The Night Of, along with Stranger Things, has been one of the two most discussed television series in the past month or so. Originally conceptualized as a star vehicle for the late James Gandolfini in 2013, the eight episode HBO mini-series decided to move forward with a different actor after his death. As a matter of fact he was first replaced by an actor of even higher pedigree: Robert De Niro. Things however did not work out and de Niro was finally replaced by the always underrated yet mostly brilliant John Turturro.
A thing or two about the creative minds behind the show : Steven Zaillian and Richard Price. These are two names that are not heard much but that really tells more about how the industry works than their own achievements. While Zaillian has directed a couple or more films (Searching for Bobby Fischer is a little gem, do check it out if possible) he is primarily a screenplay writer. Some of the films he has written include Schindler’s List (for which he deservedly won an Academy Award), Awakenings (his first Academy nomination), Mission Impossible, Hannibal, Gangs of New York (another Academy nomination), American Gangster and Moneyball (his last Academy nomination). Here, in The Night Of he directs seven of the eight episodes and has written the teleplay in three of them. The one other episode has been directed by James Marsh whose 2014’s The Theory of Everything landed Eddie Redmayne his first Oscar win. Then there’s Richard Price, who is a crime mystery writer and has also written for several films including the Academy nominated Scorcese classic The Color of Money to television’s most iconic crime drama The Wire. So there is some serious pedigree behind the creative team of HBO’s The Night Of and boy, do they deliver.
*SPOILER FREE* (Mostly..!)
The Review : Firstly, I will drop the pretense of a serious reviewer and say : The Night Of is so good. So fucking good. Okay done, back to what matters.
The story revolves around Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed), or Naz as he likes to be called, a 23 year old Muslim college student living in Queens, New York. His father Salim Khan(Peyman Moaadi) is a cab driver and mother Safar Khan (Poorna Jagannathan) works in a cloth shop.
Naz gets invited to a party in downtown Manhattan, and he is pretty excited about it. As he himself puts it : ‘Do you know the kind of women there will be at this party?’. He is just an excited kid who is glad to have this opportunity to be at somewhere other than his conservative household. But the friend ditches him at the last moment and Naz has no means to go to the party. So what does he do? He takes his dad’s cab and goes for the party. However, driving a cab for the first time, he does not know how to turn the off duty light on. A couple of men get in while he has stopped the cab to figure out the location of the party and he tries to get them out. He may be a taxi driver but he is no Travis Bickle but as soon as the men get out, a mysterious girl gets in. She is pretty, sexy even. And she wants to go the beach.
But there’s no beach in Queens. So they go by the river, they sit beneath the bridge. The ambient lights and the collective resonance of the city wash over them as they pop pills. Next thing you know they are at her house : a grand apartment in a posh neighborhood where she lives alone. They do tequila shots, cocaine, some more drugs, some making out and a game of Russian roulette but with a knife. Eventually she gets stabbed in her hand and that turns her on further. They move upstairs and make love, rather wildly.
Naz wakes up a few hours later downstairs. He has a massive hangover and wonders how he came downstairs. He goes up to get his pants and in the dark tries waking up the girl. She does not move. In a terrific scene Naz switches the table lamp on to see something and turns it off again. He turns it on and turns it off again hoping that what he’d seen is wrong. This happens for a few more times till he is certain that he is seeing the girl, Andrea ( a name we get only posthumously) has been stabbed several times with the knife with which they were playing before sex. The entire room is splattered with blood, Andrea has been literally carved open.
Not before long Naz gets arrested while trying to escape. Detective Box (Bill Camp), one of the best in the department takes up the case. Naz is incriminated beyond imagination. He is the prime and only suspect in the murder of Andrea Cornish. His blood, his skin, his semen is on the victim. His fingerprints are there on the knife, the murder weapon. Other happenings from the night which had seemed unimportant before assumes importance : all from a stranger watching Andrea inside the cab while Naz had gone to buy a beer to two random folks on the street who hurled racial slangs to Naz while he was entering Andrea’s house.
But The Night Of is not a murder mystery. Sure there is a compelling mystery somewhere, but it is primarily a naturalistic deconstruction of the American judicial and prison system. The flaws, the holistic approach, the gradual dehumanization of the accused Naz is what forms the core of the series. No one really is interested to know whether Naz actually committed the crime or not. Detective Box, a man on verge of retirement, works relentlessly trying to earn the confidence of Naz and coax him into a confession. He knows there is something off about the case, but he casts his doubt away. The Night Of is not that kind of a show where the police detective is an idealistic hero hell bent on finding the truth and the real killer is unearthed by the end of the hour. In real life, you do not have a distinguished career of over thirty years unless you are taking the path of the least resistance. He sees the evidence stacked up against Naz and he does not bother to investigate the other threads. He sees there are a few loose threads, but then such is life. As one of the characters call him, he is a subtle beast. And Bill Camp plays it with perfection. He brings the right amount of world weariness, boredom and intelligence in a man who knows what he is doing. Like most overworked and underpaid government employees he knows when the evidences are pointing in such an overwhelming way against a perpetrator, 99 out of 100 times he is the murderer. And again like most overworked and underpaid employees he knows if he chases behind that one exception, he will never be able to survive the job.
Riz Ahmed as Nasir Khan is a revelation. That is for people who have never seen Four Lions and Nightcrawler. He is an exciting British talent with a great future. He appeared in this summer’s Jason Bourne and is set to feature in a small indie named Star Wars : Rogue One, later this year. Much of his scenes are in the Riker’s Prison, a living hellhole. The prison scenes do not break any new ground, they are just an universal reaffirmation of what we already know : how the prison system slowly makes innocent people into real criminals. In the prison he comes under the wing of Freddy (the terrific Micheal K Williams), an influential inmate. Williams brings more layers and nuances to a character that perhaps was one note on paper and the prison scenes are really riveting. But it is Riz Ahmed. whose transformation from the small, afraid and confused Naz in episode 1 to the large, pumped up Naz in episode eight, makes your eyes turn. And his transformation is not just physical. Prison teaches him to survive : both physically and mentally. A cold. calculated decision that he takes in the season finale shows us how much he changed over the period of the show.
Then there are Naz’s parents : Salim and Safar Khan, the collateral damages of the night of murder. Both of them lose their jobs, they are on the verge of bankruptcy. The entire Muslim community is a collateral damage. Racial slurs abound, there are random instances of vandalism and attack on the community and their house. I personally loved what Poorna Jagannathan (Delhi Belly, Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani) did with her character in the very limited screen time she got. Her heartbreak at learning Naz is not the innocent boy she thought to be, her sheer lack of willingness to face the world and everything else is beautifully emoted by this talented actress.
There are several other characters in The Night Of : the District Attorney, Andrea’s stepfather, a mysterious coroner, plenty of other prison inmates, police officers and all of them are well cast. The importance paid to small characters and their dialogues often separate a good show from a great one and The Night Of is an idea example. In one scene, Detective Box a day before the closing statement comes up with evidences against someone else, someone who he is convinced has done the murder. He takes the evidences and brings them to the DA. The DA (played by Jeannie Berlin) after going through the evidences replies : ‘But we have more on Naz.’ That one sentence defines The Night Of. It is not an hourly episode of Law and Order, it is an introspection of the system works and the show is at its best during those moments.
Finally we come to the two other characters, one of whom may be the actual protagonist of. John Stone, played by John Turturro the lawyer who represents Naz at first and Chandra Kapoor (played by the British-Sri Lankan actress Amara Karan), another lawyer representing Naz. Stone is the character on whom the show focuses most or at least on par with Naz. Stone is a lawyer in his fifties but he does not handle big cases. He is a bottom scraper, he knows his clients are drug dealers, that they have sold someone weed, or has injured someone in some fight. He is the go to lawyer for low lives. And he suffers from eczema. He mistakenly becomes the lawyer for Naz because when he hears he has cut a girl, he assumes Naz has injured a girl with a knife, not the murder suspect in the nation’s most famous case. We see the story unfolding through his eyes, the blind spots of the system, the way you can work your way up the system. We see every dark alley of the criminal justice system and we end up in some literal ones as well. He is a very well fleshed out character and Turturro does justice to a complex character (but compared to some other character of The Night Of, he may well be the most simple and the most easy to get behind and root for).
Then there is Chandra, an Indian girl, who is initially used just a prop to make Naz’s parents comfortable by the head of a big law firm who wants to take the case away from Stone after it receives a lot of publicity. Revealing too much about her character will be a bit of a spoiler, so I refrain. But along with Box, Stone and Naz she too is one of the protagonists of The Night Of.
The Night Of is so much all at once. It is a noir murder mystery, it is a naturalistic police procedure, it is a courtroom drama, it is also a social commentary and to its credit the series manages to pull off most it almost immaculately. Ultimately the script is the protagonist of this immersive new HBO drama and is exquisitely acted on top of it and just like all good television it will leave you questioning everything by its end.
Rating – 10/10