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The Night Of season 1, episode 3: “A Dark Crate” explores tiny but telling character details

These five small moments add up to solid character development.

The Night Of
Naz and Stone await the judge.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

One of the things that’s most impressive to me about The Night Of is the way it expands its universe with every episode, without ever calling attention to how it’s doing so.

"A Dark Crate," the season’s third episode, added major new characters on Naz’s defense team and in the prison where he awaits his trial, and it never felt like it was trying too hard to introduce these new figures. And all the while, it wove in check-ins with the characters we’ve gotten to know over previous episodes (though Detective Box is fading a bit into the background as the case moves toward trial).

But what I continue to be impressed by is just how skillfully the series is using very brief moments and choices to shade in these characters. There are no grand speeches or big theatrics. There are just tiny decision points that lead one way or the other, which our characters choose to take in particular directions.

This is necessary because, in a lot of ways, The Night Of isn’t really rewriting the rule book. When Stone sees the cat mewing outside of Andrea’s house, for instance, you know he’s going to try to do right by it, because that’s what his character would do in stories like this. But it doesn’t make any of this less effective.

Here are five tiny moments that tell us lots about who these people are, even three episodes into the show’s run.

1) John Stone tries to do right by Andrea’s cat

The Night Of
Stone gets ready to save the cat.

Okay, I talked about this above. And in some ways, having Stone literally "save the cat" (the title of one of the most famous, most formulaic books on screenwriting) feels like a cheap shortcut to helping us understand that he’s a good guy, underneath all of the things that make him a little hard to take.

In some ways, the cat functions as the direct opposite of his eczema, which has always suggested that he might seem to be a good dude, but he literally stands on a base that’s rotting out from under him. He’s as compromised as anybody here.

And, to be sure, he takes the cat to an animal shelter that will put it to sleep in 10 days and gets a quick lesson from the guy who works there in how unlikely the cat is to be adopted. Yes, he’s allergic, but this also plays out, in miniature, his central dilemma with Naz, whose parents have decided to go with alternate counsel. He thinks he can walk away, but as we listen to those dogs bark and yowl, trapped in their cages, we know he’ll be back.

It’s a smart way to show off just how much this case has sunk its claws into Stone’s head and heart, but it also flirts at all times with being the sort of clichéd hero setup that’s hard to do well.

Still, I found myself really wanting Stone to figure out something to save that damn cat. And thus, by extension, I found myself caring about whether he’ll find a way to save Naz as well. What can I say? Sometimes the oldest tricks in the book still work.

2) Chandra is chosen because she’s the one nonwhite person Alison spots

The Night Of
Chandra joins the defense team.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but there’s no way that Chandra (Amara Karan) ends up on Naz’s defense team if Alison (the great Glenne Headly) doesn’t wander back onto the office’s main floor to look for someone who might be able to relate to Naz's Pakistani parents.

Chandra, as it turns out, isn’t even from Pakistan, but to Alison it’s all close enough. (Alison’s opportunism is mirrored by the jailhouse’s Freddy, who says that nobody cares if Naz is from Pakistan or Egypt, just as nobody cares what part of Africa Freddy’s ancestors came from.) And the second Alison adds Chandra to the team, you know so much more about both women.

For one thing, you know that no matter how Alison represents herself to Naz’s parents, she has some sort of ulterior motive here. She didn’t think simply offering her services to Naz pro bono would be enough. She wanted to have someone who looked enough like him to reassure his parents she was doing this for the very best of reasons.

What’s neat about this is how it also subtly puts us on Chandra’s side. She doesn’t necessarily want to be here, and you get the sense that if this case goes to trial, she’ll be in a little over her head. But she also has something to prove. She’s never had an opportunity like this, and it could make her career.

But this choice also subtly allies you with Stone, who doesn’t seem as callous as Alison does. And that explains why it’s so effective when Naz seems so torn up by the idea of not having Stone around to talk to anymore, even if his new lawyer is technically a better one.

3) Freddy sends Naz a nice pair of shoes

The Night Of
Freddy has some thoughts on how to survive in prison.

Of the new characters introduced in this episode, few seem as extraneous as Freddy, the jailhouse kingpin played by Michael Kenneth Williams, who’s initially introduced to us as he has sex with one of the prison guards. (She tells him she has to stop doing this. He accepts it with a shrug. He’ll find other ways to get what he wants.)

The Night Of has done a solid job of pulling us into the world of the criminal justice system so far, but to cover that world, it necessarily has to also dive into the world of prison. Naz’s stay on Rikers Island, then, needs to be as integral to the show as his trial.

But it also has the greatest potential to feel like it belongs in another show entirely. It’s easy for, say, Stone to bump into Chandra in the courthouse, or for Naz’s parents to come across Detective Box. It’s a whole lot harder for the characters in jail to intersect with anybody else.

The show gets around this in a few subtle ways. The first is by frequently blending sound from the prison over shots of other characters, out in the great wide world. And the second is to compare and contrast the figures Naz meets in prison with those he’s met elsewhere (as we already saw with Freddy’s opportunism mirroring Alison’s).

That leads to the scene where Freddy gives Naz a new pair of shoes, for "traction," so that he can hold his own in the showers. It’s a nod toward the kind of man Freddy is, and it wraps what he might want with Naz in mystery, making these scenes feel more connected to the whole.

4) Helen wants Stone to get a new wardrobe

So far, what we know about Helen is that she’s a prosecutor and she makes sarcastic jokes about spending time with her grandchildren instead of working. She seems like she’ll fit right in on this show.

But I liked the little grace note at the end of her scene with Stone, in which she suggests that maybe he should go to an affordable tailor she knows of to get a better suit. After all, Naz’s murder trial will probably be a big deal when all is said and done, and she doesn’t want Stone looking like the low-rent ambulance chaser he could easily come off as.

You can read this gesture any number of ways. It could be Helen trying to stage-manage the trial into something bigger and more befitting of TV cameras. It could be her own innate kindness. It could be her trying to subtly underline just how out of his league Stone is. Truth be told, it could be all of these things and more. It’s one of those canny little moments that adds so much more the more you think about it.

5) Naz doesn’t want or need Freddy’s help

The Night Of
Naz decides he can go it on his own.

Naz’s desire for self-determination ultimately extends to rejecting Freddy’s offer of protection, a decision he probably regrets slightly when he leaves the bathroom to discover that his bed has been set on fire.

But I like how Naz continues to try to make up his own mind about what’s best for him, even though nobody else seems to want him to. His parents switch defense teams without consulting him, and he’s been informed, over and over again, not to tell anybody his story of events until the trial. So when he can find ways to make this experience his own, he takes them.

I’d wager we got a little less Naz than we did in the first two episodes in "A Dark Crate," but the scenes we get underline just how alien the prison experience must seem to him, someone who will seem, on the stand, like just another college kid (as Box underlines early in the hour). If he’s going to survive, he’s going to have to find a way to acclimate himself to this world, and quickly. And even if he made the wrong call with Freddy, at least it’s a call. He’s learning just how much spine he has. Let’s hope that’s a good thing.

Share your thoughts on this episode and culture topics in general by dropping into comments. I’ll join you at noon Eastern to answer your questions.

And why don’t you answer a question of mine while you’re at it? What song are you listening to more than any other at this moment?

Drop down to comments for my answer, and I’ll be by at noon Eastern for 90 minutes of discussion.

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