This article contains spoilers for all existing episodes of HBO's The Night Of.
In the opening minutes of "Ordinary Death," The Night Of's penultimate episode, Safar Khan, the mother of accused murderer Nasir Khan, exits the courtroom in the middle of a cross-examination. She's disturbed not only by the graphic images of victim Andrea Cornish shown by the prosecution but the idea that her son might be capable of having committed such a crime. As she bolts from her seat and the courtroom door shuts, the camera turns back to show the reactions of Naz, his attorney, the judge, and the jury members. Each face and gesture suggests a possible conclusion to the trial's examination of truth.
We've seen cases like Naz's in over 800-plus episodes of Law & Order, yet this summer, The Night Of stands apart as an engrossing, original, and pulse-pounding piece of procedural fiction. The reason is deceptively simple: the series, from Richard Price (writer on The Wire) and Steve Zaillian (Schindler's List, Moneyball), works on us two ways. There's what we see and what we don't, and both are heading toward an inevitable conclusion: did Naz do it?
Probably not. Here's why.
Every moment in The Night Of feels like a clue
The Night Of's undercurrent echoes what went so right with shows like True Detective and Breaking Bad. Even if the HBO miniseries shares DNA with NCIS, it's (brace yourself) art, bolstered by Price and Zaillian's razor-sharp and timely writing. The Night Of comments on issues of racial profiling, the mind-boggling bureaucracy of the legal system, and the opportunistic media circus that invariably ensues after cases like this one.
Price and Zaillian spent the entire season crafting intricate trajectories for their characters. At times, the details are so pointed, they feel like clues to a mystery that may never manifest. We see this in people like John Stone (John Turturro), Naz's on-again, off-again attorney whose foot problems are at once inane, gross, and metaphorical. We see this in Mr. and Mrs. Khan, who are forced to reconcile with the possibility that they "raised an animal" in Naz.
Most important, we see this in Naz's devastating transformation. From nebbish tutor of basketball players to drug-smuggling inmate, our protagonist undergoes a complete metamorphosis. He shaves his head, bulks up, and tattoos the words "Sin" and "Bad" on his knuckles.
Zaillian employs photographed close-ups in a way not unlike how Sarah Koenig sifted through hours of intimate phone calls to humanize and test the integrity of Adnan Syed on Serial. The camera often lingers on a face that is processing emotion. It takes solace in the silence, the tension builds, and we start questioning everything.
Our conjecture is part of the drama
Like any brilliant procedural, The Night Of's labyrinthine plot invites the viewers to become amateur sleuths, one episode at a time. It's silly, but we all do it, parsing through information dispensed to us, recreating situations, and imagining scenarios of how it all unfurled. Great shows provoke us enough to create our own pet theories, but brilliant shows like The Night Of demand dramatic coherency.
Consider this: Petey (Aaron Moten) may have had some involvement with the murder of Andrea. The character who committed suicide in "Ordinary Death" actually appears in the series premiere -- twice. The first time, 43 minutes in, Petey can be seen standing in one of the cells when Naz is ushered into the precinct. He pops up again just past the hour mark, when we see and hear him say, "Can I call my moms?" (Side note: his mother is the main prison drug supplier from the outside.) Was Andrea -- affluent and a known drug user -- getting into dealing, thus stepping on someone's toes? Did someone (maybe Andrea's stepdad, Don Taylor) enlist Petey to loot Andrea's lavish brownstone, but then panic when she fought back?
Is it possible that these rhetorical questions are ridiculous and Petey's appearance is just a coincidence? Maybe. But that's one of the pleasures of The Night Of -- for about 10 hours, we exist in the headspace of the people on screen, praying the truth will emerge.
While the madness will come to an end in the finale, there are enough loose threads in The Night Of that the conclusion could go in any direction. The brutal killer could be Petey, just as it might turn out to be Duane Reade (the grim-faced guy who was walking by Andrea's house with Trevor that night, and who later fled when Stone attempted to question him), or it could be Don (the gold-digging ex-stepfather, played by Paul Sparks, who confronted Stone at the gym), or it could be that brooding hearse driver who says to a dazed Andrea, "You want to be my next passenger?"
The Night Of could also bite its tongue over Andrea's true murderer. John Stone never wanted the answers, anyway. "The truth doesn't help you," the lawyer tells Naz in Episode 2. "And if you can't get that through your head, you can forget about the rest of your life." Perhaps in this story, in the real criminal justice system, a satisfactory closer doesn't require the unveiling of a culprit.
There will be one solid answer
You know who didn't kill Andrea? Mr. Nasir Khan. Unless the show has been withholding a bevy of incriminating information (i.e., a multiple personality disorder, or some penchant for sleepwalking), there's no part of me that believes Naz brutally murdered Andrea Cornish.
If Naz did it, would he do it so sloppily? With his business acumen and chameleonic ability to blend into his surroundings, Naz has proven his effectiveness at scheming. He's diligent, careful, and crafty. A Naz crime scene would appear antiseptic and inconspicuous -- without a shed of traceable evidence. Maybe we've been hoodwinked, though. Utterly fooled by Naz's bookish intelligence, shaky but present moral compass, and repeated sworn innocence. Or maybe potent party drugs do that to a guy.
But I can't look past the original image of Naz: a taciturn tutor who was practicing introductions on the street before he went to that party Downtown ("Hi, my name's Naz, nice to meet you -- I'm on the coaching side of the team"). The lightweight drinker who can barely consume half a shot of tequila. The guy who admits Andrea is "only the second girl I've slept with in my life." The guy who lives at home with his parents and whose aggressive outbursts were in self-defense to post-9/11 Islamophobia.
Or am I lost in a cloud of sympathy that Price and Zaillian planned on from the beginning?
We'll all find out next Sunday, when the summer's most gripping drama rests its case.
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