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On The Night Of, demanding respect is the ultimate act of self-destruction

Illustration for article titled On iThe Night Of/i, demanding respect is the ultimate act of self-destruction
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What makes Naz’s explanation at the plea hearing remarkable is just how straightforward it is. Naz doesn’t tell us in the audience anything we didn’t already see in the first episode—short of including that creepy hearse-driving dude at the gas station, he leaves pretty much nothing out—but this is the first damn time, four episodes in, that anyone has let him tell his story from start to finish. And it’s not as though he disobeys the district attorney’s instructions: She asks him to tell the truth of what happened that night, and that’s exactly what he does. How on earth did it take so long to get to this point? Jack Stone never let him get a word in edgewise, the better to keep his options flexible in constructing defenses. Alison Crowe never cared enough to treat Naz like a person, let alone ask him anything, as Naz was entirely incidental to her defense of him. Detective Box came the closest, but he was already shaping Naz’s narrative as he spoke, asking leading questions and maneuvering Naz into what he had already concluded was the right confession.

In fairness to Box, it’s not as though Naz was in a fit state to explain himself then as he does now, but even so: Naz dispassionately laying out some first-episode exposition feels like a game-changing revelation four episodes later, all because nobody ever saw any need to ask him what happened and then let him actually finish his answer to that question. As for why he does it, despite both Allison and—far more importantly—Jack practically demanding he take the deal, that’s a little trickier. On first pass, it’s simple enough: Naz internalized the lesson that respect is the only thing that matters when you’re behind bars, and so he did the one thing at the plea hearing that would let him salvage his respect. That’s basically just what Chandra counselled him to do, after all. But that feels incomplete, and not just for the obvious reason that we’ll get to in a moment. Naz’s demeanor in the plea hearing isn’t necessarily of a man standing tall and asserting his dignity. It’s more that of someone who has already been accused, intimidated, attacked, and generally dehumanized. He may be past the point of recovering his respect. He may be at the point of looking to pick a fight just to act out, just to prove he’s still there. He’s not hit the weight near enough yet to take on any of his fellow Rikers Island inmates, so the State of New York will have to do.


His blithe dismissal of Alison after the disastrous plea hearing lends some weight to that interpretation. She probably has already quit before she goes to castigate Naz, but he robs her of moment’s superiority. She’s there to assert one last time that she and she alone can successfully navigate the legal system on his behalf—which is probably true, as Naz just did something deeply idiotic, but people treated like children do have a nasty habit of doing childish things. If nothing else, at least we now know her angle. Alison sold the Khans on her as their savior, exploiting Chandra’s heritage to seal the deal. She spoke last week as though she were going to do everything in her power to get Naz exonerated, but this was never her play. She figured some savvy media gamesmanship would help twist New York toward the most favorable plea deal, and that—and only that—was what she was after. She never represented Naz, because that would imply even the slightest interest in what he wants. Naz forces her to live up to the true spirit of her lofty promises, and she immediately bails once that happens.

Not that she’s wrong to! Given what we’ve already discussed is the ludicrously incriminating position Naz finds himself in, there’s really no plausible path toward an acquittal. Even Jack Stone—who in his own cynical, opportunistic way still feels like the best advocate Naz has got—was never working toward anything other than a plea deal. Alison’s fault lies not in what she offered Naz, which rationally was by far the best deal he’s likely to get, but rather in how she offered it. Stone, Chandra, and, in his way, Box took the time to build a relationship with Naz, which at least gave them a shot at reaching him. They offered him at least the visage of respect, and he listened, at least for a little while. Alison wasn’t the first to instrumentalize Naz to her own ends—in her case, some juicy publicity and maybe a vague but legitimate sense of satisfaction for “doing the right thing”—but she was by far the least artful in her approach, and that cost her. Cost Naz a hell of a lot more, admittedly, but that hearing was a fiasco for all concerned.

I’ve been leaving Rikers mostly out of this conversation, which is a definite oversight. After all, part of the reason—maybe not the reason, but certainly part of his overall thinking—he rejects the deal is because his latest friend on the inside tells him not to. His fellow inmate shares his tragic tale of his murdered niece, her technically exonerated boyfriend, and the busboy he accidentally killed in a play for revenge. The Night Of does some nicely subtle work in wrong-footing the audience. There’s something off about Naz’s newest ally, a sense that becomes clearest when we learn the picture he carries of his niece is actually of her corpse, and there’s something a little too perfect about his advice. But the show keeps all this at a low enough boil—no pun intended, but I’m committed now, dammit!—that it proves both shocking and unsurprising when he attacks Naz as a proxy for the man he truly wants to kill. “The Art Of War” lets Naz engage in one last episode’s foolish fantasy that he can survive in Rikers without becoming beholden to anyone. As his final encounter with Freddy indicates, he now recognizes what he must be prepared to do to survive: in short, practically anything.

“The Art Of War” feels of a kind with the previous three episodes of The Night Of. Its depiction of the criminal justice system tends to be at its best when it goes for a kind of procedural naturalism. The mere fact the show has time to let the plea hearing play out in full gives The Night Of the opportunity to underplay Naz’s unexpected candor, letting it dawn on the audience gradually that he really isn’t going to confess to anything. As far as realism goes, I can’t claim the knowledge necessary to say that’s what the show is going for or what it’s achieving once it gets inside Rikers, but suffice it to say those sections work well on their own terms. Michael K. Williams is charismatic enough to make Freddy’s near-omnipotence just about work, and Riz Ahmed effectively captures the gradual hardening of Nasir. I suppose I’m still waiting for that sign The Night Of is ready to shift into a higher gear than what we’ve already seen, but it’s not as though the show hasn’t already been great on its own confident terms. I’m just curious to see now what the show can do to make a play at transcending the formula it’s established for itself.


Stray observations

  • I’ve already made clear my issues with that Jack Stone subplot, so I’ll just say this more generally: Jack Stone is plenty compelling when he’s doing something actually linked to the case itself. His investigating the victim’s stints in rehab is just the right kind of sleazy, as is his justification (and inflated price) to Chandra. I’m not going to say his sex scene with a bored prostitute doesn’t tell us something about Stone’s character, but I’m unclear why we should care to know that about Stone when we’re not getting similar insight into, say, Box. This is a relatively minor issue, as these things go, but it’s here you see how this was once conceived as a James Gandolfini star vehicle, and he sure wasn’t going to play Naz.
  • There’s no moment more heartbreaking than the shot of Naz’s mother on the sofa, utterly unable to face the hell her world has become. The slow disintegration of her other son’s life is also a poignant detail.

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