whether he committed the crime or not. One of the big underlying questions is whether Nas is capable of this kind of drug-fuelled murder and Nas’ eventual conclusion on the witness stand is that he doesn’t know.
It looks unlikely from the show’s first episode that more information will ever be revealed about the titular night, and the only additional info that does come to light about other potential suspects is highly inconclusive. But Nas’ lawyer John Stone isn’t interested in whether Nas is guilty or not, he’s interested in finding him the best possible out in light of the circumstances, and that eventually puts him on a hunt for his elusive ‘reasonable doubt’. For Stone, everything that happens is a means to an end. He sees Nas as a human being trapped in a bad situation, and simply does his job to the best of his ability.
Stone becomes Nas’ lawyer simply by the luck of being in the right place at the right time, and subsequently loses the position when big shot lawyer Allison Crowe (Glenne Headley) charms Nas’ parents into letting her defend their son for free. Crowe negotiates an extraordinarily generous plea bargain with the DA’s office but Nas isn’t sure whether to take it or not, despite both Crowe and Stone telling him he should. Crowe sends her naive and overly-friendly employee Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan) in to convince Nas to take it, but she tells Nas not to take it if he’s really not guilty. When Nas refuses the bargain, a furious Crowe quits as his lawyer, leaving the case to Kapoor and Stone. Crowe was only interested in the case as a statistic on her record, and deems it no longer worthy of her time if it is going to trial.
And though Chandra is on the other end of the spectrum, she ultimately proves even worse. Chandra is inexperienced and bumbling, despite having the best intentions. She seems to be living out a dramatic fantasy in the thrill of the public eye in which she is the heroic lawyer. When Chandra is unable to convincingly tell Nas she believes he is innocent, she resorts to kissing him. Despite the considerable evidence of resonable doubt piled up by the testimony of various other potential suspects, Chandra wastes all their work by calling Nas himself to the stand.This is a catastrophic mistake as prosecuting attorney Helen Weiss (Jeannie Berlin) tears him apart on the stand. Stone shows the judge footage of Nas and Chandra kissing in the hope of a mistrial but instead he is instructed to take her place for closing arguments. Kapoor is dismissed in a humiliating manner.
Overcoming nerves and eczema, Stone delivers a brilliant closing speech that results in a hung jury, stuck at 6 ‘not guilty’ and 6 ‘guilty’. Weiss chooses not to re-try Nas as she has already been offered another potential suspect by a detective and so Nas is free to return to his family. But the damage has already been done and a hung jury is hardly the exoneration that Nas has been looking for. It’s not even a unanimous verdict that there’s reasonable doubt involved. Yet it’s the perfect summary of the case we’ve seen – we as viewers are asked not whether Nas is guilty or not guilty, but whether there is indeed reasonable doubt or not. That’s the twist of The Night Of.
And beyond this? Well, the show is an exceptionally well-executed true crime drama. In particular, John Turturro deserves credit for stepping into the intimidating shoes of the late great James Gandolfini, and in the supporting cast Jeannie Berlin’s wonderful Helen Weiss and Bill Camp’s ‘subtle beast’ detective Dennis Box stood out for creating nuanced, lived-in characters. Though the script often seems more pre-occupied with all things relating to Nas and the case, Berlin and Camp derived two of the most interesting arcs in the miniseries, with the latter in particular recognising and working to resolve his moral failings in the show’s closing hours. It felt as though these two were after something more than just a guilty verdict or a closed case, in the same way that John Stone feels it important to maintain a relationship with Nas where Allison Crowe does not.
And it is Turturro’s John Stone who is the show’s most sympathetic protagonist, not stunted and often guilty-looking Nasir Khan. Stone shows signs of real goodness beyond simply wanting to use the case to boost his career – he works hard to have a good relationship with his ex-wife and son, he visits and socialises with an eczema support group, and most explicitly he adopts a stray cat to prevent its death despite his stifling cat allergy. Stone is well-liked by his clients and even by Helen Weiss, and the recurring image of him smiling next to the tagline ‘no fee until you’re free’ on advertising created a surprisingly moving summation of his character. Turturro’s performance when Stone realises he is being replaced by Crowe is one of The Night Of‘s most subtly heartbreaking moments.
And here we come to the second major pre-occupation of The Night Of, one reflected in Nas’ parents and Nas himself, as the show explores the impact of the trial on the Khan family. As lawyers fight in fancy courtrooms, Nas’ father Salim (Peyman Moaadi) faces the loss of his livelihood when his taxi is taken by the state and takes work as a food delivery man, while mother Safar (Poorna Jagannathan) quietly cleans toilets and bathrooms, uncertain of her son’s innocence. The privileged Chandra may at first be able to speak to them in their own language, but it soon becomes clear that she has no appreciation of what Nas’ parents are going through. When Nas’ mother is unable to watch the trial and departs, Chandra berates her unsympathetically. And though Safar is able to interpret the hung jury as evidence of innocence, the series’ final scenes show that Nas is unable to forgive his mother, as justified as her doubts may have been. That’s the nature of reasonable doubt – that there will always be doubt involved.
This theme also leads to the involvement of HBO recurring star Michael K. Williams who portrays Nas’ fellow prisoner and eventual confidant Freddy Knight. Nas’ time on Rikers Island definitely felt like the most extraneous part of the show, tying into the main narrative rather tenuously at times. The idea of Nas’ guilt being explored by what he is capable of doing when pushed to his limit in prison, and through his treatment by fellow prisoners is a sound one, but in the show’s limited time it felt like an attempt for The Night Of to have its cake and eat it too. In the script I’m sure Freddy felt far more hollow than Williams plays him as, and he’s too fantastical a figure to fit in the show’s true crime realism world.
This is The Night Of‘s biggest problem – it cannot decide if it is a self-consciously unconventional twist on the Law & Order TV show formula, or if it is a brutally realistic depiction of what ACTUALLY happens in real life court. The former is detailed and moralistic, using Stone’s eczema and Nas’ relationship with Freddy to create colour. The latter is meticulous and intentionally undramatic. The Wire succeeded at this balance in a way no other show has since, and The Night Of makes a valiant attempt but ultimately doesn’t succeed. Despite complete confidence in its direction and production, the script is lacking in nuance and clear identity. It feels like yet another HBO miniseries carved int he image of True Detective that is brilliantly executed but ultimately forgettable – just another true crime drama TV show.
Verdict: Fans of the true crime drama genre will no doubt love HBO’s The Night Of and its twists on TV’s treatment of the genre, but there’s nothing that special or different to be found here. It’s an extremely solid and engaging miniseries with a few interesting ideas and themes.
Written by Tom Besley