Spoiler alert: Do not read unless you’ve watched the finale of “The Night Of.”
At last we know who did it. (Or do we?) “The Night Of” finale ended with a jury hopelessly deadlocked, and Naz at last returned to his family. But nothing — and no one — would ever be the same again, as all those touched by the case were irrevocably impacted by it, as writer/director Steve Zaillian told Variety ahead of the premiere. “It was important to me that whatever happened, it was just going to change all of these characters in some way,” he said. (Perhaps the only character who got a happy ending was the cat.)
Riz Ahmed, who played Nazir Khan, the college student-turned-accused murderer at the center of the case, said the 8-months-long shoot was one of the most challenging he’s ever done. Not only was it an intensely emotional process, but Ahmed also underwent a tremendous physical transformation, piling muscles onto his once-skinny frame.
But the biggest question was of course Naz’s guilt or innocence, which lingered throughout the eight-episode limited series.
Here, Ahmed tells Variety his opinion on the climactic finale, the controversial kiss, and why he doesn’t want a second season.
What did you think of the finale?
I found it really quite moving and devastating and dramatically. I found it a satisfying conclusion — and a testament to the incredible writers.
When did you find out the resolution to the whodunnit? Did you read it episode by episode?
I read the whole thing as a part of the process. That was helpful to get a sense of the arc of the character and the piece as a whole. All the scripts were written before we filmed.
Naz ultimately confesses on the stand that he didn’t think he did it. Do you think he did it?
I don’t want to comment on that too much. Because I certainly feel that the series gives a strong indication. I’ll leave it to people to interpret it for themselves. It may be telling in and of itself in that I’ve seen the whole series and I think there’s a strong indication to guilt or innocence, and if someone else feels that it’s ambiguous, that’s really interesting. That means the series and the characters have made enough of an impression that led people to think that way. It’s a good sign.
Steve Zaillian said he wanted the characters to be changed by the series’ events. Certainly Naz was impacted the most, wouldn’t you say?
Naz has changed the most. The circumstances he found himself in the beginning of the series and in the end are wildly different. The person he is and the person he dreamed of being have drastically changed. That old version of Naz is no longer with us.
One of the themes of the show is in the wrong circumstances, people are capable of anything. And the idea that Naz has gone through a complete transformation resonates with me personally as much as we all have certain characteristics within us that in the wrong circumstances that could come to the fore. So we see that with Naz.
One of the most talked about plot points was the kiss with Naz’s lawyer, Chandra (Amara Karan), and her decision to not only smuggle drugs for him but then put him on the stand. Was that naivete on her part? Inexperience?
I think both of them are naïve in the situation. They’re both going through one of the most grueling, challenging experiences of their lives. And they have a personal connection. In the same way when you go through war people can have an unexpected bond, the same thing happens with them. I think particularly with Naz becoming increasingly tough, he finds looking in Chandra’s eyes becomes important to him. There is a micro situation of control. He can make a move in that situation. I’ve been speaking to defense lawyers at the Innocence Project, and they told me it’s really common for people in prison to form a romantic attachment to the women who are representing them, their lawyers, their case workers. It’s really quite common to have that kind of attachment.
But certainly the lawyers should be a bit smarter to avoid being manipulated?
It’s hard to judge. She’s completely inexperienced. She’s never headed up a trial before. She was brought in as a prop. She wants to capture some kind of friendship and comfort in these dark times. It’s just an extreme set of circumstances in these dark times. And to be fair, it’s not something that she initiates. It’s Naz who initiates it.
Although Naz ends up back home with his family, he’s entirely removed from them.
That came up in my research, too. Inevitably people stop visiting their families in prison too. It’s too painful for everyone involved. Often prisoners will ask their families to not come and visit them anymore because they have to keep a certain distance and tunnel vision and focus on survival. Seeing families can allow a certain softness that’s not helpful to surviving in prison. It’s too painful. It’s something that’s very realistic.
In a way, he formed his own family in prison with Freddy, played by Michael Kenneth Williams. What did you learn from working with him?
I loved it. He’s been at the center at some of the greatest television in the golden age of television. It feels strange to me in a way that he isn’t more celebrated in our creative culture. The work he’s done puts him in that place. He’s someone who’s so experienced. He works on a very fresh and distinctive plane. It’s great to see contrasted with John Turturro’s approach which is sometimes a bit more technical. He’s a very generous guy. He’s very humble and very giving. He never made me feel like the new kid.
Although Stone suspected Box, it was Freddy who smuggled the tape of the kiss, ultimately freeing Naz. Yet he couldn’t bring himself to say goodbye.
It’s that thing. He wants be near Naz because he wants to be close to that innocence. Freddy’s not a bad guy. No one in the show is a good or bad guy. As much as Freddy wants Naz around intellectually he realizes he has to help out as much as he can. It’s an interesting dynamic between the two of them. How that relationship evolved by the end, as Naz has almost learned the ropes. Going from being terrified to being his right hand.
What did you learn from working with John Turturro?
So much. He’s an incredible guy and a good friend. He taught me how to trust myself as an actor and to embrace the fighting spirit of a working class children of immigrants rather than having to feel I have to censor it for people.
What do you think the message of the series was?
I don’t think it had any explicit message, and certainly the writers didn’t set out to preach to the audience. It’s just meant to be a really authentic and detailed look at these characters and this case. And by being realistic and nuanced, I think a lot of themes that are resonant today in society also come to the fore in the show. It’s just a really unflinching look at things as they are, unfiltered.
What do you want people to take away from the series?
I want these characters that you don’t normally see front and center in our stories to be humanized and more relatable to audiences. And if they feel that they need to get involved to help rectify some of the glitches in our criminal justice system, that’s a bonus.
Naz’s life has been irrevocably changed by the events of the night. How much personal responsibility does he have for what happened, and how much can be blamed on society at large?
I think on some level none of us get to shape our lives as much as we think. Circumstance and society shapes so much.
How has this role changed your career?
I guess it has introduced me to an American audience in a way I have never been before. More important than how it changes my career though is how this project or any other project can help incrementally reshape our culture to be more inclusive and empathic. Stories are built on empathy and a good story builds empathy in the audience in a way that stays with them. My hope is that this project opens to door to some other projects that don’t fit the traditional mound in terms of casting or their focus.
Do you think there should be a second season?
No, I don’t think so. Sometimes it’s better to let it live as a piece.
And I’ve got to ask about the cat. What role do you think the cat played in everything that happened?
I think the cat did it.