Making a Prisoner

HBO’s new crime drama The Night Of is just remarkably good.

Riz Ahmed in The Night Of.
Riz Ahmed plays Naz, a first-generation American arrested for a grisly murder, in The Night Of.


We are in the midst of a national crisis about policing, and so perhaps it is not surprising that, in our off hours, we have turned into detectives. We scour the evidence in true-crime offerings like Serial, Making a Murderer, and everything O.J., hoping to determine what really happened, to catalog all the mistakes that could have been avoided. We pore over our fictions too, trying to solve mysteries like True Detective, even as we turn a medieval epic like Game of Thrones into a mystery, searching it for clues that might tell us what is to come. HBO’s fantastic new eight-episode series, The Night Of, loosely based on the British Criminal Justice and adapted by Steve Zaillian and the great crime writer and Wire scribe Richard Price, tells the story of Nazir Khan, a first-generation American arrested for a grisly murder. The Night Of knows that its audience has its detective hats on, and it delivers a whodunit to us would-be sleuths while simultaneously hazing us like the amateur gumshoes we are: rubes who still believe that the truth is all that matters.

The series makes Naz (the big-eyed Riz Ahmed, about whom I am happy to swoon and just call a star) sympathetic with swift economy. In a few deft strokes—Naz focused in math class, Naz debating the Knicks over family dinner—we get the make of him, a good, slightly bored 23-year-old living in Jackson Heights, Queens, with his Pakistani immigrant parents. One night, eager to go to a cool party, Naz takes his father’s cab without asking and heads into the city, where Andrea Cornish (Sofia Black-D’Elia), a beautiful, emotionally damaged young woman, hops in, as in the beginning of a meet-cute or a horror film, or, in this case, both.

A few minutes into the episode, just as Naz sneaks out of the house, a chilling dateline flashes across the screen. Even if you knew nothing about the premise of The Night Of, your hair would stand on end. It signals the show is in Law & Order territory, though up to that moment it could have been a coming-of-age tale. From that point on, the episode gets increasingly, and eventually unbearably, tense. As Naz and Andrea traipse around Manhattan, connecting, our lay crime-solving eyes—trained by hours of crime genre fictions—can see Naz make bad decision after bad decision, one organic choice after another that will be impossible for anyone in law enforcement, let alone a jury, to believe. The drugs, the alcohol, the knife, the sex: It’s all perfectly innocent and patently disastrous. Before Naz’s night is through, there is so much damning blood evidence that Johnnie Cochran wouldn’t be able to get him off, even though we in the audience are all but convinced of his innocence. (Looming over the show is the pesky fact that Naz was blacked out during the murder and has no idea what really happened.)

The Night Of is a compelling mystery, and I suspect that if the show becomes as popular as it deserves to be, much of the audience will be fixated on solving it: If Naz didn’t kill Andrea, who did? A thousand subreddits bloom. But the structure of the show is a tipoff that the mystery is not its priority: From the start, it tells us what has happened. With its first episode, The Night Of tears out of the driveway, scary and thrilling, like a muscle car. But just as it’s about to open up and do 100, it slows down, unwilling to become a joyride. Instead of proving Naz’s innocence, future episodes take in the scope of his circumstance. For all that The Night Of shares with Serial and Making a Murderer, it shares as much with The Wire, a series about the omnipotence of dysfunctional power structures. The gloomy opening credits make the obvious-in-retrospect observation that, from a certain height, the Manhattan street grid looks like the bars of a prison cell. Once the wheels of the criminal justice system set to turning, they get to crushing. Naz is sent to Rikers Island to await trial, where—as in the French film A Prophet—he becomes violent and hardened, the system turning him into that which it imagined him to be.

That system is so flawed, every individual in it can be decent, to no effect. To a remarkable degree, there are no bad guys in The Night Of, nor are there many characters who are wantonly cruel or obviously stupid. People do their best, and their best is not nearly good enough, like a piece of popcorn trying to alter the path of a Mack truck. The sheer amount of physical evidence against Naz exonerates those trying to prosecute him from malfeasance: It really looks like he did it. Box (Bill Camp), the detective who investigates the case, is “a good cop; he’ll do you just within the rules,” and we see him, in a quick sequence, go through all the cellphone records and closed-circuit TV cameras that Serial spent episodes trying to sort through. He simultaneously senses that Naz “is wrong” for the crime but can’t deny the evidence he’s found. The prosecutor is similarly professional, bending but not breaking the rules, leaning on a coroner to interpret evidence in one particular way but also offering Naz a relatively lenient plea deal— lenient, that is, if he were guilty. Even in jail, where Naz comes under the wing of Freddy (Michael K. Williams, who has a couple of groaning speeches in a show with otherwise crackling dialogue), there are none of the purely evil figures who populate prison fictions, so much as a deforming system that requires its inhabitants to practice cruelty.

Most decent of all is Jack Stone (John Turturro), Naz’s lawyer and the series’ other main character, an ambulance chaser who makes his living representing prostitutes and petty criminals at a couple hundred dollars a pop. (He doesn’t take personal checks.) Jack is suffering from a debilitating case of psoriasis, which keeps him out of shoes and in the sort of unfashionable Velcro aquatic numbers a 6-year-old would know better than to wear. (The psoriasis is not responsible for the hobo aspect of the rest of his wardrobe.) The part was originally intended for James Gandolfini, though the show has been drastically retooled since his death, but it is difficult to imagine anyone other than Turturro in the part, a true New Yawk character, dignified in his dishevelment. Jack is soon joined by Chandra (Amara Karan) in representing Naz, and though they do good work, they don’t do good work for TV lawyers: The rules of time and money apply to them. There are always things they don’t know, always aspects of Naz’s story and his character that they haven’t had time to investigate, red herrings they haven’t fully explored. This is also not, as it would be in most TV shows, a sign of their negligence. It’s a sign of reality.

Jack often acts as a kind of pressure release for the show, appearing in all sorts of darkly comic sequences. Jack is almost pathetic, but never quite; deserving to be victorious, but never quite. While Naz is in prison, learning to swallow eight-balls, smoke crack, and protect himself, while his heartbroken and heartbreaking parents are re-mortgaging their house, taking jobs cleaning bathrooms, and getting rocks thrown through their windows, Jack is trying to cure himself of psoriasis, going to one doctor after another, caught up in another broken system. Jack embarrasses his teenage son Gooden—Jack could only be a Mets fan—after his son’s classmates ask him, in a wry scene, if he would represent Hitler. Despite being allergic to cats, he takes one in, locks it up in a room, like a prisoner, but faithfully plays with it. The show is full of all sorts of deadpan novelistic tangents like the imprisoned cat, details other series would elide for brevity’s sake: a nun texting in her pew; Naz arriving at Rikers in a Harvard T-shirt; recurring chatter about those Knicks.

When listening to Serial or watching Making a Murderer one thinks: If only we could see the crime, if only we knew what really happened, then these innocent (or not innocent) men would be free. These series posit that the truth could solve everything, if—and it’s a big if—we could ever find it. The Night Of is less existential but also more cynical, more melancholy, less hopeful. What if we knew the truth and it didn’t matter? Naz seems guilty. He seems so guilty his lawyers keep telling him to stop telling the truth, which is so preposterous it can’t help him. Even if the truth eventually sets Naz free, can it give him back his life?