In the Final Analysis, 'The Night Of' Was as Problematic As It Was Brilliant
HBO’s The Night Of ended its eight-episode season last night with a perfectly unsatisfying finale that ultimately paid off on its chief theme: The American criminal system is flawed, and even in those instances where it arrives at the correct result, it often does so at the expense of the innocent (or not guilty). It doesn’t take a conviction to ruin a man’s life; an arrest, the spotlight of suspicion, and time spent in prison awaiting trial is sufficient. By the end of the series, even though Naz is set free after the jury deadlocks, he’s not only been marked for life as a criminal, but he feels like one. The relationship he once had with his family is destroyed; his community doesn’t trust him; and he’s become a crack addict. He didn’t go into prison a criminal, but he came out one, and the sad, unspoken ellipsis on The Night Of is that, if Nasir Khan doesn’t wind up dead first, he’ll probably find himself back in prison, where at least someone (Freddy) believes in him.
The Night Of arrived at the correct result, but like Naz, the series suffered in order to get there. Not only did the series, as Genevieve noted, give short shrift to its female victim in typically depressing procedural fashion, but it threw its female lead under the bus in order to build up its leading man. Chandra (Amara Karan) got railroaded by storyline, pushed into a make-out session with Naz for one reason only: To clear her out of the way so that John Stone could deliver what was admittedly one hell of a closing argument. To make matters worse — and to build up the underdog case — it was Chandra who chose to put Naz on the stand, a decision not even the greenest of lawyers would make in this situation.
Moreover, while the investigation to uncover the real killer worked to elevate Sgt. Box and highlight — in the prosector’s decision to move ahead against Khan — the cold calculations of a justice system more interesting in convictions than justice, it also came at the expense of the plot. Not only did Ray Halle come out of nowhere — the series never gave us the necessary clues to pin him for the crime — but it unnecessarily removed the ambiguity surrounding Khan’s guilt. The point in exploring the criminal justice system is not whether a defendant is guilty or not, but in how the system treats its victims regardless of guilt. It doesn’t matter how much evidence exists, the presumption of innocence is — as John Stone argued in his closing — a Constitutional right, one that the system took away from Nasir Khan the moment he was arrested. No other suspect was questioned by law enforcement, and no other lead was followed, despite the fact that John Stone was able to cast suspicion on several other characters.
Here, however, is an unpopular opinion: The criminal justice system treated Nasir Khan poorly and unfairly. Nevertheless, based only on what was presented at trial, the jury should have convicted Naz. The prosecution not only made its case, but the defense did a lousy job of rebutting it. Chandra exacerbated the problem by putting Khan on the stand, which should have been the nail in his coffin. Based on the overwhelming evidence against Naz, there was no “reasonable” doubt, and the defense shouldn’t have been able to cast suspicion on others in order to affirmatively prove its own case. Chandra was never able to prove Naz’s innocence, and by making relatively weak cases against three other suspects, she only muddied the waters. It took a Hail Mary, jury-nullifying closing argument straight out of the David E. Kelley playbook to save Khan. Six members of that jury ignored the evidence and went with their gut. Fortunately, they got it right.
However, again, if law enforcement had done its job in the first place and thoroughly investigated the case instead of rushing to judgement, Naz never would’ve been put in that position. (I might also argue that the prosecution had a duty to turn over the evidence implicating Ray Halle, but given the timing of it and the means of discovery, I’m not 100 percent certain on that point).
In the end, The Night Of was a thoroughly entertaining, thought-provoking series that featured a couple of heavyweight performances from Riz Ahmed and John Turturro that ultimately got its main point across. Unfortunately, in order to do so, it sacrificed characters, some of the lesser themes, and logic to make its case.
All the same, I would like to see the series return in some form, though next year, I could do without all the shots of gnarly feet.