"The Art of War" is a hugely pivotal episode of The Night Of.
Coming at the season’s exact midpoint — it’s episode four of eight — "The Art of War" needs to signal the pivot from the initial investigation to the trial that will determine Naz’s fate. But it also needs to deal with the fact that a young man in Naz’s situation — seemingly an obvious murder suspect, but with enough loose ends to his case to suggest the possibility he won’t be convicted — would probably be offered some sort of plea deal.
And the one Alison and Helen agree on is considered a pretty sweetheart deal even by John Stone: Naz will serve 15 years (if that) for manslaughter. Naz is young enough that by the time he’s out of prison, he’ll still have most of his life ahead of him.
But he’ll also have plead guilty to manslaughter, which is not the sort of thing someone gets over very easily, if at all. That’s what ultimately drives his decision: To Alison’s horror, he’s not going to take the deal. His case will go to trial. Alison quits, everything falls into chaos, and it seems likely Stone will be back on Naz’s defense team.
Still, that The Night Of spends what amounts to an entire episode (save for the earliest scenes) on Naz reaching the point where he makes this choice seems noteworthy. So let’s talk about five big reasons he probably acted like he did, ranked from most to least likely.
1) He (is pretty sure he) didn’t do it
It doesn’t matter that both Alison and Stone urge Naz to take the deal. Nor does it matter that Naz must know on some level that this deal is a good one.
No, what matters is what Chandra tells him: If he really didn’t do it, then he should go to trial and try to prove that, rather than having a criminal conviction hang over his head for the rest of his life. If he did do it, however, he should take the deal, because he won’t get a better one.
The idea of being a criminal hangs heavily over Naz throughout the episode. He wants to vindicate himself in the eyes of his parents, and it’s clear that he worries about what everybody else thinks, too. It doesn’t matter that the odds of acquittal are stacked against him — after all, he did leave the crime scene with the murder weapon, and the crime scene photos are horrific. No, he wants to preserve his reputation at all costs.
Naz has always maintained his innocence. Some part of him, surely, must know it’s possible he could have done something horrific in those moments he lost to falling asleep. But he doesn’t believe himself to be that guy — and he needs others to not think he’s that guy.
He also must know that he doesn’t have a great shot at staving off conviction, and if he is convicted, that his sentence will be far harsher. But he doesn’t care. He’s got to cling to whatever might help him remain a free man.
2) Jail doesn’t seem like a place he wants to spend too much more time
There are scenes in this episode where it seems as if Naz might be making some allies inside the Rikers Island jail. But every time this seems to be the case, episode writer Richard Price and director James Marsh reverse course.
Take, for instance, a long conversation Naz has with a new acquaintance, which ends with him getting boiling water thrown on his skin. (He manages to block his eyes with his arm at the last minute, but he still gets a nasty burn on his arm.) No matter what happens, if Naz is in prison for a decade-plus, he’ll always have these sorts of threats hanging over his head.
There are moments where it seems like Naz might finally be finding his way in Rikers Island, as when he grudgingly makes an alliance with Freddy that should keep him safe (Even Freddy thinks he should take the plea deal, amusingly.)
But Naz was always one of the good kids before this. He’s not really built to become the kind of Darwinian survivalist who would thrive in a prison environment. Thus, he can’t see 15 more years in prison as a reduced sentence. To him, that seems like an eternity.
The Night Of hasn’t presented Rikers Island as all horrible. In particular, Freddy has become one of the show’s most compelling characters. But he’s also a character who seems to have figured out the jail’s food chain. It’s unlikely Naz will get to that level.
3) Naz’s alleged crime has created blowback for his loved ones
The occasional glimpses we get of what’s happening to Naz’s family now that he’s in jail don’t suggest happy times. His mother seems completely devastated by what’s happened, while his brother gets into a fight at school trying to defend Naz’s honor. (The school eventually recommends said brother leave school while Naz is on trial.)
Admittedly, Naz can never completely control for what happens to his family, nor can he ensure that they won’t be just as horribly affected by his circumstances as he will be, even if he’s somehow not convicted.
But he must feel some sort of responsibility for these events, and thus, some guilt for them as well. When he mentions wanting his parents to know he didn’t do it, their wellbeing and reputation must be on his mind. He can’t completely erase what has happened from existence, but he can try to minimize it as much as possible.
Of course, his family will still be stuck with substantial legal fees, and this sort of emotional trauma doesn’t just go away.
But when you look at Riz Ahmed’s haunted eyes in these scenes, the actor conveys so much about how horrible Naz feels about the impact of his circumstances on those he loves with just a glance or a gesture. He’s taking it upon himself to try to reverse time, as impossible as that is.
4) Naz’s life has been taken from him. Here’s a way to take it back.
The three episodes since Naz stumbled out of Andrea’s house, murder weapon in his pocket, have shown how he slowly but surely finds his own narrative of his life taken from him.
First, Stone told Naz not to say anything to anyone. Then, Detective Box tried to trick him into revealing things. Finally, Alison negotiated a deal for him that will make him admit he killed a woman, without first asking him if that’s what he wanted.
Alison’s reasoning is mostly sound. As she points out, his case is going to be nearly impossible to win. But she shuts him down when he says he didn’t do it, and she immediately begins her negotiations with Helen.
That’s to say nothing of the narratives being constructed around him in the media, by reporters and TV personalities like Nancy Grace (who makes a cameo on the bar TV that Stone watches). Central to all of these narratives is one idea: Naz is a murderer.
Marsh’s direction shows how heavily this weighs on Naz throughout the hour, framing him so that he’s trapped by lots of negative space that forces the audience to just watch him think. Is it any wonder, then, that he makes the only choice that will allow him to take back control of his own narrative, no matter how briefly?
5) John Stone is constructing alternate narratives of what happened the night Andrea died
So let’s talk about the real reason Naz doesn’t take the deal: If he does, the show will be over. The Night Of is about one young man’s journey through the criminal justice system, and once he’s in prison, serving out his sentence, that story effectively ends, unless it’s suddenly going to pivot to being about his 12 to 15 years in prison.
But the show can’t be so crude about this. It can’t say, "Hey, we need to last another four episodes." Thus, it needs to also give the audience reason to believe there’s more to this story, beyond Naz simply watching as he’s slowly but surely convicted of murder and perhaps sentenced to death.
So far, The Night Of hasn’t really functioned as a whodunnit. Though there are other suspects in the case of Andrea’s death — I continue to think the fact that one of the two guys who hurled taunts at Naz in the first episode subsequently not telling the police about the friend who was with him is significant — the show has mostly focused on what’s happening to Naz.
But in this episode, Stone — who no longer has a place on Naz’s defense team but clearly still cares — begins to construct alternate narratives for what might have happened. He learns Andrea had been in rehab. He starts talking to her friends (at her funeral, no less). And The Night Of is signaling to us that the loose ends from earlier in the season are going to start getting picked up by Stone and Chandra.
Granted, Naz has no idea about any of this, so it doesn’t factor into his decision to go to trial. But it’s still a necessary way to convince viewers to stick around in the weeks to come. And that’s almost as important.