To an outsider, The Night Of could appear to be a simple murder mystery. Boy meets girl, they drink and do drugs before having sex, then he passes out and wakes up to find her dead in her bed with 22 stab wounds. Viewers of the HBO miniseries have been wondering about the conclusion of the murder trial, and while that’s certainly a crucial part of the story, The Night Of creators Steven Zaillian and Richard Price have demonstrated that they’re concerned with larger issues surrounding the tale of Nasir "Naz" Khan.
One of the show’s primary points of focus is the way in which the American criminal justice system operates. From the beat cops who pull Naz over and the veteran detective who investigates the murder, to the out-of-his-depth lawyer who takes the case and the high-profile firm that jumps on board, to the way in which the prosecution works with the police to build its case, to the judges who oversee the proceedings and the jurors who decide Naz’s fate — they all have vital roles to play in The Night Of, as the various parts of the engine on which the justice system runs.
As any lawyer or law enforcement agent will tell you, the law is not some rigid rulebook set into stone tablets; it’s subject to interpretation by its administrators and practitioners. The Night Of makes the case that the justice system’s success or failure rests on the edge of a knife: namely, the subjectivity and free will of its human actors.
Of course, humans are inherently flawed, and thus the justice system is too. In the world of The Night Of, upholding law and order comes down to conscience — to individual people doing what they believe is right, despite all the personal and institutional pressures to the contrary.
Choice and consequence
The Kafkaesque nightmare of The Night Of begins with a single, seemingly innocuous decision: After his ride to a college party bails on him, Naz borrows his father’s taxicab without permission to get himself there. The series of unfortunate events that follows caused more than a few viewers — including my girlfriend and me — to put their faces into their palms.
Naz could’ve saved himself at any juncture: telling Andrea Cornish to get out of the cab, refusing the drugs she gave him, obeying a no-left-turn sign — hell, if he’d just remembered to grab his jacket when he originally fled her apartment, he might never have been arrested.
But just like Naz gets himself deeper and deeper into trouble, his lawyers work harder and harder to free him. Compelled by the presumption of Naz’s innocence, his lead attorney, Chandra Kapoor, becomes a drug mule, while co-counsel John Stone turns into a part-time PI. (I think I said "lady, what are you doing?!" at my TV during the finale’s second scene in Naz’s holding cell.)
On the other side of the case, we’ve seen throughout this miniseries that something doesn’t sit right with Det. Sgt. Dennis Box when it comes to fingering Naz as the killer, despite the "mountain of evidence" that Box cites on the witness stand. Prosecutor Helen Weiss, too, has her doubts about the strength of her case against Naz; she keeps asking Box to give her something definitive.
Stone himself acknowledges in The Night Of’s second episode that Box is a very good cop, and we see that in the series finale. He’s put in his retirement paperwork; he could simply hit the links, as a colleague urges him to do. But Box is the kind of dogged detective who sleeps at the police station when he’s in the midst of an investigation, and it’s only by doing a lot of legwork that he stumbles onto another suspect in Ray Halle, Cornish’s financial planner.
Weiss is perhaps the most visible example of the conflicts inherent in the justice system. When Box presents her with the evidence on Halle, she considers it for a long moment, then tells him with a pained expression, "We’ve got more on the kid." It must be a daunting prospect: to have come this far in the prosecution of Naz — this scene comes after the defense rests and before closing arguments — and then consider dropping the charges against him to pursue another suspect. (Not to mention the idea of having to explain it to her boss, the Manhattan district attorney.)
If Box indeed sent Stone the recording of Kapoor’s indiscretion with Naz, as Stone assumes, then it would be one more instance of the good cop going outside the, er, box in search of the truth. This is the same detective who removed Naz’s inhaler from the crime scene and returned it to him in an effort to ingratiate himself with his suspect, and got a fellow retired cop to obtain private information without a subpoena.
Box is the one who brings out Weiss’ conscience during her closing argument, leaving the courtroom in disgust when she tells the jury that Naz was "the only suspect the police considered." She temporarily resumes her rhythm, but eventually falls apart, failing to stick the landing on her conclusion.
"It’s what we think ... and what we feel"
The scene is beautifully played by Jeannie Berlin. Weiss may have partaken in prosecutorial gamesmanship like coaching the medical examiner to provide favorable testimony, but knowing what she knows about Box’s other suspect, she can’t bring herself to take the easy way out and nail a potentially innocent man to the wall.
Meanwhile, in his stirring closing argument, Stone raises one of the justice system’s fundamental questions: the definition of the phrase "reasonable doubt." Stone argues that the term can’t be defined.
"It’s what we think — and as much as what we think, what we feel," Stone says. "And what we feel, and what you feel, will determine what happens to the rest of this young man’s life."
It can’t be easy for Stone to stand in front of a jury, covered in eczema and hives, and admit that a lawyer of his kind has no business being in that courtroom. But he does it because the decisions he’s made to that point have gotten him in this mess, and because, more importantly, he believes that Naz is innocent.
The human element
The Night Of is a testament to the humanity of the justice system — for better or worse — and to the power of free will. Like the 12 jurors weighing the merits of the case for and against Naz, the best anyone can do is make decisions based on their personal beliefs, the situation they’re in and the evidence available to them. (That’s why I don’t think a hung jury was too clean a resolution to this story, and why I find it appropriate that Price and Zaillian left unresolved the question of who killed Cornish.)
It’s ultimately a more optimistic perspective than that of The Wire, another acclaimed HBO series concerned with the justice system. That show had a deeply cynical perspective on institutions, whether they were governments, criminal organizations, labor unions, police departments, school systems or the media.
Characters on The Night Of such as Box, Weiss, Stone, Kapoor and the judge — who sees through Stone’s attempt to force a mistrial — could play it safe. But something within them pushes them to do more than that. Like Jimmy McNulty, the smart but troubled detective on The Wire, they all give a fuck when it’s not necessarily their turn to give a fuck — that’s the only way the system works.