HBO’s success is largely built atop shows that subvert and deconstruct familiar stories and genres. The Sopranos dissected the mob drama. Deadwood looked at the Western. Even Game of Thrones reimagines epic fantasy.
This sort of deconstruction is something TV does really, really well. When you have to fill hour after hour with a story, you find yourself examining the underpinnings of that story and trying to identify what makes it tick. Occasionally, you’ll start pulling those underpinnings apart entirely. Sometimes, you’ll throw them out and start anew.
At first blush, the way The Night Of reconfigures the crime drama seems pretty basic: It slows the story all the way down, so we get time to watch the scenes in between, the moments we wouldn’t normally see in most versions of this tale.
But slow stories can often feel disappointing to viewers, because they draw out certain story turns long after viewers have already figured out what’s going to happen. So what Steven Zaillian and Richard Price did in adapting Peter Moffat's Criminal Justice for the US was pretty canny. They took the typical police drama and grafted a twisty whodunnit onto it, complete with multiple suspects and investigators who are working against the odds.
In and of themselves, neither of The Night Of’s stories would quite work on their own. But together, they work beautifully. Writers of crime fiction (like Price) already know this, but by taking its time, The Night Of enhances the intrigue of a deep dive into the criminal justice system and the more traditional murder mystery stuff. And the best example of that yet is episode five, "The Season of the Witch."
The show introduces a suspect other than Naz
The most notable development in this regard is one of the show’s biggest shoes finally dropping. Way back in The Night Of’s first episode, Naz was accosted by two guys when he and Andrea were headed into her house. The younger guy, named Trevor, made jokes about how Naz was probably a terrorist, and in Naz’s justifiably angry reaction, we got a sense of how he might, under the right circumstances, be very dangerous.
But here’s the thing: When Detective Box questioned Trevor about the night, Trevor didn’t once mention the friend he was with, saying he was all by himself when he encountered Naz.
What’s more, right after the encounter ended, the camera cut in for a close-up of Trevor’s friend, as if to highlight that, yes, he was important, and we should remember him.
In "The Season of the Witch," Naz’s lawyer Jack Stone finally figures all of this out and heads out to track down Trevor’s friend, who not only possesses a violent criminal record but also the amusing name of Duane Reade (and, yes, as per Alan Sepinwall’s friends at HBO, his name is spelled like the pharmacy chain).
Now, in a mystery story, the first suspect rarely turns out to have actually committed the crime. So, somewhat paradoxically, there may be way too much "evidence" (in the storytelling sense) piling up against Duane for him to be Andrea’s killer.
But the fact that this character’s existence has resurfaced — and that he bolts when Stone catches up to him — is notable for signaling the show’s pivot into a more mystery-oriented phase.
And while all of this is going on, the episode also nods toward a major suspect who’s been in under our noses all along: Naz himself.
Could Naz have killed Andrea?
We’ve gotten hints here and there — most notably that aforementioned encounter with Trevor and Duane — that Naz might not be the innocent he seems to be.
Riz Ahmed’s performance has always suggested that Naz is holding things back from even himself, and the more time he spends in jail, the more Zaillian films him in a way that highlights how he can be vaguely imposing under the right circumstances.
I think where we’re headed with all of this is that The Night Of will show that even slight contact with the US prison system can unlock darker depths of previously respectable young men. But I have to admit that when Naz stands over the figure of a man he just finished beating to a pulp, it’s hard not to wonder just how dangerous he truly is. (Also contributing to this: Stone learning about the Adderall in Naz’s system, which introduces just enough doubt about the cocktail of drugs Naz was on.)
The thing is, the little bits and pieces we’ve seen of Naz’s life before Andrea’s death haven’t told us all that much about him. Indeed, they were cherry-picked almost as if Stone and Chandra (Naz’s lead counsel) themselves were singling out various bits and pieces of their client’s life story to influence a jury (in this case, the viewing public).
Now that he’s in jail — and working as an under-the-radar drug mule for Freddy’s operation — Naz is showing that his darker side is both larger and much, much more threatening than we might have imagined in the past. He was a nice kid and an honor student before, but that doesn’t mean he can’t also be capable of murder.
In general, The Night Of’s method has been to complicate its characters, to spend time building them up as one thing and then subverting it once we think we know them. The more time we spend with Detective Box, for instance, the more it becomes apparent that even he doubts Naz could have committed such a terrible crime.
And yet the evidence stacked against him is substantial. Yes, Box coaches the coroner in how to give testimony that will result in a conviction. But as he gathers up the surveillance footage, we realize that Naz’s night out in the first episode seems much less innocuous when we’re not inside his cab.
This is still a pretty damning case. When combined with Naz’s violent side, might it add up to a series-ending twist where Naz actually killed Andrea?
Jack Stone is the reason I still think Naz is innocent
If there’s a reason I’m pretty sure Naz will end up being innocent (even if he’s ultimately convicted), it’s that Stone is so certain of the kid’s goodness that he’s putting everything he has into finding an alternate reading of that night’s events, the better to exonerate his client.
This is another character reversal. When we first meet Stone, we know he’s a pretty good guy, but we also know he’s not the kind of lawyer you call when you’re facing a murder charge. Indeed, he spent much of The Night Of’s second episode crowing about how Naz’s case just fell into his lap.
But in "The Season of the Witch," Stone gets more and more wrapped up in trying to figure out what really happened.
And in that respect, the large collection of character quirks he’s picked up over the course of the show — the eczema! The floridly literary way of speaking! The cat! — have positioned him in another long crime fiction tradition: that of the world-weary detective with just enough oddball qualities to be memorable.
And it’s that cat that is key here. Over the last two episodes, the show has used it, a bit clumsily, to suggest that deep down, Stone really is a good person. But it’s also used the cat to symbolize Naz, who was also left out in the cold, then thrown into imprisonment, then finally rescued by Stone, who can’t get too close to him but wants to make sure he lives.
As symbolism goes, this is all over-obvious, but I won’t lie: It worked on me all the same. (Maybe this is because I just love cats that much.) The Night Of isn’t the kind of show that has straightforward heroes and villains, but it does have one character who is, most of the time, basically a good person.
That’s Jack Stone, and he seems convinced that Naz didn’t murder Andrea. For as long as he maintains that opinion, I’m inclined to agree.