“You’re gonna be fine.” The last words spoken in The Night Of were somewhere between an empty promise and an outright lie. John Stone (John Turturro), the dogged if undistinguished lawyer who helped free the wrongly accused Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed), knows that he’s always selling prospective clients on the other end of his telephone a bill of goods, mainly trying to keep them calm so they don’t blab anything to the cops before he can arrive. But we believe that promise even though it’s not true, because the alternative is too dark to face.
For all its prestige-TV trappings and eczema-riddled subplots, The Night Of is a procedural at heart, but where shows like Law and Order purport to show us how the system works, Steven Zaillian and Richard Price’s miniseries showed us how it doesn’t, at least not to its intended purpose. The wheels of justice turn just as smoothly when they’re sending an innocent man to prison, and he’s saved only by what amounts to a spanner in the works: a deadlocked jury, split 6 to 6, which is like escaping a firing squad because the gun jammed. Naz is free, yes, but he’s returned to a community that’s turned its back on him and a mother he knows came to doubt his innocence, his body marked by prison tattoos and still craving the drugs he took to using in prison. Inside Rikers Island, the cellblock power broker Freddy (Michael K. Williams) offered Naz a copy of The Call of the Wild as a survival manual, and though Naz refused it then, Freddy has it slipped in with his personal items just before he passes through Rikers’ gates. You think it was hard surviving inside; try staying alive out there.
Naz’s wasn’t the only life falling apart: His other lawyer, Chandra (Amara Karan), was left without a job and, likely, a career, after video surfaced of a holding-cell smooch between her and her client—although, given that she also smuggled drugs to Naz and her disastrous decision to put him on the witness stand nearly got him convicted, you could mount a compelling argument that she had no business practicing law in the first place. The system works! Detective Box (Bill Camp) is restlessly retired from the force, working as a New York University security guard because anything’s better than playing golf, and John Stone is a figurative leper again, stigmatized both by his career defending apparent lowlifes and the eczema that seems to have returned with a vengeance.
In John Stone’s subway ad, the one that stares down at him as he scratches at his mottled skin across from a woman who barely manages to hide her repulsion, he looks as much like a shady doctor as a fly-by-night lawyer: Dr. Zizmor, attorney-at-law. Even the white gloves he dons to protect his hands make him look like a surgeon, one with the burden of assuring a critically ill patient that there’s still a chance of survival. We’re used to seeing the justice system portrayed in pop culture as a machine: impartial, implacable, one that works well or poorly but fundamentally works. But in The Night Of, it’s more like a patient with a chronic illness, one that can be managed but never really cured. It struck me in the finale, which was pointedly titled, “The Call of the Wild,” how many of the series’ scenes were set in pharmacies, perhaps the third most-frequent location after jails and courtrooms. (There was even a murder suspect named Duane Reade.) As Chandra ponders which condoms will most securely prevent Naz’s drugs from leaking inside her or John Stone picks up another palliative prescription, the brightly lit aisles stretch out endlessly behind them, offering miles of remedies but no permanent promise of health. The sicker you get, the more speculative the treatments become. Try this: It might make you better, if it doesn’t kill you.
In Robert Altman’s The Player (now out on Criterion Blu-ray), Richard E. Grant’s screenwriter is determined to tell the story of an innocent woman going to the gas chamber, “because that happens.” But after a bad test screening, his hard-nosed ending is swapped for outright fantasy. “Everybody hated it,” he says. “We reshot it, now everybody loves it. That’s reality.” Given the choice, the entertainment industry will always focus on the inspirational exception, the person who miraculously survived the earthquake rather than the thousands who perished.
But The Night Of tries to have it both ways. It reminds us that Naz’s is only one story among thousands, most of which end even less happily: Tomorrow, John reminds him, they’ll haul someone else into the 21st precinct, and someone else the day after that. But it also tells us that Naz is the exception because he deserves to be. Everyone in prison claims they didn’t do it, but Naz really didn’t. According to Freddy, he even smells innocent. It even goes so far as to suggest the police might catch Andrea Cornish’s real killer, although if you analyze the evidence against her former financial manager, it’s not any stronger than the case against Naz. The only reason to feel reassured that the good guys have got their man is because we want to be.
Like a lot of ambitious TV, The Night Of is superlatively crafted, ambitiously themed, and somewhat hollow. Turturro and Ahmed had the flashier roles, but Jeanne Berlin’s jaded prosecutor and especially Camp’s world-weary detective were complex creations in their own right; the patient insistence with which Box ensnared Naz was like something out of Crime and Punishment. The show’s focus on systemic rather than individual flaws was right-minded and occasionally powerful, as was the crushing conclusion of Naz’s story. But Naz’s Rikers transformation was rushed and unconvincing, and leaving Berlin and Camp on the verge of reteaming to catch the real killer felt like a weak-kneed sop. Sure, they arrested the wrong man and put him through hell this time, but second time’s the charm.