“What happened” is the tagline for HBO’s The Night Of — a rather ironic one in light of Sunday’s series finale, which ended on a resolutely ambiguous note.
[Spoilers ahead!] A deadlocked jury results in a mistrial, meaning suspect Naz is free but not clear. And so as the credits roll, those hazy hours in between Naz and Andrea having sex and Naz waking up in the kitchen downstairs — the hours during which Andrea was brutally stabbed — remain unaccounted for. But we do get some closure. Andrea’s killer is most likely Raymond Halle, an ex-boyfriend with a violent past who also happens to be Andrea’s late mother’s financial advisor. The series doesn’t end with his conviction, though — just D.A. Weiss and Detective Box’s pact to go after him. When it comes to the brutal stabbing murder of an innocent 22-year-old woman, we’re left with a lot of uncertainty, except for the fate of one feline character. Yes, rest assured, loyal viewers: The cat is fine.
Throughout eight riveting episodes, The Night Of committed the common TV crime of largely ignoring the beautiful young dead woman at its center. Andrea Cornish wasn’t totally dead on arrival; we met her, alive if not well, in the show’s first episode, when the plot necessitated that Andrea be a mystery. Why does this young woman live alone in a multi-million-dollar Upper West Side brownstone? What is she apparently running away from? Why all the drugs? What’s the deal with that knife play? And of course, the big one: Who killed her?
By the last episode, we have the answers to these questions, for the most part: Her wealthy mother left her the house when she died, and after Sgt. Box found security footage of Andrea arguing with a man whom he recognized from a previous investigation, it appeared the man — Raymond Halle — was the culprit, not Naz. But while our perception of Naz rotates throughout the series, Andrea remains a mystery right to the end — a beautiful enigma, TV’s favorite victim.
By the end of the finale, everything is changed, and everything’s the same. Naz is back with his parents in Queens, but his prison tat and crack addiction — not to mention the cloud of suspicion that follows him wherever he goes — have left him with permanent scars. His lawyer, Stone, is back to defending low-level criminals for a $250 flat fee while furiously trying to find a cure for his eczema. And yet we’ve seen some growth. Stone’s adoption of Andrea’s cat, slyly revealed in the finale’s last shot, indicates a renewed sense of dedication to his pitiful clientele.
Throughout The Night Of, the cat served as an indicator of Stone’s attitude toward Naz’s case in particular and the efficacy of the justice system in general. He first picked up the cat at the crime scene and, allergic, took him to a shelter, watching as an employee carried the cat into the dark recesses of the shelter where viciously barking dogs await. It’s the same episode — titled “A Dark Crate” — in which Naz enters Rikers for the first time (get it?). As Stone and Chandra explore alternate suspects, Stone rescues the cat from the shelter (and its inevitable death), keeping him in a locked room and, like a prisoner, only opening the door to give him food. One morning Stone wakes up to find the cat has insinuated himself into his bed.
In the finale, as Chandra’s decision to put Naz on the witness stand backfires and his client’s conviction looks ever-more likely, Stone takes the cat back to the shelter one last time. That’s the last we see of the feline until the final scene, when Stone gets a call from a potential new client and leaves his apartment to meet him or her. The camera lingers after he’s closed the front door, and the series’ parting shot is of the cat stalking across the frame — the closest thing to closure the finale provides.
I get why The Night Of didn’t end with Andrea’s killer in cuffs. Instead of a neat conclusion, we’re left with the promise that Stone, Box and Weiss will keep grinding away, slowly turning the wheel of justice that spins on and on in perpetuity, spitting out convictions and hopefully not putting innocent men behind bars in the process.
Of course I cheered when the cat popped up in that final frame; I’m not a monster. But the ending confirmed something I had come to suspect throughout the series: The cat worked as an emotional stand-in for Andrea, a vessel to contain the viewer’s sympathies and reassure us that despite the dysfunction of “the system,” someone’s looking out for the poor innocent souls who otherwise would be left to languish in a dark crate.
Good TV is satisfying; the justice system is not. The cat slinking across Stone’s apartment in the last shot of The Night Of allows the show to make its point about the revolving door of criminal justice while giving us some semblance of satisfaction; not justice for Andrea exactly, but justice for the viewer who’s followed this series all summer and wants a definitive answer — plus absolution for the guilt of inevitably losing track of the victim herself in the midst of all the prison hits and smuggled crack and shady suspects and poor, poor Nasir Khan. The cat’s ok! Whew! Time for bed.