In the first episode of the HBO limited series The Night Of, 23-year-old Nasir “Nas” Khan (Riz Ahmed) and 22-year-old Andrea Cornish (Sofia Black-D’Elia) drive through Manhattan in Nas’s dad’s taxi. They end up on the banks of the East River, overlooking the blue lights of the Manhattan Bridge. “A lot of times you just do what you gotta do, or you do what everybody wants you to do,” Nas says shyly. “Tonight is different, it feels different.”
The scene calls to mind the final episode of Orange is the New Black’s fourth season, which flashes back to one memorable night in the young life of Poussey Washington (Samira Wiley). Separated from her friends, Poussey follows a bicycle-riding gang of improv performers to Brooklyn’s shores and looks out at the rosy glow of the city lights, her life on the verge of an exciting beginning. In both scenes, something terrible is about to happen — the tragedy of youth extinguished.
The Night Of opens on Nas — a Pakistani-American student who lives with his parents in Queens — dutifully taking notes on Stokes’ Theorem in a college calculus class. By the end of the episode, Nas has been charged with Andrea’s murder. Over seven episodes shot on location in and around Manhattan (HBO has cruelly withheld the eighth and final episode from the press), The Night Of toys with our perspective of Nas as the case winds its way through police precincts, lawyers’ offices, and Rikers Island, where Nas awaits trial.
If you’ve been disappointed by HBO’s dramas lately, The Night Of is a welcome glimmer of hope in a dark sea of middle-aged men scowling in sunglasses. The eight-episode limited series is an utterly gripping, workmanlike story with a focus not on the sensationalism of violent crime but its rather mundane aftermath — the process in “due process.”
Watching the series is a bit like driving behind a snowplow — it takes a little patience but the show steers you firmly in its clear, solid path. The Night Of is refreshingly no-nonsense, with very little sex and, despite the murder at its center, not a ton of violence. There’s little background music, and no voiceover narration or storytelling twists like time jumps. The first episode moves slowly and deliberately, documenting the night of Andrea’s murder from Nas’s perspective in microscopic detail — every furtive look in the rearview mirror, every chance encounter with a bystander who will later become a witness.
The series unfurls chronologically, tracing Nas’s transformation from soft-spoke nerd to hardened inmate under the wing of Rikers kingpin Freddy (Michael Kenneth Williams). At the same time, we see the devastating effect Nas’s incarceration has on his cash-strapped family and watch the prosecution and defense build their respective cases for and against Nas. While issues of race and class inevitably come up, the series isn’t teaching a lesson; it’s telling a story.
A big part of that story is simply how a murder case like this is presented to a jury. Nas’s representation, a small-time lawyer named Jack Stone (John Turturro, in a role that had initially gone to James Gandolfini before he died in 2013), explains that the police “come up with their story. We come up with ours. The jury gets to decide which they like best.” Nas says he doesn’t want to tell stories — he wants to tell the truth, that he didn’t commit the crime. “I don’t want to be stuck with the truth,” Stone replies.
In a subsequent episode, Detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp) explains why it’s important that the incident report include the fact that one of the cops vomited after he saw the crime scene. “See them?” Box says, gesturing to two black men sitting behind bars at the precinct. “Either one of them goes in front of a jury he’s done for…But Nasir Khan, he doesn’t look like them. He looks like any other college kid. So the jury’s gonna wonder, could he really stick that knife into that girl? We have to fight that.”
As the series unfolds, the viewer becomes a stand-in for that jury. Our view of Nas is constantly shifting, and The Night Of propels itself forward on the question of who exactly he is. In the beginning, Nas is drawn as a stereotypically nerdy Asian kid, tutoring the cool, tough black guys on the basketball team so they won’t flunk out. But once we see him on Rikers — and simultaneously learn more about him through the work of the defense and prosecution — that picture becomes fuzzier.
Ahmed is totally compelling as Nas, his huge, puppy-dog eyes alternately conveying fear and excitement, anger and anxiety. Co-creators/writers Richard Price and Steve Zaillian — Zaillian also directed all but the fourth episode, helmed by James Marsh — demonstrate a remarkable attention to detail. The round metal fence around Nas’s house in Queens; unfussy shots of security cameras picking up his movements in a bodega the night of the crime; a close-up of the foil-wrapped plate of food his mother brings when she first visits him in jail — these details and so many others make The Night Of a very specific, intricate story rather than a treatise on the nature of evil or the demise of the criminal justice system.
Each character is a person doing his job, not a symbol. (The two cops who pick up Nas for making an illegal left turn — which leads to his arrest for Andrea’s murder — are particularly good, conveying the sheer irritation of the job. The woman cop shuts Nas down like she’s telling off her little brother.) Nas may have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the evidence against him is undeniable. The prosecution, led by the steely-eyed Helen (Jeannie Berlin), only has to convince the jury that Nas is the kind of person who could commit such a violent crime. Despite its heavy subject matter and dark palette, the show finds humor in the soul-crushing bureaucracy of the criminal justice system (and the chronic eczema plaguing Jack Stone’s feet). The Night Of lays out each characters’ motivations frankly, from Stone’s desire to win a big case to the cops who pick up Nas and just want to finish their shift and go home.
The one character who remains a mystery seven episodes in is Andrea, the young woman found stabbed to death in her Upper West Side apartment and whose death is the catalyst for the series’ action. In this respect, Andrea is one more in a string of beautiful women on TV who exist to die. She’s a plot device, not a person, a sadly common trope.
But The Night Of doesn’t shy away from the disposability with which our society treats women, particularly women of color; when a black woman is found stabbed in Harlem, Detective Box remarks, “So where’s all the news trucks?” By tracing the prosecution’s frenzy to find dirt on Nas while simultaneously following the defense’s attempt to understand what could have happened to Andrea, the show demonstrates just how little the victim herself matters to her own murder trial. While Stone and his partner (Amara Karan) look into Andrea’s circumstances for clues as to what might have led to her death, the police and prosecution avoid the question entirely lest it ruin their already airtight case. Despite the luridly graphic crime scene photos that Helen displays to the jury, Andrea herself is largely irrelevant to the prosecution’s case. The Night Of shrewdly demonstrates how our desire for a good story can blind us to the truth.