"The Beach," the premiere of HBO’s new crime drama The Night Of, probably left you with a few big questions.
Chief among them, of course, is, "Did Naz, the young Pakistani-American kid accused of murder, actually do it?"
There’s also: "If Naz didn’t to it, then who did?" It’s easy to see why the police immediately conclude that he's the perpetrator. After all, both his and the victim’s DNA are all over the crime scene, and he was caught with the murder weapon on him.
But "The Beach" also leaves you with a third question: Is Naz (played beautifully, I should add, by Riz Ahmed) simply too dumb to be believed?
It isn't unfair to ask whether Naz is dumb
I certainly don’t think Naz is particularly idiotic, and I can buy why an obviously smart kid (he tutors athletes on his college’s basketball team) would seemingly take leave of his faculties after discovering the murdered body of a woman he just had sex with. (I’m going to refer to her as "the woman" until the show reveals her name. Update: As several of you have pointed out to me, the episode does reveal her name at the very end, something I thought was reserved for episode two. It is Andrea. And that's why I need to rewatch these before writing!)
But essentially the entire story requires Naz to be so panicky in that moment that he ends up in police custody even before they know he’s their chief suspect. And there, the show might strain credulity for certain viewers.
Most of Naz’s biggest errors should be wholly believable to just about anyone, I think. The way he simply has to get out of the house once he sees the woman’s dead body makes complete sense, and his slightly too-excitable attempts to get away from the police who pull him over for making an illegal left turn are similarly understandable in this context.
But Naz also makes some slightly bigger errors, which can easily feel like major, major stretches.
For one thing, he picks up the knife that he and the woman were using to play mumblety peg (the probable murder weapon) and eventually puts it in his pocket. That damns him when the police find it on him. Why wouldn’t he just wipe off the knife and hope he’d gotten his fingerprints off it? (That, of course, would leave his DNA on it, but since he doesn’t have a criminal record he could conceivably escape without trouble.)
In addition, there’s the simple fact that he leaves his jacket in the woman's house when he flees, meaning he has to break in to retrieve it, because the keys to his father’s cab are in the pocket. That arouses the suspicion of neighbors and garners eyewitnesses who saw him leave the crime scene.
I’m not saying a protagonist needs to be smart to be sympathetic. But he needs to at least be consistent. Naz’s idiocy in the moment here might seem to contrast wildly with his earlier intelligence.
However, as you might have already surmised, I disagree.
Naz’s idiocy is completely believable — and not all that idiotic
Everything leading up to Naz’s flight from the woman’s house is carefully constructed to show you just why he might lose all ability to function when cornered.
Notice how he gets frustrated and a bit panicked when he ends up lost looking for the house party that first causes him to leave his family’s sleepy home over in Queens. When he can’t find the right street, he grows increasingly flustered, before the woman entering his father’s cab spins the story in a new direction.
Similarly, Naz has already received a subtle reminder that most of American society is going to be prejudiced against him, simply because of his national heritage, thanks to those two guys who hurl racial slurs at him as he’s walking the woman to her house.
Finally, consider the fact that he’s still drunk and high on a variety of substances (including at least ecstasy), and that he’s not experienced with taking any of these substances. A novice drug user is going to be more heavily impaired than someone who’s gotten high before.
And even if you strip away all of these things, Naz’s reaction to the sudden sight of a murdered body is probably similar to how any one of us might react if what felt like a slightly fantastical night suddenly became a nightmare. I don’t know if I would pick up a knife covered in blood (albeit what seems to be much less blood than would have resulted from the woman’s murder), but I can certainly see myself forgetting my jacket, with car keys in its pocket.
Look at just about any crime where a suspect flees the scene in a rush. Everyone makes stupid mistakes, regardless of guilt or innocence, because they realize they’re about to be in very big trouble.
Think, for instance, of the different projects about the O.J. Simpson trial that have come out in the past year. Simpson might not have been as bright as Naz, but he certainly got desperate, and in those moments of desperation he made stupid errors that allowed the police to build their case against him.
Naz’s stupid moments signal where The Night Of is headed
Above all, Naz’s seeming inability to keep it together is an attempt to signal that The Night Of is less interested in genre trappings than it is in realism. If Naz were a bit savvier, he might act more like the protagonist in a traditional crime drama, trying to cover his tracks. That, then, might force the detectives to work harder to catch him and so on.
Instead, The Night Of is interested in telling a story about what happens to someone who has no experience with the criminal justice system, once he's been tossed right into the middle of it. That’s why so many of its scenes take their time, building up a Naz who can seem almost willfully naive at points, as if he’s never seen an episode of Law & Order, because it’s entirely possible he hasn’t. (Naz doesn’t seem like the type who spends a lot of time vegging out in front of cable rerun marathons.)
Indeed, as you watch the scenes leading up to Naz’s arrest, you can start to see how the prosecution might assemble its case against him (those two guys he kicks out of his cab before giving the woman a ride could make it awfully easy to suggest he was preying on women).
And you can start to see where the defense might build in the possibility that somebody else committed the crime, by bringing in the variety of other individuals the couple encounters over the course of the night, to say nothing of how the police could be said to have jumped to conclusions.
And then, finally, you have to consider that maybe Naz is guilty. Certainly it would be hard to argue he set out with murder on his mind when he left his house, but the right combination of elements might have led to something horrible and dangerous. If you’re looking at suspects, you pretty much have to start with Naz, right?
Naz being stupid might seem like a narrative convenience, an attempt by the series to create drama where it doesn’t need any. But it’s actually a clever hint toward where all of this is going.
The Night Of is less a mystery story or a procedural than it is the story of how the American criminal justice system affects everybody it comes into contact with — even scared, stupid, desperate kids.
Maybe you disagree? Let’s talk about it in comments. Or ask me anything else you like! I’ll be here for 90 minutes, starting at noon Eastern.
Ask me absolutely anything you want. And answer my question for you: What true story of criminal activity would you love to see become a movie or TV series? I’ll post my answer in comments!