“The Truth Doesn’t Help You”

a review of HBO’s The Night Of

There is a moment in the first episode of the HBO miniseries The Night Of when detective Dennis Box drives up to the crime scene in the dead of night. An accused murderer is waiting anxiously in the back of a squad car and a worried neighbor in a robe is sitting outside the victim’s front stoop. One of the police officers, having just emerged from the scene of the gruesome stabbing, is trying not to gag because “this is a nice neighborhood.” In the midst of all this horror, Detective Box drives up playing opera at top-volume in his car.

It is this kind of quirky detail that permeates each scene of The Night Of. Although the story revolves around a crime, critics have called it an “anti-procedural,” a series more akin to the in-depth analysis of Serial than the one-crime-per-episode formula of shows like Law and Order. Writers Richard Price and Steven Zaillian, the latter best known for penning the script for Schindler’s List, reveal the details of the crime into the first episode. The remaining seven episodes analyze the night in question and all of the characters involved.

The first episode also introduces us to Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed), a studious business major with a soft voice and large, innocent brown eyes. He is a shy kid with seemingly little exposure to wild college parties or girls. Characters later in the series sometimes refer to him as the “golden boy.” Yet by the end of a rare night of partying, drugs, and sex with a stranger named Andrea, he wakes up to find his new lover stabbed to death in her bed. The next forty-odd minutes unfold in agonizing suspense: Naz is arrested, interrogated by Detective Box, and accused in what Box calls “the most open-and-shut case I’ve had in a long time.”

Islamophobia, a problem rarely portrayed on television, is an important part of the series’ backstory. Naz’s parents are Pakistani immigrants, and incidents of casual racism pepper the storyline. Before the murder, a passing man taunts Naz, “Did you leave your bombs at home, Mustafa?” Meanwhile, the media sensationalizes Naz’s religion, and hate crimes against Pakistani cab drivers skyrocket. But as reviewer Lorraine Ali wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “While Islamophobia plays a role here, it’s the individual thoughts and actions of Khan, his family and his Jackson Heights neighborhood that make the characters rather than the social commentary central to the show’s success.”

Indeed, as much as I could write about the “social commentary” of the series, it’s really the complexity of the individual characters and their strange quirks that drew me into the story.

Riz Ahmed, a rising star popular for his roles in Nightcrawler (2014) and Jason Bourne (2016), is mesmerizing as Nasir Khan. He conveys most of his emotion through his eyes, quietly watching and dreading events as they unfold, and it is fascinating to watch him transform from a shy college kid to a hardened prisoner on Rikers Island.

Khan’s father and mother (Peyman Moaadi and Poorna Jagannathan) have comparatively little screen time, but deliver impressive performances as parents stretched thin by money and stress. Bill Camp plays Detective Box, an ambiguous character who spends much of his time trying to solve the case while his colleagues shoot the breeze or try to leave work early.

It is Stone (John Turturro) who leaves the most lasting impression in this series as Naz’s lawyer, a man who typically represents petty criminals and plasters the city with cheesy ads that promise, “No Fee Till You’re Free!” Stone has a thick old-timey New York accent that, as the actor has said in interviews, probably doesn’t exist anymore, and he suffers from almost dramatically horrible eczema all over his feet that he frequently scratches in public with a chopstick.

Although many of the characters’ personal details are unrelated to the actual murder, they help create a believable world that does not revolve solely around a plot point. The best example is Stone’s eczema, to which the series devotes ample screen time. We see Stone scratch his feet in agony, visit doctors who prescribe medicines that never seem to work, and attend a support group for men with chronic skin conditions. This backstory provides comic relief, but it also heightens the drama of a climactic scene and reminds us that all the characters have their own lives independent of the murder trial. The series operates more like a sprawling novel than a formulaic TV show.

The night of the murder itself contains its own strange details: eerie images that recur in Naz’s flashbacks. These images are compelling not because they’re symbols for some grand theme, but because they create a visual experience for the viewer akin to the experience Naz may have had on the night of the murder. Our memories usually recall disjointed images from important events, not perfect film reels that replay the action in real time. Similarly, Naz’s flashbacks jump from the bloodied knife on the dimly-lit table in Andrea’s apartment, to the deer head by the staircase with its glassy eyes, to the city lights reflected off the river.

I will be re-watching The Night Of in the future. I know how the trial ends now, and without revealing the ending I can say that it has left me with an enduring feeling of sadness, relief, and even love for the characters with whom I spent so much time. The series is so complex that I know I will gain further insights on repeated viewings, through the subtle expressions of characters and the small details that humanize them.