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The Night Of season 1 finale: “The Call of the Wild” is profoundly unsatisfying — in a mostly good way

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By leaving things hanging, it forces us to think about its weightier themes.

The Night Of
Naz contemplates what his life might look like after Rikers.
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.

The Night Of finale, titled "The Call of the Wild," was profoundly unsatisfying television, providing nothing in the way of concrete resolution or definitive answers.

Indeed, about the only actual "answer" we got is that Andrea’s cat is safe. Good for the cat.

But if you think that "profoundly unsatisfying" means I didn’t like the finale, you’d be wrong. There’s a way to tell a story with an unsatisfying ending that indicates that by making that ending unsatisfying, you’re trying to force the audience to pick at certain societal scabs they otherwise wouldn’t. That was what The Night Of was after, and it managed to mostly stick the landing for me — albeit with a few wobbles along the way.

This so easily could have gone in a different direction. The last couple of episodes have been shakier than everything that led up to them (particularly the masterful midseason duo of "The Art of War" and "The Season of the Witch"), and the series clearly never had a good bead on who Chandra was — a problem when you consider how much of this finale revolved around her making some pretty big mistakes.

So we were primed for a finale that tried too hard to wrap up the plot via convenience and contrivance, while mostly bypassing the character work that made the season’s first five hours so good. And, to be honest, there were moments in the finale that seemed right out of that increasingly frustrating playbook of plot twists.

But there were also moments that underlined the series’ sneaky grappling with the crushing weight of the American criminal justice system, and in the end, those won out. "The Call of the Wild" flirted with being god-awful, but its better nature won out in the end.

Naturally, with an episode this divided against itself, there’s nothing more we can do than outline the good, the bad, and the weird of The Night Of’s finale.

Good: The always twinned journeys of Nasir Khan and John Stone paid off nicely

The Night Of
Stone and Naz wait for whatever’s next.

The Night Of sometimes struggled to expand its focus beyond Naz and Stone, the two characters whose chance meeting drove perhaps the best scene in the series’ first episode.

It was fitfully successful with, say, the sometimes testy relationship between Helen Weiss and Detective Box, which had a great payoff in this episode — and more on that in a bit.

But it couldn’t always pull off other gambits, like its attempts to turn Chandra into a more important figure within the narrative, or even some of the more tangential material in Rikers. (I mostly liked the Rikers sections of the story — an opinion that seems to be at odds with many of the show’s fans — but I’m not sure Freddy became an actual character beyond how skillful Michael Kenneth Williams is as an actor.)

And yet every time it seemed lost, the series could always return to either Naz or Stone, who served in some ways as its guiding lights. The two characters, in some ways, had the most obviously fictional functions on a show with pretensions of gritty realism. Naz was the innocent tossed into the criminal justice system and made less innocent — a time-honored archetype — while Stone was a surprisingly lovable collection of quirks and character ideas, given beautiful life in the hands of John Turturro.

What was best about "The Call of the Wild" was how it dug into how both men had changed thanks to this strange odyssey through the criminal justice system. Even though Naz isn’t found guilty (more on this as well in a second), he’s still become a different person from the few months he spent in jail. Director Steven Zaillian even takes pains to underline how differently he walks, to say nothing of the drug addiction he now struggles with thanks to his time behind bars.

Stone, meanwhile, gets his big chance to deliver the closing argument in a murder trial — and the episode contorts itself mightily to make sure he’ll do so — but by the end, he’s back to helping out clients who probably did it by finding ways to get them plea deals. He’s just barely scraping by — as he always has been.

This, ultimately, seems to be the message of The Night Of: The criminal justice system will whirl you around and leave you right back where you were — but churned up inside and ready to throw up. You’re the same, but different, and the "different" is usually bad.

Bad: Chandra was an ultimately unconvincing character

The Night Of
Poor Chandra!

As my colleague Alex Abad-Santos so ably suggested last week, the kiss shared between Chandra and Naz didn’t make a ton of sense, unless you regarded it as some sort of attempt by Naz to set her up for a downfall. (It wasn’t, at least not wittingly.)

What Alex didn’t touch on was that this was an idea from the original British miniseries, Criminal Justice, where there were also suggestions of a romantic relationship between attorney and client. But this series has proved mostly nimble when it comes to taking elements of the original that didn’t work and reinventing them, and it barely bothered here.

I don’t even know that this is a problem with the actor. Amara Karan was good throughout, even when she was playing fundamentally unconvincing character beats. The writing, instead, turned Chandra into a cipher who did only what the plot needed her to. After all, how would Stone possibly be able to deliver closing arguments if evidence of Chandra and Naz’s kiss didn’t boot her down to second chair?

If it was just the kiss, fine. I could have lived with it. Young people make dumb mistakes.

But the last two episodes seemed custom-designed to push Chandra into many bizarre decisions and directions. Why did she want Naz on the stand? It was never clear — and she very nearly got him sent to jail for it. (His testimony was a disaster, concluding with him admitting he didn’t know if he had killed Andrea or not.) Why would she smuggle in drugs for him? This was also not entirely clear.

To be sure, I can come up with answers for both of those questions. But Chandra never made sense as a character in the way that Naz or Stone or Helen or Box did. Heck, she made less sense than the jeering pharmacist (played by the endlessly entertaining Fisher Stevens) who was always giving Stone a hard time.

If The Night Of had a single biggest failing, it was in never figuring out what this character was all about.

Good: The resolution of the trial is note perfect in how undramatic it is

The Night Of
Box’s conscience ultimately won’t be party to Naz going to jail.

My single favorite moment of "The Call of the Wild" comes when Box goes to visit Helen.

He’s discovered a new suspect, and this new suspect has just enough evidence against him to suggest that, hey, maybe he killed Andrea instead of Naz. Box has even tracked this new suspect down and very nearly gotten the guy to confess, in a superbly creepy scene.

But Helen stares down Box. She’s not rattled, even if she can see what she sees. They’ve got more on Naz, she says, and just like that, the cold calculus of the judicial system attempts to grind up somebody else. At its best, The Night Of embraced how often the criminal justice system isn’t necessarily driven by the need for justice or even the truth, but rather, by the need for convictions, and how that colors absolutely everything else. And it was never better at expressing that than in this moment.

That also makes the resolution of the trial pretty much perfect in how unsatisfying it is. Naz isn’t found not guilty. No, the jury deadlocks, six to six, resulting in a mistrial. And when the judge asks Helen if the state will pursue a retrial, she says no. This ends here.

And just like that, Naz is a free man — but in the eyes of the people he knows, he’s not yet an innocent man. Hell, in the eyes of us, he’s not yet an innocent man. "The Call of the Wild" seems tilted, to me, toward not wanting us to believe Naz committed the crime, but it’s not like it’s out of the question that he might have.

And that, ultimately, is why the unsatisfying nature of "The Call of the Wild" is a plus for me, even with all of the other weird stuff going on in the plot. The case Box creates against the new suspect is just as full of holes as the one he created against Naz. When people say why they think Naz is innocent, they mostly rely on intangibles. (He just doesn’t "seem" like a killer to them.)

We like to believe the judicial system will catch the right people, will crack the case. But "The Call of the Wild" is a 98-minute long argument that, no, most of the time, the judicial system is just looking for a way to get the conviction — and it doesn’t particularly care how it gets said conviction. If that feels unsatisfying, it’s because it should feel unsatisfying. It’s the system we’re all asked to live with.

Bad: That new suspect sure came out of nowhere, though!

The Night Of
Even Helen seems a touch incredulous about this development.

I was half-tempted to move this down to "weird" because I liked the scene between Box and Andrea’s boyfriend/financial adviser Ray (the new suspect) so much. Seeing the two of them square off made for the sort of low-key fireworks this show was so gifted at offering up.

But after a couple of episodes seemingly devoted to Stone and Chandra beating down every door they could think of to find somebody else who might have committed the crime, it feels a little strange that Ray had previously been relegated to a nearly wordless cameo during Andrea’s funeral (one seemingly positioned just to show that Ray would be played by the fairly well known character actor Paulo Costanzo — and thus allowing some viewers to ask, "Hey, why is Paulo Costanzo playing a glorified extra?" and start wondering).

I get that a new suspect would probably be found by the police, and thus, it makes sense that it’s Box who finally figures this all out. But at the same time, when Andrea had a boyfriend with a history of assault against prostitutes, how would Chandra or Stone have not somehow come across that and started digging?

The show tries to excuse this by suggesting that all of this was at least somewhat hidden, thus forcing Box to dig for it. But he doesn’t have to dig that hard to find it. (Basically, he just has to examine some fresh footage captured by surveillance cameras, then go digging in Andrea’s phone records again.) It all feels a little strange and convenient to hold this card back for so very long.

But none of that is as weird as the fact that Box and Ray have already met, because Ray was the victim of a shooting on Yom Kippur 2013, when he was shot by a pimp who was mad about the aforementioned prostitute assaults. The Night Of, like all murder mysteries, asks us to solve a fair amount of contrivance and convenience, but this dances on the edge of being way too much.

Weird: The series’ shifting modes make it hard to pin down

The Night Of
Naz looks pretty nice in a white shirt and tie.

Think about this: The Night Of introduced a lot of red herrings in the name of making a compelling murder mystery. And that’s fine. That’s what stories like this do.

But it also meant that in the process of trying to tell an otherwise sober-minded story of the problems with the criminal justice system, the series had to suggest that Andrea met not one, not two, but three different men with histories of violence on the night she died, to say nothing of her stepfather, also with domestic battery in his past.

Maybe this is meant to be The Night Of’s attempt to, I don’t know, suggest that the patriarchy has created a world where literally every man is a powder keg of violence, just waiting to destroy a woman’s life. But given the show’s general struggles with writing its women characters, I’m going to guess that’s not the intent.

No, what this points to is how much The Night Of struggled in its second half to balance those two modes of storytelling. The more realistic and directly political stuff about the way the criminal justice system (emphasis on system) tears apart everything it touches often seemed at odds with the need to offer up a more traditional murder mystery with a series of suspects for viewers to consider.

To be sure, blending those two modes, sometimes awkwardly, made this a gripping series, with lots to hash out and discuss after every episode. (It also helped HBO with strong ratings — especially for a new drama in the summer.) But in the end, I wanted The Night Of to tip its hat a little more.

The "realism" mode works well with the ending’s deliberately unsatisfying beats and moments — but it feels awkward when it’s forced to stand next to Helen and Box vowing to bring down Ray (a scene that comes out of nowhere and isn’t followed up on). Similarly, I’m glad Stone rescued Andrea’s cat, and I think it says a lot about him as a character and lover of lost causes. But it also feels a little weird to have that reveal come immediately after Naz going down to the river to get high and reflect on how much his life has changed.

The Night Of wanted to be both a detailed examination of what the words "criminal justice" mean and a more conventional genre treat. It didn’t ultimately work as well as the latter as it did as the former, but I found the effort riveting, if nothing else.

Or maybe you disagree? Tell me in comments, and be sure to ask me your culture-related questions. I’ll be by at noon Eastern to answer.

It’s been too long since we’ve had a culture chat, so let’s get back in the swing. Ask me anything you want, and I’ll answer for 90 minutes, starting at noon Eastern.

And be sure to answer my question: Which new fall TV show are you most looking forward to, if any? I’ll give you my unfairly advantaged answer in comments. Join me!

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