The Night Of Finale Review

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The rush to judgment against Nasir Khan began at the 21st Precinct, at 4:45 the night of, and ended ten seconds later when he was tackled to the floor. — John Stone

After eight weeks of story, evidence, eczema, felines, crack, ink, and more eczema, HBO’s limited series, The Night Of, finally came to a close last night. Last week, I didn’t go into how Peter Moffat ended Criminal Justice, because it should be up to you whether or not you wanted to know that information on the way into The Call of the Wild. Anyone who asked me, I told them, but not on social media, just in case it found its way onto someone’s feed who didn’t desire that information.

However, now that you’ve presumably seen how Richard Price and Steven Zaillian chose to end their adaptation of Moffat’s story, let’s talk about how THAT show went about its conclusion, before we discuss THIS show’s decision-making in the final 95 minutes.

Ben Coulter (Ben Whishaw) was convicted of the same basic crime that Nasir Khan was charged with in The Night Of, though it wasn’t 22 stab wounds. It was less grisly, which speaks to the general tendency of dramatic remakes to up the ante on the gore or the circumstance. He was asked to testify, and did a far worse job than Naz, at one point shouting and erupting into a tirade after the prosecutor tore him to ribbons on the stand. The jury wasn’t out long at all, and it was a swift guilty verdict.

The judge didn’t care for “tactics” from Ben and his attorneys to obstruct justice during the trial, and the penalty was levied as life in prison. Prior to his conviction, Freddie Graham (David Harewood) told Ben that he was about to go down for murder. Unlike The Night Of’s Freddy, Harewood’s role was pure evil from the very beginning, and we’d find out he basically also had Detective Box (Harry, not Dennis) in his pocket to some extent.

Box figured out, through surveillance cameras, that Melanie Lloyd (Ruth Negga) had possibly witnessed another murder earlier in the night. It would be revealed that this man killed her, because he chased her once he noticed her existence. She jumped in Ben’s father’s cab in fear for her life, even though she still played the calm, cool, sexy druggie once she felt safe.

Ben was then freed from prison, and went back to his family. He had the same meal Naz had, and he and his mother, who had wavered on his guilt or innocence during the trial, had much to work out amongst themselves. Coulter had taken drugs in jail as well, but he was held down and the heroin forced into his veins. Plus, we didn’t see him take it anywhere near as much as Khan, and he did not appear to be fully addicted when he left prison. He didn’t buy dope in the episode’s closing moments, instead he watched some people around his age playing soccer in a park, then walked away into the night.

I wasn’t blown away with the Criminal Justice finale, because it was vague and anticlimactic in some respects, but I found that series much more plausible and intelligent in its layout. Stone (Ralph, not John) did have eczema but it was about a 45 second combined storyline across all five episodes. It meant absolutely nothing. There was no symbolic cat, no tattoos, no past crimes, no Muslim angle, and no questions as to Freddie’s character. In short, it was more believable. In five hours, that plot was adequate to match the time between arrest, trial, and release. In nine hours of The Night Of, less was achieved.

What we got last night from Price and Zaillian wasn’t bad at all, but it was still riddled with the same problems that dragged this series from the “great” category into the “good” column. How could anyone sympathize with what Naz became in the back half of an eight-episode story? He completely fell apart behind bars, and did so in a stretch of time that made it both artificial and extremely difficult to take seriously.

He was also butt stupid throughout the show, which was in stark contrast to the young man we met in the opener. That guy, up until Andrea Cornish died, made some adolescent mistakes, but never came across as an idiot. After that moment, however, he was a total dolt, and it took real effort not to scream at the television or write, “God he’s stupid,” across my notes.

The other big problem with the series was how many useless annoyances were placed within it to try and force the viewer down fruitless paths. We’ll leave John Stone’s idiosyncrasies behind for a moment and mention the multiple suspects that the defense attorneys chased around in their quest for reasonable doubt. Remember me telling you that IF we found out who murdered Andrea, I didn’t believe it would be someone the show focused on at any point before the finale? Well, the apparent monster turned out to be Raymond Halle (Paulo Costanzo), who we had seen in just one brief argument with Don Taylor, and in a second scene attempting to point the finger in Don’s direction.

What was the purpose in Mr. Day? He was creepy, and he said borderline inappropriate and threatening things to Chandra, but what was his relevance to the show, other than as part of a sweeping whodunit, which wasn’t what the show was supposedly about? His dialogue was so villainous, and even on the stand he made some ridiculous comments, but at no juncture in the show did anything he said have an impact on the verdict or the crime.

For that matter, why did we ever meet Trevor Williams and Duane Reade? While I love the hell out of J.D. Williams, and he had a few highlights on the witness stand, yet again we saw too much of them, and it amounted to precisely zero. Why would Duane run from John Stone once he found out what John wanted? The Night Of basically came right out and told us last night this man was innocent, despite being a douchebag and a criminal. He had nothing to do with the murder, and he wasn’t under arrest or ever really even questioned by the police.

Actually, although we wouldn’t have known who Ray Halle was without Don Taylor, Box found the culprit through phone records, not his association to the victim’s stepdaughter. Thus, all the personal trainer milking money from rich older women content was empty as well. He was a bad dude, just like Day and Reade, but he wasn’t “the” guy. Had Box discovered or suspected Ray due to Taylor, that would have played better for wasting so much time following around a low rent pickup artist.

Perhaps the idea was that once the state put a target on Naz, all other avenues were closed down. They never even looked in the direction of many other people who should have been carefully examined. But, that’s a lot of nothing to get to a conclusion that may have slipped through the grey matter of much of the audience. Helen Weiss telling Box, “We’ve got more on the kid,” would back up the concept, but it was certainly abstract, if that indeed was the intent.

Unlike Criminal Justice, we never found out for sure who murdered Andrea, though clearly the show wants us to feel confident in Halle’s guilt. The Nasir Khan that exited Rikers Island was probably the same Nasir Khan that will end up back there, due to drug issues that will send him down a stretch of crime-filled asphalt. As he left prison, we hear the guard giving the new inmates the same speech Naz heard when he got there, and the portion of those words that stuck out centered around some of the faces in the line being familiar.

What did work in the finale was Dennis Box’s never-ending search for the truth, and the performances of both John Turturro and Jeannie Berlin. John Stone’s closing arguments will be submitted for an Emmy, and with good reason. That was a sublime scene, and Naz’s, “Thank you,” was a flawless way to end that sequence. Similarly, Helen Weiss with Box in her office, then later as she had trouble getting through her own closing statement once the veteran investigator walked out of the courtroom, was perfect. She may be the most underappreciated part of this show. She was consistently good, as was Turturro.

Ralph Stone was nowhere near as important to his story as John Stone was to ours, but considering the actors in line to play the role began with James Gandolfini, moved to Robert De Niro, and eventually got to Turturro, that’s not unsurprising. One other unchanged piece of The Night Of is Chandra’s relationship with Naz, the misconduct plan from Stone, and Kapoor’s destroyed career. However, Ben did try to pull his complaint once he realized he was about to be released.

Even as the plot deteriorated and devolved in the back half of the season, the performances were outstanding across the entire cast, and certainly Riz Ahmed was excellent, even though I hated seeing his face once the narrative turned him into a joke. When Stone mentioned surviving Rikers, I couldn’t help but laugh, because while that might be true for someone incarcerated for five years, it’s a stretch to buy the same craziness in what felt like five weeks.

The crown tat on the neck was the kicker. It was just something so absurd, so asinine, and so unlike this guy before he decided he needed to become the Muslim Lil’ Wayne. For someone he called his “unicorn,” Freddy sure was prepared to ruin him in Katie Ledecky 800 freestyle time. Jack London’s “The Call of the Wild” is all about survival and learning to be a leader (or a king, who would wear a crown) in the real world, using experiences gained in a harsh environment where it was kill or be killed. It applies to Naz well, and that theme usually hit when Price and Zaillian decided to use it.

If The Night Of’s goal was not to be a mystery, but instead a critique and a depiction of the failings of the criminal justice system, it may have missed the mark. How many of you would have watched it from start to finish had it never focused on alternate suspects, and instead just followed Naz in Rikers and the obstacles for his defense? So many others have written of this show not being about who did it, but I’m here to tell you, yes it was.

It’s impossible for a show about a murder not to lead to questions about who killed the victim. Any hopes to the contrary are ill conceived. Almost everyone reading this piece right now was most interested in the murderer than anything else going into the finale.

The reason we cared about Box, Weiss, Stone, Kapoor, and the Khan family was because of their proximity to the crime, the investigation, or the case, not because of social commentary in any respect. The Ray Halle choice wasn’t a bad one, because the logic holds up, though it’s tough not to ask why it took so long to link Andrea Cornish with an ex-boyfriend. When it did happen, it wasn’t common sense John Stone, as he never even considered that option.

Taken as a whole, what does The Night Of teach us, and what is its lasting impact? The focus and the pacing were often off the tracks, but it was unquestionably heart-pounding drama. The fall of Naz Khan, before he was freed, is what I’ll remember more than anything else, along with the eczema, which nearly wrecked the train. It fit John Turturro, and he did a terrific job with it, but it was overused and, quite frankly, revolting. The closing statements scene after the flare up and the trip to the hospital was pretty damn disgusting. But, maybe it helped draw sympathy to Stone, which diffused to Naz.

We already know the systems of law and order in the United States are more than just a little imperfect, but did The Night Of change your opinion, or drive it any further in a negative direction? For me, the West Memphis Three and the case of Adnan Syed were more meaningful, and The Night Of still felt like a television show, only increasing each week as Nasir Khan turned into an Islamic Crip. The two cases mentioned above were real, but even had they been pure fiction, I’d have the same opinion.

What did I learn? I learned I don’t want to go to prison, which is something I knew 30 years ago. I learned that eczema stinks. I learned not to get hooked on crack, which Nancy Reagan told me in the mid 80s. I learned that eczema sucks. I learned that neck ink shouldn’t be on the jury side. I learned that eczema is awful. I learned that I could practice drug muling by swallowing produce. I learned that eczema really sucks. I learned that cats rule, even if you’re allergic to them. I learned that attorneys shouldn’t kiss their clients, or buy them hard drugs.

Finally, I learned that eczema is hideous and terrible.

I enjoyed the series, often times quite a bit, and it will be nominated for several awards. This ending was better, overall, than that of Criminal Justice, even though Naz the Dope Fiend rang comically hollow. Even though the finale was superior, the BBC series was the stronger of the two, because of the stark contrasts of Ben and Naz. As a whole, the acting on The Night Of wins over the original, though both had some knockout performances.

Zaillian has said if the right story emerges, there could be a second season on HBO. The Night Of was conceived as a stand alone, but we’ll see. It did very well, generated a lot of discussion, and I’m sure the powers that be will do everything they can to bring it back. Hopefully, if it returns, I hope it will be more Fargo and less True Detective, though the first season of both of those shows ended up better than this one, because of the prevalence of narrative consistency.

Naz is out, but for how long? Everyone looked at him like he was guilty, even those in his own Muslim community. Stone is off to his next client, and the cat was saved from the shelter, echoing Naz’s freedom. Cat as Naz was cute, but was it necessary?

The questions of necessity within The Night Of will stay with me longer than any lessons or overall effect. Had some of that stuff been limited or eliminated, it would have been beneficial, but as it stands, the series was still a powerful, intense way to spend the summer.

I’m @GuyNamedJason on Twitter. No your honor, my office declines to prosecute further.   

Written by Jason Martin