Warning: This post contains spoilers for entire season of The Night Of. If you haven’t seen the show yet, we advise you Naz to proceed with reading this piece.
For the last two months, HBO’s The Night Of has proved to be the great head-scratcher of the summer, a series that provokes countless questions: Did Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed) brutally murder Andrea Cornish (Sofia Black-D’Elia) during an unexpected late-night rendezvous? Could cash-grabbing, in-over-his-head lawyer John Stone (John Turturro) be the right guy to mount Naz’s defense? And, after watching Stone dig away at his eczema-afflicted feet with a chopstick, will any of us ever be able to enjoy an egg roll again?
Last night’s season finale, “Call of the Wild,” didn’t provide easy answers to any of these queries. Still, it did give viewers a lot to talk about–which is why we asked WIRED’s Brian Raftery and Angela Watercutter to play jury and discuss The Night Of on the day after.
Brian Raftery: Angela, that episode left me as rattled as Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan) on the night before a big court argument. But it demonstrated why this mostly excellent, occasionally frustrating limited-series–overseen by Richard Price and Steven Zaillian–became one of the year’s most pleasant small-screen surprises. Whereas other legal shows would have tied up everything cleanly and succinctly, the final moments of “Call of the Wild” were so ambiguous, you almost expected a dude in a Members Only jacket to show up and walk into the bathroom: We saw Naz admit on the stand that he still couldn’t remember if he was the killer–and watched as he walked away, thanks to a deadlocked jury. We also witnessed the perpetually po-faced Sgt. Box (the great Bill Camp) hone in on a new suspect, Ray Halle (Paulo Costanzo), the financial adviser who, it turns out, had been dating the victim (and draining her bank account) all along. And we learned that John Stone, despite once again becoming plagued by skin problems, had literally saved the cat.
But there were no pat resolutions, nor any comforting moments of denouement. Even with his acquittal, Naz really could be the killer–or he could simply be a victim of a rush-to-justice system that drop-kicked him into Rikers, where he picked up a bunch of tattoos, a drug habit, and an unlikely, unsavory mentor in Freddy Knight (Michael Kenneth Williams). And if he’s innocent, that means the real killer had to be Ray Halle … or Andrea’s stepfather … or the creepy morgue guy … or the unfortunately monikered Duane Reade.
We’ll never know for certain, and that open-case finale may have left some of the show’s viewers feeling as deadlocked as that jury (even though Ray’s night-of behavior seemed to make him the likely culprit). But ambiguity has been part of The Night Of‘s M.O. all along: This is a series that highlights, and agonizes over, the slipperiness of certainty–the way the very things we know to be true can quickly be disproved, whether it’s by tough questions, new revelations, or ever-present security cameras. If The Night Of had ended on a note of certainty, it would have felt as canned and corny as John Stone’s “No Fee ‘Til You’re Fee” subway ads.
Still, I should probably admit here that I’m a big fan of ambivalent endings, and that I was happily high on The Night Of throughout its eight-episode run (despite some misgivings about a few plot twists, which I’m sure we’ll get to soon enough). So before I’m accused of witness-tampering, what did you think of the finale?
Angela Watercutter: Brian, like you I’ve been inextricably glued to The Night Of since it started. I also, like you, am a big fan of murky finales. Prestige television shows don’t need to end with a death montage set to Sia for me to feel fulfilled. That said, The Night Of tied up a lot more loose ends than I expected it to, TBH. The truth has always been a Schrodinger’s cat on this show (that orange tabby is a metaphor!) so I expected plot lines like the importance of Duane Reade to never even revisited again, let alone have their day in court. In short, The Night Of gave me everything I wanted, but never too much.
I was surprised, however, that the show did show did throw as many curveballs as it did in the finale. It only had a hour and 40 minutes, and in that time, it managed to revisit Stone’s eczema in a big way; blow up the affair between Naz and Kapoor; and not only introduce an entirely new suspect in Ray Halle, but also cleanly break down his involvement in Andrea’s death (again, this is all in one episode). I don’t know about you, but I definitely felt like Drake getting curved by Rihanna when Box went to Atlantic City and just went after Halle with abandon. I knew he was up to something, obviously, but I didn’t think it was going to be something that–for viewers, at least–got to the heart of the whodunit so quickly. That, for me, made it a largely perfect finale.
But enough about the things the Night Of finale did right. What do you think it did wrong? Like, I found Kapoor’s client-kissing to be a little too much, which is to say I rolled my eyes in much the same way I do when female journalists sleep with their sources in movies and TV. I also found Naz’s journey from wide-eyed kid to Riker’s ruffian a little tough to swallow (pardon the expression), but I don’t think it bothered me as much as it bothered other people. Was there anything where you found yourself thinking “OK, that’s a little too much?”
Raftery: Indeed, neither the Cell-Smooch(TM), nor our ostensible hero’s transformation from Mr. Naz Guy to Nasty Naz, worked for me: The former was simply impossible to believe–even for a character whose inexperience and insecurity were always clearly visible, no matter how hard she tried to hide them–while the latter felt waaaay too rushed, even by prestige-TV standards. But what really shook my faith in The Night Of at times was the way the show worked as a modern law procedural. As much as I dug Box and Stone (which I think is the name of a granite-supply company in Long Island), their respective investigations into the crime often seemed weirdly inept, with crucial clues or leads either overlooked until the last minute, or ignored altogether. Obviously, in a series with as many installments as this, you have to let information dribble out. But wouldn’t someone who’s finely attuned to chronic health problems, as Stone is, notice the missing inhaler earlier? And wouldn’t someone as detail-oriented as Box want every potential suspect located and questioned, in order to bolster his case against Naz?
Still, as much as the nuts-and-bolts of the investigation might bug me, they all led to The Night Of’s trial sequences, which is when the show felt most alive, especially the scenes involving Helen Weiss, the district attorney played by Jeannie Berlin. Weiss is my favorite kind of character–and my favorite kind of New Yorker: Acerbic, assertive, and bullshit-free, and blessed with the ability to manipulate others with little more than a well-fought charm offensive. Her back-and-forth with an equally cocksure celebrity pathologist (Chip Zien) was a highlight of the series, as there are few things more delightful than watching two well-matched equals spar against each other in a largely impromptu battle-of-the-wits. Such moments kept my faith in The Night Of going strong, even when it felt as though was becoming a prisoner of its own erratic logic.
Another thing to love about The Night Of? Its sheer New Yawk-iness. Granted, I live in the Big Apple, so I may be a bit biased here, but I dug the way Zaillian and Price–who’s written some of the best NYC-set novels of all time–made the show feel like a travelogue, taking the viewer from the Pakistani-populated neighborhoods of Queens to the brownstone playgrounds of the Upper West Side to the grim machinations of Rikers. The show’s melting-pot panorama, and the way it threw together so many people and worlds at once, gave it an anything-can-happen urgency that few other murder-mystery series can pull off.
But the show’s most memorable (and depressing) New York City vista was that serene Manhattan waterfront, not far from the foot of the George Washington Bridge, where Naz and Andrea huddle in the series’ premiere–and where Naz returns in the finale, bringing with him his prison-made crack-pipe and his memories of that fateful night. I found that ending genuinely heartbreaking, not just because it implies that Naz’s problems are only beginning, but because it speaks the show’s other potential injustice: Namely, that if Naz is innocent–and I think he is–he’s been robbed of one of the few people who ever seemed to connect with him, however briefly or superficially. By the end of The Night Of, Naz is essentially a pariah, having been abandoned by his community, his friends, and, it seems, some of his own family members. But the memory of Andrea, and the unrealized possibilities of what could have happened had their night turned out differently, will be with him forever. He’s a free man, but according to the letter of the law.
So, Angela: What do you think was going through Naz’s mind when he made that trip back to the beach–guilt, or grief, or both? And who was your The Night Of MVP?
Watercutter: God, that ending! I thought it was perfect. They say perps always return to the scene of the crime, but in this case Naz isn’t the perp (we’re in agreement that he’s innocent) so he just seems to be returning to a memory. He never had a chance to dwell on what happened with Andrea because he was arrested and charged so quickly after the fact, and to just watch it all land on him in that moment on the waterfront was, for me, exactly the kind of emotional payoff The Night Of needed–even if it was heartbreaking. We got inklings that Naz’s sadness about what happened with Andrea was tied to his jail-borne drug habit–and it became even more clear when he gave his testimony in court while high–but watching him pick up that pipe and think wistfully of Andrea was almost too much to bear.
I will, however, disagree with you a little bit on how riveting the court scenes were. There were definitely moments, particularly in the early days of trial, that I thought kind of dragged. As I mentioned on the WIRED Culture podcast last week, I think those dry court scenes were meant to illustrate just how blase people in the justice system can get about life-and-death matters, but I still wish they had a little more energy. It’s possible that A Few Good Men and/or A Time to Kill has trained me to believe that every court scene needs to lead to a super-shocking revelation delivered in perfect Sorkinese, but I wanted a little more in The Night Of. That’s the biggest nit I’ve ever picked, though.
As for my MVP, I have to go super-obvious. It’s Riz Ahmed. I loved John Turturro and I’ve never disliked Michael Kenneth Williams in anything, but they were both great actors continuing great careers. As a relative unknown, Ahmed had to carry a lot on his shoulders in The Night Of and he did it beautifully. He had to do so much with just tiny facial expressions (remember that little smile he gave in court when his old friend testified against him?) and he never overdid it or under-did it. He was great even in his small part in Jason Bourne and was undeniably perfect here, so he’s my No. 1. Ahmed hasn’t slipped up yet, and when his next big movie opens, I’ll be there the night of.