It’s only now that The Night Of is over, I think, that we have a sense of what exactly this show is. At times, The Night Of felt like someone gave an episode of Law and Order to a novelist, as the show tracked the arrest and trial of a young man for a horrific murder. It ticked all of the procedural boxes, gave us a satisfying and intriguing plot, but did so while letting the characters breathe and come to life in a way that network television often can’t. And yet, every time you started to feel the formula of the show, there were details or choices that let you realize that this was more in the line of David Simon’s The Wire than your typical procedural – in other words, it was a show that used its premise not as an end, but as a means of exploring something deeper and richer.
Once you realize that – that The Night Of is a novelist using a procedural as a framework for something richer and deeper – so many of the show’s choices make more sense. There’s no denying, for instance, that many people were baffled by and/or loathed the show’s odd focus on John Turturro’s eczema-ridden feet, and to be fair, in most shows, it’s a meaningless detail. But once you view it through the lens that novelist (and great writer) Richard Price views it with, it makes far more sense, even if you set aside the obvious symbolism of a man becoming comfortable (or uncomfortable, at times) in his own skin. It’s a detail that humanizes Turturro’s weary public defender, making him a specific character and not just another stock element of the drama. And that holds true for each and every character all the way down, all of whom are given odd moments or character beats that make them specific people, not just figureheads.
It’s also something that holds true for the show’s plot, which begins in a conventional – if incredibly well-executed – way. (Indeed, the intensity of the show’s pilot is absolutely unbelievable, as we watch this young man slowly tighten the noose around his own neck at every new moment, all without knowing what’s coming.) But by the halfway point of The Night Of, it becomes obvious that this isn’t a show about an innocent young man being persecuted by a judicial system out for blood. Indeed, in an incredibly rare choice, The Night Of holds true to its ambiguity, and it’s one of the first procedurals I’ve ever seen where the guilt or innocence of our “protagonist” is in serious question. And more to the point, there’s the secondary question, and what Price seems to be most fixated on: is the version of Naz that emerges after his time spent in prison awaiting trial some destroyed, ruined version of him, and just another bright young future ruined by a justice system that could care less about innocence…or are we seeing the truest version of him shining through, and the justice system is just letting us see it?
Price isn’t interested in answering that question; indeed, without giving anything away, The Night Of commits to its ambiguity, and leaves us with any number of questions that it has no interest in answering. That results in a finale that may feel disappointing at first, but only resonates more deeply as I get further and further from it. A conventional answer isn’t what The Night Of is interested in; instead, by revelling in its ambiguities, the show leaves us questioning things. What can we learn from Naz’s time in prison, and the changes we see wrought in him? What do we take away from a brutally frank admission by a prosecutor given new information? What of the closing arguments by the defense attorney, which give us a sense of how the world should work, but leaves us wondering if it does? Price and company aren’t interested in giving us those answers, and leave us debating them among ourselves.
For all of that greatness, The Night Of isn’t without its flaws, most notably in its handling of Chandra, a young lawyer who loses her interesting presence (and good performance) to some absurd plot machinations that squander everything good about her role. Add to that some odd dead ends and an element in the finale that feels, at best, out of nowhere, and there’s some definite bumps and issues with the show. And yet, for all of that, there’s something about the moral complexity and social observation of the show that makes it haunt you. There are countless great performances – although Turturro has rarely, if ever, been better, Riz Ahmed is amazing as the complex Naz, and I can’t overstate how good Bill Camp is as the quiet, effective Detective Box. Yes, some elements are rough, and bits of the destination are less satisfying than the journey to get there. But none of it detracts from the greatness and richness of that journey, or the countless thoughtful, impactful moments along the way – or the haunting, perfect final few images of that final episode.