*WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
Similar to the end of the pilot for Twin Peaks, a similar question was asked after episode one of The Night Of: Who killed Andrea Cornish? However as the rest of the series progressed up until the 105-minute series finale, the importance of that question gradually diminished in favor of constructing a stark exploration of the flawed criminal justice system in the United States. The series finale fully defined that as the main intention from the beginning, which will leave some viewers polarized but others like me, applaud it for concluding in a plausible manner that bodes well in the realistic atmosphere established in episode one.
The biggest praise that creators Richard Price and Steven Zaillian deserve is how they developed the Nasir Khan character. At first we feel for Naz because he wants to experience life outside of his fairly conservative family household. After being arrested on suspicion of murdering Andrea, Naz’s puppy dog eyes made us sympathize with his presumed innocence. However the moment he arrived at Riker’s Island and got acquainted with Freddy Knight, things were bound to take a turn for the worst. Naz’s plunge into drug smuggling, getting addicted to heroin, and even becoming an accomplice in the murder of another inmate, was downright depressing to watch, but emphasized that Price and Zaillian were willing to go to great lengths to show how the most naive-looking suspects get put in prison and sometimes transform into the criminal the justice system wants the rest of the world to see them as.
In a series that was so incredibly well-acted across the board, nearly half of the cast in the show’s opening titles deserve Emmy recognition. Riz Ahmed remained brilliantly subdued where everything that goes in his character’s psyche is communicated almost entirely through his eyes. This played firmly into the ambiguity of whether or not Naz was truly innocent, and it’s a question that will continue to be debated for the rest of 2016. Michael K. Williams, one of HBO’s greatest mainstays for their programming, dominated his screen time as Freddy, delivering his signature style of being cunning and charismatic at the same time. Even though his character gave Naz protection in prison, there was still a constant feeling of uneasiness that he could have chosen to screw him over at any moment. Further high marks are also deserving for Bill Camp and Amara Karan, who give naturalistic performances as detective Dennis Box and Naz’s attorney respectively, both of who are some of the most flawed characters in some of the decisions they make in regard to Naz’s trial.
However there is one name that stands above them all, and that is John Turturro. As the loyal attorney who sticks with representing Naz from the very beginning, despite all the unending drama that surrounds both the trial and Naz’s questionable past, Turturro delivered his potentially Emmy-winning performance in the closing defense argument he gives to the jury. His subtle impassioned delivery of the speech, which is poignantly written by Price and Zaillian, perfectly sums up both the flawed trial and the show’s most important themes. As much as the whodunit mystery of Andrea’s killer was hinted at throughout the show, it became more apparent every episode that the main intention was to craft a biting indictment of how the justice system can prefer someone’s fate by favoring a confession of guilt rather than proving a fair trial that shows evidence that the suspect could actually be innocent.
While many questions remain without answers, The Night Of accomplished this in a perceptive manner where some of them didn’t matter in the end. Similar to the end of the first season for True Detective, there wasn’t a definitive sense of closure for who really killed who. Instead, the auteurs behind the shows gradually established layers that took on greater importance. For True Detective, the conclusion was the two characters ultimately finding varying forms of redemption in their turbulent lives. In The Night Of, it’s as much about its two lead characters, but this time fighting against a system that’s one-sided in how it views certain people who enter its confines. In the end while the defense won, both John and Naz had vastly different outcomes in the people they became. Naz’s life will never be the same after his harmful treatment both in prison and court, and the final shot of him at “the beach” is quite melancholic. For John Stone, however, he attained his greatest achievement as a lawyer by straying away from the common vice criminals he represents, and ultimately using his sardonic world-views to beat a system where he normally took the easy way out. And most of all, he decided to keep the cat.
In the midst of how abysmal this summer was for movies, thank goodness that television provided several rays of sunshine. The Night Of is an almost perfect showcase of outstanding storytelling, acting and timely themes. I hate to use a pun to close this piece, but come “the night of” the Golden Globes, SAG Awards, 2017 Emmys, etc., don’t be surprised that this series comes out on the winning side.