It’s a cliché to say that in a given work of fiction "there are no good guys or bad guys." But it’s a useful cliché, nonetheless.
Certainly, stories with clear-cut heroes and villains can be a lot of fun. I don’t want to ride down the pure enjoyment that often stems from a good guy versus a bad guy, with very little gray area in between.
Yet on television, reveling in moral ambiguity is usually the right choice. Yes, characters can typically make the good decision or the bad decision, but the best shows always acknowledge that there are reasons to be tempted by the wrong choice, just as there are reasons to skew toward virtue.
In its second episode, "Subtle Beast," The Night Of reveals that it’s just such a show. The motivations that drive all of these characters are complicated and nuanced. In some cases, they can be hard to understand and leave us guessing. But insofar as the show’s main argument is that to fall into the United States criminal justice system is to fall into some sort of alternate underworld that’s hard to escape, it also has to show that that system is made up of many types of people, who are all denizens of that world.
There’s a good reason for this: It reminds both us and Naz that nobody on The Night Of can be trusted entirely, not even Naz. Here are five characters The Night Of keeps sketching with shades of gray.
1) Detective Box
The phrase "Subtle Beast" refers to Box, so it seems only appropriate to begin with him. Jack Stone, Naz’s attorney, uses those two words when speaking about Box, and Naz later repeats them to his parents. But what do they mean?
Essentially, they mean that Box is a really, really, really good cop. He’s excellent at using human kindness to get accused criminals to admit stuff that can be used in building the case against them. Even his removal of the inhaler from the crime scene to give to Naz likely has ulterior motives, though we don’t quite know what they are just yet. (I’m sure you have guesses.) He even listens to opera, exactly the sort of music you’d expect a "subtle beast" to enjoy.
But the kindness isn’t fake, either. That's really who Box is. He really does want to help Naz in the moments when he’s with Naz, because he knows that will help him ultimately put Naz away when the case goes to trial.
In short, Box is exemplary of a certain kind of good cop, one who will bury you with your own words after acting like he has your best interests at heart. And if Naz actually killed Andrea, then, hey, it’s hard to say Box's approach is wrong.
But if you’re on Team Naz Didn’t Do It, as I assume most of us are, Box becomes the very best kind of antagonist: one who means well, whose motivations that make complete sense, and who will find a way to completely tear you apart. The best thing about Box is that the only reason he seems like an antagonist is that the story is told from Naz and Stone’s points-of-view. On a dozen other TV shows, Box would be the unquestioned hero.
2) Jack Stone
So of course Jack Stone must be the good guy, right? Especially since he’s the one person trying to get Naz out of prison? (Again, I’m presuming you’re on Team Naz Didn’t Do It because the series, thus far, seems to be as well. If you’re not, you probably feel very differently.)
Yet "Subtle Beast" gives us a better taste of why Stone might not be the knight in shining armor Naz assumes him to be.
When Naz isn’t around, he pretty openly celebrates landing a case this high-profile, essentially by dumb luck, and when Naz tries to open up to him, Stone says he doesn’t want to hear it. He doesn’t want to be burdened with the truth, he says, which strongly suggests he, too, thinks Naz probably killed Andrea. (And why wouldn’t he?)
And yet none of this is precisely wrong, either. From Stone’s point of view, all of this makes sense. He’s a fly-by-night operation, who can use the cash infusion and reputation boost of a major murder trial. And he’s probably defended dozens upon dozens of guilty clients. What’s one more?
The genius of The Night Of comes in the way that the series forces you to rethink archetypal characters you know from crime fiction and other crime shows, by making you look at them through the eyes of the accused. Stone and Box both have one-syllable names that indicate very common items, and there’s a good reason for that: They’re two sides of the same coin.
3) Helen, the prosecuting attorney
Here’s another character who would be the crusading hero of dozens of other TV shows and here is a somewhat cool character, less interested in the facts of Naz’s case and more interested in the idea that she has what she needs to put him behind bars.
Helen is played by Jeannie Berlin, an actress who appears onscreen too rarely but is always electrifying when she does. On The Night Of, she’s playing the world-weary flipside of her character from Kenneth Lonergan’s great 2011 film Margaret: a woman who’s old enough to have seen it all and can cut through everybody’s bullshit in about five seconds.
We only get a very small taste of what Helen will bring to the show in this episode, but she introduces just how much of the criminal justice system is built atop these sorts of careful calculations.
One of the great, subtle points of The Night Of is that once Naz is accused of the crime, nobody accusing him has any particular interest in figuring out if he actually did it. Because of how the system works, they have to believe he did it to make sure they can keep their conviction rates high.
Naz is going to have a fighting chance, because he has representation who’s at least semi-capable (though perhaps less so than he might like). But many people simply fall through the cracks, innocent and guilty alike.
4) Naz himself
Pay close attention to two choices director Steve Zaillian makes in this episode.
The first is to open with a series of shots depicting the deer head hanging on Andrea’s wall, while faded snippets of dialogue from Naz and Andrea’s encounter plays on the soundtrack. The implication here is clear: The only character who really knows what happened is this deer head, and it ain’t talking.
Now look at how often Zaillian takes the opportunity to put Naz in some place within the frame that feels especially off-center or off-kilter. There are a few possible explanations for this, but one is that Zaillian doesn’t want you to quite trust what he says. After all, even Naz will admit he fell asleep as the murder was happening. Who’s to say he didn’t just conveniently forget doing it himself?
But I would argue those shots accomplish something else: They reveal just how quickly Naz’s story is taken from him and shaped by other figures entirely, whether they have his best interests at heart or not. Naz keeps trying to get people to listen to his story, but they either don’t want to listen or have no reason to do so. And even when he tells his parents what happened, Box is listening in.
Stone insists the criminal justice system is about two competing narratives and which story the jury believes more. Thus, it’s fitting that already, Naz’s story is being twisted apart and made more complicated by everyone around him.
5) The city of New York
Okay, this last one is more of a stretch, but hear me out.
Near the end of "Subtle Beast," Zaillian features a largely wordless sequence that shows the various characters traveling home (or, in Naz’s case, to Rikers Island prison). Box travels in his car, listening to opera. Stone clings to a subway pole. Naz fearfully travels in a prison van. And then we cut to Naz’s family, sitting silently over dinner at home, a far cry from the boisterous crowd they were in episode one.
On The Night Of, everybody is connected, and not just by the central criminal case that obviously drew them together. No, this is a show about how random acts of chaos swirl outward in a massive city and pull people who wouldn’t normally be drawn into a story like this right into its midst.
Consider, for instance, Andrea’s stepfather, a guy who probably doesn’t spend a lot of time at morgues. Yet here he is, identifying the stepdaughter he hasn’t seen in ages for the police. These characters would have no other reason to be connected, until they suddenly are.
This is not the most profound notion in the world, certainly, but it’s one The Night Of weaves throughout its second hour. We feel like we’re all living in separate stories, but the truth is that we’re all in the same one, and we all play supporting roles for each other, even as we compete to figure out who tells the story best.
Join me in comments at noon Eastern to talk about this episode and pop culture in general!
I’ll be there for 90 minutes, answering your questions. But please, won’t you, answer mine as well? If you were the victim of a crime, which TV cop, lawyer, or journalist would you want investigating the case? I’ll offer my answer in comments.