Spoiler alert for episode 1 and minor spoilers for the series as a whole.
The Night Of is the biggest television surprise and delight of 2016 so far for me. It came out no where, with little marketing and not much hype leading up to it. But damn, that was a good mini series and while everyone was (is) talking about Stranger Things (which I’ll get to eventually, I swear), HBO’s The Night Of slipped quietly by, racking up critical praise and a following of it’s own.
The show begins with Nazir Khan (Riz Ahmed) stealing his father’s taxi cab in order to go to a party. His friend with the car bailed on him last minute and Naz was determined to make it to this party no matter what. Unsure how the cab’s on duty light switch works, he is stopped on his journey by people assuming he is a real cabbie. He sends them all away until he meets Angela, an attractive girl with a serious interest in hard drugs and alcohol. He decides to forgo the party after she suggests they hang out. Before long, the seemingly innocent young Arab is on drugs and hooking up with Angela before passing out. He wakes up to find her murdered, stabbed multiple times in her bed. Unsure of what to do, he flies, grabbing anything that he thinks could link him to the crime, including a knife they were using to cut each other with while on drugs. Under the influence, he is pulled over for DUI and before long, the knife is eventually found. The question of course is did he do it?
The show then dives into two narrative arcs, one with Naz in a maximum security prison hell where he awaits trial, the other with his legal representation, led here by John Stone (John Turturro) and Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan). While Kapoor works for a respectable law firm, Stone is a shady lawyer who generally works for low rates and gets his clients to plead for a quick case and a quick buck. He usually deals with hookers and drug users but sees the media circus surrounding the Khan case and sees it as a way to elevate his station, despite the fact that the Khan family can’t pay the legal fees (in the upper tens of thousands possibly).
The show is a fascination examination of the American legal and prison system, showing just how quickly one can fall down the rabbit hole in maximum security. Naz is quickly mentored by former boxer Freddy Knight (Michael Kenneth Williams), the overlord of the prison crime wing. In order to keep himself alive, Naz is forced to become a drug mule in exchange for protection for those who would do him hard, cause rape and the murder of a woman is considered a breach in some sort of criminal honour system.
As the series carries on and Naz falls so naturally into this life of crime (and as the evidence piles against him despite some holes that don’t make sense to the detective), we the viewer begin to question whether or not Naz was capable of murder. His “good boy” student facade is brought into questions when it brought up he viciously attacked class members in high school for reasons I’ll leave out of this review.
Stone is the heart and soul of the show however. Just give Turturro his Emmy now. His performance as a sleazy lawyer in over his head but with the dedication none the less to do right by Khan as best he can (maybe) is the standout. He also curiously suffers from eczema throughout the season and it is constantly brought up. I have my own suspicions as to why this is in the show but that would be getting into spoiler territory and the show doesn’t make the reason clear for the viewer. Convinced that Khan is innocent, he begins his own investigation into the events of the night.
Eventually, the show introduces the courtroom to the mix, where the defense does everything in their power to help keep Khan out of prison. The back and forth between witnesses and both the defense and the prosecution are great as we feel the walls closing in around Khan as the evidence piles on top of him. Even his own lawyer’s begin to show signs of doubt when new pieces of evidence emerge from his past that he did not share with Stone and Kapoor.
The depiction of the American prison system here is the thing of nightmares. Shankings happen on the regular, no rehabilitation, crime festers and takes hold of anyone, no matter how innocent or guilty as it is the only way to survive. This does not bode well for our quiet protagonist.
On the outside, the Khan family ends up on the receiving end of xenophobia, racism and hate crimes. Many people see the Khan’s as Muslim (they’re Arab) and in a post 9/11 NYC, Islamophobia runs high and the family become easy targets for the hate. On top of this, Khan’s father’s stolen cab is considered evidence and is locked up in evidence, preventing the family from earning a living and paying for the defense.
The camera work here is also praise worthy, showing us many out of focus shots, illustrating in my opinion the uncertainty of the investigation. The grimness of the settings coupled with the lighting make the prison feel almost like the set of a horror film.
I really hope Night Of comes back in some kind of anthology format, bring in a new city and a new case but this duology of law and prison made for some of the best TV I’ve seen all year. If you haven’t, get on that. It has a few bumps and hiccups here and there, but it never detracted from the overall experience.