There’s a whole lot of reasonable doubt to be found in tonight’s episode, but my goodness do you to have to wade through an ocean of bullshit to find it. The Night Of hasn’t bothered to sermonize about how the entire lives of both defendants and victims are put on trial, because simply showing it happen is more than repulsive enough to make the point. Who gives a shit if Naz sold some Adderall at a hefty markup? Who gives a shift if Andrea bought drugs off that waiter? I realize these shouldn’t exactly be treated as rhetorical questions, given drugs did play some role in their one night together. But neither sets of questions are raised as part of some coherent explanation of what happened. Rather, everything rests in the implications: Naz did it because he’s an evil drug dealer, while Andrea was mixed up in drugs, which I guess means she might have run afoul of a dealer or something. Which could have happened! But the justice system requires neither side to offer anything so specific, and indeed they aren’t incentivized to try. All the prosecution and defense are there to do is paint an overall picture of guilt or innocence—or, more accurately, non-guilt—and a whole lot of vague gesturing and insinuating is all just fine in pursuit of the chosen goal.
It’s particularly galling when Helen Weiss tries to catch out the defense’s own forensic pathologist. There’s a chumminess between the two of them, a sense this is all ultimately a game they are playing. That doesn’t mean either ignores the gravity of the situation, as both are dead serious about making their points. But the two acknowledge they have been doing this long enough to know how this all works, and with that comes once again the unstated but definite admission that it’s never about what’s actually true, but rather about who is more persuasive in claiming something to be true. Now, I’m not naïve enough to claim this is some grand revelation—I’ve been making this point throughout these reviews—but I want to give The Night Of credit for pissing me off about this all over again.
All the little details matter here. There’s the fact Weiss uses the specter of O.J. Simpson and some kind words at some stupid dinner party to cast doubt on the pathologist’s credibility, rather than actually addressing the veracity of his findings, give or take the bit about the missing knife. There’s the fact the medical examiner damn well knows there’s no way to tell how Naz got that wound, but he happily gave the State’s preferred answer at Helen’s request. Maybe worst of all is the examiner’s offhand remark when Chandra brings up his own earlier errors, that the man he wrongly put in prison might be back for some other crime. Maybe he was innocent of that specific crime, but surely he will be guilty of something eventually, right?
We’re seeing precisely that play out with Naz, and his role in Freddy’s murder of Victor represents one of the cleverest, most heartbreaking bits of business we’ve seen on The Night Of. After the inhaler is largely ignored for much of the miniseries—you’d be forgiven for thinking the trip to Rikers had somehow cured Naz of his asthma—it comes back in a big way tonight, as Chandra and Stone finally realize that Box broke the chain of evidence and gave the inhaler back to Naz. That’s enough of an excuse to call Box back to the stand, and Chandra suggests why he might have wanted to give back that inhaler, that it didn’t fit with the image he needed of Naz as a brutal, remorseless killer. She probably cedes a bit too much to Box’s apparent decency when she volunteers the possibility that this was just a subconscious motivation on his part, as it’s not difficult for him to parry such a weak charge. But the possibility is now out there, and no sooner does The Night Of connect the inhaler with Naz’s innocent appearance than it uses it as the crucial distraction in Victor’s murder, something Naz participates in without any apparent qualms. Maybe the inhaler would have exonerated him before, but now it very definitely makes him an accomplice to an all-new grisly murder.
But it’s only the text of Box and Chandra’s back and forth that informs the final scene. The subtext of Box’s testimony offers something else, and it links to a point the show has been making at least as far back as Stone called him a subtle beast. It’s implicit in Chandra’s initial, more persuasive line of questioning, in which she runs down all the suspects she and Stone turned up and asks Box why he never followed up with any of them. Box was never looking for the guy who did this, but a guy he could convict of the crime. Maybe breaking the chain of evidence and giving Naz the inhaler would have helped ease some nagging doubts about his only suspect. Maybe it was part of his larger strategy to win Naz’s trust before extracting a confession—and if that’s the case, I don’t believe for one second that Box really puts more stock in evidence than he does in a confession, considering he undermined the former in pursuit of the latter. Either way, it doesn’t matter: Box’s job on 300 or so occasions has been to clear cases, and he’s done that successfully all those times by following the path of least resistance.
The past of least resistance, it’s worth noting, doesn’t normally involve a trial, and this case never would have gotten to that point if not for Naz throwing a curveball at the last possible moment. We’ve seen enough of Box to recognize his doubts—if not necessarily of Naz’s guilt, then at least of the particularly monstrous light Weiss has sought to show him in—and “An Ordinary Death” ends with him once more looking uneasy at the end of his retirement party. If Naz had just taken that plea deal, Box would have put those doubts to rest a long time ago, but the whole point of a trial is to consider doubt, to determine whether there really is no plausible other way Andrea’s murder could have happened.
Box valued easy certainties during his investigation, and he repeatedly neglected to ask questions that could have undone those certainties. He didn’t push with an obviously shaky suspect and ask the questions that might have led him to Duane Reade. He managed to find all those eyewitnesses yet somehow missed the world’s creepiest mortician (which, my goodness, that’s saying something). And he automatically treated Andrea’s stepfather as someone to comfort, never once bothering to account for his whereabouts on the night in question—at least not as far as we’ve seen—nor doing the kind of digging that has Stone hanging around the gym all day. The way Box handled things was probably the right strategy, but it suddenly feels like there’s a real chance that the last case of his career is about to come undone. The fact that Naz’s actual guilt or innocence is pretty much irrelevant to that point underlines just why “An Ordinary Death” is such a powerful episode.
- You know, I really don’t know quite what to do with Chandra and Naz’s kiss. This feels like a touch too dramatic a touch for a show that, as I realize I’m all too fond of saying, is at its best when it sticks to more procedural, realistic territory. I’d maybe feel better if the show had contextualized how (un)common such inappropriate relationships are, but as it is it just feels like an odd note compared with everything else we’ve seen.
- I really could watch a version of this show that’s all about Naz’s parents. His mother’s slow but definite disillusionment with and abandonment of her son is brutal to see unfold but absolutely understandable. As for his father, one wonders how much of his continuing belief in his son is rooted in the sad truth that there’s really nothing else left for him to hang onto, as his life is otherwise imploding almost as badly as Naz’s is, through no fault of his own.
- I enjoyed the Law And Order shout-out. Sometimes a show has to just go ahead and acknowledge the elephant in the room.