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There’s no one to trust on The Night Of, and that’s the point

Illustration for article titled There’s no one to trust on The Night Of, and that’s the point
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“I’m not saying he’s a bad cop. On the contrary. And like all good cops, he does you over just inside the rules. That’s the talent of the oppressor, the subtle beast.”

Neither Detective Box nor Jack Stone really cares about Nasir, a point each makes about the other throughout tonight’s episode. For Box, this case represents a chance to get to the truth and see justice served, and the vast majority of evidence points toward charging Naz with the murder as the best way to achieve that. But as Stone surmises, and Box later indicates to Naz, the detective senses something isn’t quite right here, that Naz’s character just doesn’t seem to fit the profile of someone who would commit an act this brutal. On a show about some crusading, idealistic super-cop, that instinct might be enough to throw caution to the wind and hunt down the real killer by the end of the hour. In Box’s case, it’s enough to make him betray a moment’s hesitation when presenting the case to the district attorney’s office, but he’s well within his rights to point out he hasn’t slept in days. Naz’s protestations of innocence and his lack of motive are a loose end, but then real life has plenty of loose ends. At a certain point, Box is content to shrug and play the percentages. After all, a court merely has to find Naz guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, and any doubts at this point—even to us in the audience, who have witnessed things Box hasn’t—look pretty damn unreasonable.

What’s so tricky about Box, this episode’s titular “Subtle Beast,” is that Naz’s mom isn’t wrong with the line that precedes her son’s use of the descriptor: “He seems like a nice man.” Box is the most decent person we’ve met thus far in the NYPD. I was about to throw on the adverb “straightforwardly” before “decent person,” but then that’s the rub: Just how calculated is Box’s decency? Nobody outside maybe Naz’s parents is taken in by his big show of letting them visit Naz—the desk sergeant’s question of whether Box wants him to argue with him for a bit is one of the funniest, most incisive lines of the night. William Camp generally plays Box with a world-weary kind of virtue, but he modulates his performance most whenever the detective deals with Naz. He dials up the smarm for Box’s line about a mother’s prayers, and his very conscious effort to place Naz in confessional—helped along by some pointedly unsubtle camerawork and staging—reveals him at his most predatory. After a while, it’s possible to start doubting everything about him: Does he refuse to engage in the casual bigotries of his colleagues and his witnesses because it’s the right thing to do, or because a bit of strategic silence helps force more information out of people? It’s not like he’s actively telling anyone off, after all.

I used the word “predatory,” and I’m realizing The Night Of is just hell on word choice, because that implies Naz—and, by extension, the other suspects Box has investigated in previous cases—is prey. That in turn elides the actual victims who set these cases in motion in the first place. It wouldn’t take much— say, if The Night Of asked us to be as invested in the murder victim as we are in the murder suspect —for Box to be the unquestioned hero of this show. The humane, intelligent Box is the perfect person to bring a guilty party to justice, but that’s not what he does: He brings the most probably guilty party to justice. That just isn’t the same thing, at least not always. Box’s great advantage is how he can keep pointing to unpleasant but indisputable realities as though he’s a dispassionate observer. Naz has all these legal protections, yet every time he uses one of them he just makes himself look worse before that future judge and jury. Box patiently explaining to Naz how the system is stacked against him is Box consciously stacking the system against him.

Stone is the more transparently opportunistic of the two men, and there’s something to be said for that. The truth—more precisely, Naz’s version of it—is of no use or interest to him, as all it does is limit his options. Stone doesn’t defend Naz because he’s idealistically convinced of his innocence, but rather because, well, what started as a nighttime trawl for clients has become a career-making case. The Night Of presents plenty of the familiar tensions between defense lawyers and the rest of the criminal justice system, as Stone trades barbs with precinct officers and stands there while a judge offers some very politically incorrect advice to one of his other clients. But there’s that one moment of apparently genuine détente near episode’s end, as the judge asks with good-natured curiosity how Stone landed this case, then offers his congratulations for the stroke of luck. Stone’s pleased response makes clear that, all things being equal, he’s probably a more self-absorbed, less trustworthy figure than Box. By most objective metrics, Box is likely the better person. But in this instance, all that matters is whose interests align more closely with Naz’s. Stone’s desire to make his career may be less noble than Box’s wish to see justice done—a point the latter makes when explaining why he’s with Naz while Stone is downstairs bantering—but it’s the only one of the two objectives that might end with Naz’s acquittal. It’s the best bet of a bad set of options.

“Subtle Beast” generally builds on the strengths of last week’s premiere, increasing the naturalistic flourishes that represent The Night Of at its best. Stone’s obsession with his eczema is the one false note here, a would-be quirky flourish that might be building toward some kind of larger thematic point… if this felt like a show that really needed larger thematic points. Thus far, the great strength of The Night Of has been in its ability to depict the murder investigation with a verisimilitude and attention to detail not typically seen, and Stone’s eczema continues to play as an unnecessary reminder that, yep, he and everyone else are still characters on a TV show. The more effective expansion of the show’s narrow focus is in its handling of the case’s religious and racial aspects. For now, the show has been largely content just to depict casual prejudices from cops and Andrea’s stepfather, but the bail hearing suggests how Naz’s identity will take on more political dimensions, as the prosecutor and Stone go back and forth on presenting Naz as either a collection of terrorism dog whistles or a lifelong Queens resident with no prior criminal record. Precisely how The Night Of will balance its diverse elements—the focus on procedure, the more stylized flourishes, the social commentary—is the only major unanswered question as the miniseries fast rounds itself into form. There’s more than a sure enough hand here to feel confident those strands will converge nicely sooner rather than later.


Stray observations

  • Naz’s journey tonight ends with him arriving at Rikers Island, and just the trip and the initial entrance represent a much more intense show than what we’ve seen so far. The Night Of has been purposefully understated in its tension to this point, but I suspect at least the Naz plotline is about to get a hell of a lot more intense.
  • The Night Of has generally been very smart and sensitive in its depiction of Naz’s parents, who come across as kind if traditional people who are understandably overwhelmed by all that’s happening. The scene in which Naz’s mother goes through his room to find Maxim and condoms is a nicely understated moment of heartbreak—none of it means Naz is a murderer, but he’s no longer the innocent his mom might have thought him to be.