During the finale of The Night Of, HBO’s compelling eight-part miniseries based on a similar British program called Crimnal Justice, it was hard not to wonder what would have been different if James Gandolfini had played attorney John Stone. Would Gandolfini, who executive produced the project and was set to star in it until his death in 2013, have added measure and patience to a project that needed it? Would its ending have seemed, at times, so pat?
The question of whether Naz Khan (Riz Ahmed) killed Andrea (Sofia Black-D’elia) was perhaps never really the point, a realization that, among other things, brought some criticism to the way it cast its woman characters—mostly as archetypes to propel the story of the men, even in the instance of Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan), the lawyer who takes on Naz’s case and, in a moment of poor judgment, kisses him in a cell. In the series finale, we’re offered clear resolutions to the stories of Naz and John Stone (John Turturro), insofar that their futures range from mundane to bleak, with Stone going back to defending surely guilty criminals for $275 a pop and Naz finally so broken by his ordeal—head shaved, neck tatted, schoolboy glow gone and, presumably, arm scarred from the scalding baby oil—freebasing cocaine by the water where his life was first irrevocably altered. But Chandra is less resolved: she is fired by her unforgiving, opportunistic boss at the law firm (played by Glenne Headly) but whether she keeps her career overall seems a tertiary concern; all we know is that she is being punished for allowing her soft spot for Naz get the better of her, and that she is lucky for not getting caught for smuggling him pills in a condom in her vagina, a plot point as extrinsic to her character as it was necessary to motor the finale along.
And as the two hours of Episode 8 unfolded, it further illuminated Mayukh Sen’s excellent critique of the way race played out in The Night Of, with an imbalanced binary between the show’s brown and black characters, and within its white savior subplot. Consistent with Sen’s argument that these “transactional relationships” eventually come to a head wherein Naz “mimics the traits of the black men around him [as] the viewer is made to question the fundamental nature of his morals,” the somewhat complex character Freddy (Michael Kenneth Williams) is revealed to be just another savior in Naz’s life, a person so concerned with his innocence that he obtains surveillance footage from the kissing tape and has it sent directly to Stone, so that Stone may attempt to force a mistrial. It’s transparent enough that it doesn’t work as a tactic, and later when Naz questions Freddy’s allegiance to him, he tells him that it’s because he can smell the innocence on him. “It’s like I got a unicorn,” he says, in a painfully treacly scene that has mildly homoerotic undertones but, instead of kissing, they freebase a foil of coke together.
In this scene, the hand is mighty heavy, but it also sums up the heart of the story—that the United States carceral system is ugly, broken and unfair, in particular for black and brown men and, perhaps, especially so when said black and brown men are Muslim and/or immigrants and/or actively living in immigrant communities.
It’s this prejudice that informed every move of nearly every player, Naz’s mother notwithstanding, outside of the prison, even when said characters seemed simply as though their motivations were nonsensical. The only logic driving them was internal prejudice, self-interest, greed. Stone is cast as the eczema’d antihero from on high, but however he spun his interest in Naz as an instinct that he’s unlike his other clients (a racially charged assumption in itself), he was primarily intrigued by the idea of a case that would elevate him from the margins of small-time crooks into something nobler. In that sense he was not much different from Chandra’s boss, although not as craven when she (believably) has Chandra tag along to convince Naz’s parents to hire her and then essentially dumps her at the ready.
Revenge is Chandra’s most believable motivation for taking on Naz’s case with Stone to begin with, but I’m still having troubles with the idea that she transgressed her own moral scope so thoroughly, bringing him a bundle of Oxy (I guess?) just because she saw herself in him (I guess?). It’s one part where the limitations of the writing are exposed for what they are—which is to stay Richard Price, one of our best modern crime novelists who worked on the Wire and whose ultimate goal is usually righteous, may have some limitations yet.
By far, though, one of the least realistic aspects of The Night Of was how neatly its finale discovered the true killer—white and rich and prone to white collar crimes to finance the entitlement of his gambling habit—and, after a minor road bump, kept him in the crosshairs. Throughout the series, the conscience of lead investigator Dennis Box (Bill Camp) peeked through—even with a bloody knife on Naz’s person, he didn’t really ever believe he murdered Andrea, though more telling was his failure to act on that belief before it was almost too late. DA Helen Weiss, too, didn’t give a damn she might be aggressively prosecuting the wrong guy, on a case whose evidence was largely circumstantial—at least until a strange bout with her own conscience midway through her closing arguments. (Heh??) A cynic (or anyone who knows anything about, say, the Central Park Five) might say that the least realistic aspect of this show is that they had consciences at all, were more invested in closing the case and satisfying the public’s need for a neat villain, “good” triumphing over “evil.” But even as Naz walked free, his life was ruined. In The Night Of’s estimation, he never had a chance for justice.