I watched the series finale of “The Night Of” prepared to be disappointed.
If you’re not familiar with this HBO series, you might as well just stop here. Not only is this post written with someone who has already watched the miniseries in mind, but it’s also packed wth spoilers too. Caveat emptor.
“The Night Of” was billed as a look at the criminal justice system from a suspect’s point of view, and for much of the beginning, that’s what it was. But somewhere around episodes six and seven, it seemed to take a turn for the worse. It started to feel both rushed and as if a new writer took over, one that was more interested in Hollywood and TV tropes than the gritty feel of the series’ beginning.
Naz started acting like he was comfortable in prison. Too comfortable for me, and it was starting to look like we were heading for a cliched story about prison turning a good boy bad. While that would not be an unexpected ending, it seemed trite for how the “The Night Of” started out.
But it was Chandra’s (skillfully portrayed by Amara Karan) character arc that was killing the show for me. She started out as an underappreciated young lawyer in a huge firm. Allison Crowe, brilliantly played by Glenne Headly, literally picks her out of a room full of lawyers to assist on the case because of her race. But she forges a connection with Naz’s mother (portrayed equally well by Poorna Jagannathan) and then tells Naz, going against Crowe’s wishes, to turn down the plea deal Crowe negotiated for him.
I read Chandra’s disobedience as standing up for what she believes. Jack Stone, the lawyer Crowe pushed off the case, asks Chandra if she worked her way through law school so she could be used as a prop because of her race. She responds by going against Crowe’s wishes regarding the deal.
Chandra ends up leading on the case and puts on a strong defense for Naz. We still see her stumble a few times, but considering the lemons she had, she made a good pitcher of lemonade.
And then it seems all for naught. We see Chandra kissing Naz in a holding cell. We see her act as his drug mule. A woman that overcame being her firm’s token Muslim succumbed to a TV crime show cliche. I was ready to give up.
But I was going to finish the series, if for no other reasons than seeing John Turturro as Jack Stone and Michael Kenneth Williams as Freddy. I’m glad I stayed with it, too.
Jack Stone is a fascinating character. Turturro brings a vulnerability to him that’s hard to describe. The role was originally intended for James Gandolfini and in a few early scenes, especially when he approaches Naz at the police precinct, I could easily see Gandolfini in the role. But Stone is a character that Turturro brought to life and owned by the time the miniseries was halfway through, with the help of a script that gave him so many wonderful opportunities to act.
My favorite scenes were when Jack Stone was alone: treating his skin problems, feeding Andrea’s cat, tailing Andrea’s sleazy stepfather. Turturro created a fully realized character in these scenes. He is one of the greatest actors alive today.
IMDB tells me that Freddy, played by Michael Kenneth Williams, was only in three episodes. If this is accurate, it explains why I was left wanting more. In the same way that Williams used reserved confidence and subtle body language to make Omar a compelling character in “The Wire,” Freddy dominated the few scenes he appeared in and left me wanting to know more about him. Williams can tear up the scenery without raising his voice. I found his murder of Petey especially chilling.
That’s not to say Freddy and Omar are the same characters. When I saw the trailers for The Night Of I was concerned that we were going to see “Omar in prison,” but we didn’t. Omar was an outsider that was “street smart” enough to play the system to his advantage. Freddy is an integral part of the system and was better spoken and more educated.
When Chandra started to look like she was falling in love with poor Naz (that’s how it looked to me) I was bracing myself for one of two “Hollywood” endings: “wrongly convicted guy goes to jail” or “wrongly indicted guy is exonerated.”
The fact Andrea’s stepfather who, by the way, we learn has a history of violence and seducing wealthy cougars, was being served up as a last minute suspect didn’t help. It looked like the show that had started out as something different was going to end up looking like a crime procedural written by Dick Wolf.
It was evident to me by the midpoint that Naz’s innocent was beside the point and that having a big reveal where that proves his innocence or guilt would only ruin the story.
The opening episode was one of the best things I’ve seen in television or movies in a long time. The story required a series of coincidences to work, but together they wove a believable narrative that left you sure Naz was innocent.
Or did it?
In the finale, when Naz said he wasn’t sure either, it was a very satisfying moment. What made it even more satisfying was wondering if his experience in prison had made him less sure.
Putting Naz on the stand was the completion of Chandra’s fall. But her decision to do that over Jack’s strong objection redeemed her in my eyes. She wasn’t simply a gullible woman that fell in love with poor Naz, she was an idealist and a bit of an optimist. It was clear to her that Naz was innocent, and his innocence would be obvious to the jury too, once they heard from him.
That didn’t work out. And things didn’t work out for Chandra either.
Jack’s closing argument was the next big payoff for me. He saved the day by being himself, and that is was what was needed. The scenes with his preparation and the closing itself were also masterfully done. Here again, Turturro inhabited Jack Stone and showed a fully realized character.
The hung jury and the prosecution’s decision to drop the case against Naz were, at the end of the day, the only ending that worked. We still don’t know if he did it, and we don’t even have a questionable verdict to fall back on. Perfect.
It was Freddy that arranged for Stone to receive the video showing Chandra kissing Naz. That video may be lead to the hung jury since it set up Stone’s closing statement. Naz was as good as convicted after the prosecutor eviscerated him on the stand. Did Freddy know that? How could he have?
In their final scene together Freddy told Naz he enjoyed “having” him because he has the “smelled of innocence” on him. While that means Freddy believes that Naz didn’t kill Andrea, it doesn’t mean he wants him set free. Discrediting defense counsel doesn’t always mean freedom for the defendant. It may just have easily resulted in a mistrial and lead to Naz being in prison longer. Was that his goal instead? What do you think?
Naz comes home with a rift between him and his family and a drug problem. It’s not hard to imagine that he will end up back in jail and that Freddy may get his wish. But would he still want Naz then? Would he still smell innocent?
We also have a story that could make a sequel. Detective Box, another fascinating character, seems to have found the actual killer. Box’s investigation contributed to the series finale seeming crowded and rushed as if they had enough material for nine or ten episodes, but HBO wanted to keep it short for some reason. But I enjoyed seeing more of Box.
Could there be a sequel in the future? I’m not sure how I feel about that. How about you?