HBO’s The Night Of, despite getting almost universally glowing reviews, didn’t appeal to me at first. The plot seemed banal and having watched several ‘murder mysteries’ in the last couple of months (the binge began with BBC’s enjoyable And Then There Were None), I was of the opinion that I’d had enough of them for at least a decade anyway. Even the HBO tag wasn’t enough to pull me in. But several comparisons with HBO’s own The Wire (one of the best television dramas ever, if not the best, as per this scribe), and the presence of the iconic ‘Omar Little’ actor Michael Kenneth Williams himself convinced me that The Night Of was more than a simple murder mystery and I decided to give it a shot.
While comparisons with The Wire ended up being far-fetched (but not wholly unwarranted), I felt vindicated in choosing to watch the miniseries. As I had surmised, The Night Of was not limited to a murder. In fact, the murder itself was a tipping point – a jolt that jump-started the actual narrative. Whatever happened after the murder was what the show was all about – the trial proceedings, the stereotypes, accused’s life in the dreaded Rikers Island prison and the concomitant changes in him.
A skinny, innocent-looking American college kid Nasir ‘Naz’ Khan of Pakistani descent steals his father’s taxi to join a party in Manhattan. Along the way, he meets a young woman named Andrea. He forgets the party and a night of drugs, alcohol and sex follows, at her place. Waking up to find her brutally murdered, with no memories of what happened in the last few hours, Naz flees, only to be caught by the cops in a minor traffic rule violation. When the police find a bloodied knife in his pocket, Naz is arrested on suspicion of murder. Everything points to him, everything is against him. And yet… something is amiss.
Although it is a murder mystery in a sense, The Night Of is certainly not at all a whodunit. The suspense in the show is more about Naz’s fate (and whether his lawyer saves the cat) rather than who really is the killer. With circumstantial evidence so obviously against Naz, the detective working on the case, the I-have-seen-it-all Dennis Box played brilliantly by Bill Camp, becomes sure of Naz’s culpability right from the beginning in spite of his lamb-like appearance. But the viewer? Not so much. Everything we see — leading up to the murder — gives one an impression that Naz would not hurt a mosquito if it landed on the back of his palm.
But nothing is as simple in The Night Of. As the story progresses, details of Naz’s violent past emerge. And suddenly you begin to wonder whether Naz might not be the murderer after all, whether a monster lurks beneath that boy-next-door face. His transformation in the Rikers Island prison from an unsure, introverted twenty-something young man who can’t even make eye contact for long to a hardened inmate with an unblinking stare unsettles even more. Riz Ahmed is impressive in this regard. He embodies the character of Naz with the ease of a veteran and delivers a convincing performance.
Apart from Naz’s trials (pun not intended) with America’s deeply flawed criminal justice system, he feels guilty for having wronged his parents and compromising their place in Queens Muslim community. His only succour in Rikers Island’s vicious world is Freddy Knight, a former boxer – played by always-reliable Michael Kenneth Williams. Knight takes an early liking for Naz and offers him protection. He sees in Naz what even his parents failed to see – pent-up rage deep inside – and indulgently lets him vent his anger towards other inmates. The reason for Knight’s apparent affectionate attitude towards Naz is left unambiguous. Did he really care for him like a Good Samaritan? Or was he just his lieutenant-in-making?
Throwing a spanner in the works is a small-time lawyer John Stone, my personal favourite character by far. Played by John Turturro with perfection, Stone is someone who usually gets ‘good deals’ for thugs, drug dealers and thieves. He is essentially the Saul Goodman of The Night Of, albeit without the lame attempts at humour and dapper suits. Consistently treated with contempt and a butt of jokes among the cops, he sees in Naz a chance to defend an innocent person, perhaps. Whatever the reason, he refuses to let go of the case even when Naz’s parents hire somebody else. Turturro makes full use of the plenty of screen time he gets, and it is an absolute delight to watch him struggling with eczema, and his clumsy but endearing attempts to care for a forlorn cat he is allergic to. The kitty is also symbolically important as a metaphor of Naz, in the sense that their fates seem to run parallel, at least in relation to Stone.
The unsettling camera angles throughout add to the pervasive tension in The Night Of. The background score is captivating and disturbing at the same time. Concordant piano notes rub shoulders with disjointed orchestra. There are a few subtle indications of stereotypes that exist in Americans towards Muslims, but thankfully it never tries to be didactic. It just reports them like facts sans opinion, much like a newspaper story.
While nowhere near as nuanced and nicely structured as The Wire, The Night Of nevertheless leaves a lasting impact. An ostensible murder mystery, it is certainly not an original concept. But it is beautifully shot, written with a sensitive eye, and is likely to please those looking to invest time in a crime-drama that is satisfyingly gripping right until its ambiguous ending.