[The following has spoilers for “The Night Of,” including last night’s finale. Do not read if you haven’t seen the episode.]
It is testament to the skill behind “The Night Of” that the miniseries answered its most pressing concern in the last seconds of the finale: the cat. “The Night Of” was frequently a funny drama, and its closing shot — which revealed with deliberately slow cheekiness that Stone (John Turturro) went back to the pound and re-re-adopted the cat — went for a laugh that also felt like an affirmation of hope.
It was still hard to stomach “The Call Of The Wild”’s ambiguity, even though that was the promise that “The Night Of” right from the get-go. As I wrote when I initially reviewed the series, the miniseries was a beautiful structure built over a void of nothingness — a two-hour period without memory, and the people trying to make a case for their own version of events. “The Night Of” has been a masterful snapshot of what the justice system tries to do — which is to eliminate ambiguity in favor of a particular narrative — and how much damage that pursuit can entail. There is a sense in which “The Night Of” was a 10-hour attempt to make a space for ambiguity — to cultivate doubt, no matter what you went in believing. It’s an incredible mission, all the more so for having accomplished it.
The problem is that this mission towards the gray occurred in the guise of a whodunit — a great way to draw the viewer in, but also the type of format that implies finding out, at some point, who done it. “The Night Of” leaves us with no further indication of what really happened to Andrea Cornish (Sofia Black D’Elia) or whether or not Naz (Riz Ahmed) is really innocent. It chooses ambiguity, and as a result, it sacrifices the nice sense of closure that a mystery story usually provides. The bad guy, if there is one, is just the unknown: it’s the unknown that Stone points to, when he asks the jury to extend Naz reasonable doubt; it’s the unknown that Naz invokes, when D.A. Helen Weiss (Jeannie Berlin) expertly wedges him into a rhetorical corner so he has to admit that he can’t remember what happened that night. In an imperfect world that isn’t written by a detective novelist, it’s doubt that is the real bogeyman.
As captivating as this profound expression of faith and courage in a confusing and mysterious world is, the finale exposed where “The Night Of” struggled to keep up. Chief among them is Chandra (Amara Karan)’s character, who as a courtroom lawyer was absolutely brilliant and as in-prison counsel, absolutely heinous. It was difficult to believe that Chandra could be so clear and precise in the courtroom and then unable to see reason enough to turn down Naz when he asked her to smuggle crack cocaine into prison for him. And though plausibility isn’t all that matters in a story, Chandra’s actions ultimately were less about her as a character than they were about how Naz and Freddy (Michael Kenneth Williams) could manipulate her to their advantage. She was cast as a kind of lesson, for both the audience and the characters, for what not to do as a defense lawyer.
But that leads to one of “The Night Of”’s other problems, which is that it’s not totally clear what’s so great about John “No Fee Till You’re Free” Stone. The idea that Stone’s eczema is emblematic of a more visceral struggle to accept the world he lives in — literally, thin skin — is fascinating, but not quite enough. You could argue that Stone’s worth, as evidenced in the final scene, is in believing even the craziest stories for a $250 flat rate. You could also argue that Stone’s ability to believe Naz and accept the peculiarities of the case stem from the fact that unlike Chandra, he saw the scared kid in the holding cell on the very night in question. Chandra might have been swayed by what Riker’s Island turned Naz into, but Stone saw what Naz once was. And though that’s a nice idea, the fact of the matter is that the rest of the miniseries endeavors to prove that neither version of Naz is the whole story. So aside from Turturro being the lead detective in a New York City investigation that feels like a “Law And Order” spinoff we’re desperate to see more of, Stone’s centrality to the plot is a little confusing by the time the show decides to end with him.
And that leads to one of the show’s meta-issues, which is that “The Night Of” was tuned into some political issues with careful attention and seemingly checked out of others. While the understanding of the Muslim immigrant experience, for example, was given a great deal of consideration, the show felt checked out entirely of the gender politics of another dead girl, or the racial implications of almost every suspect being a man of color. The two heroes were Turturro’s Stone and Bill Camp’s Box, with their vague and portentous monosyllabic names. They were great heroes, but it made for a setup that, from a few paces back, looked awkward.
To its credit, the mini was so specific and subtle that it managed to avoid a lot of the pitfalls that this ignorance can create for other shows, but at the end of this story, it’s difficult to know how to take some of its final touches — like Naz’s rejection of his mother, Chandra’s disappearance from the narrative (and the profession of the law), or Helen’s sudden about-face on Naz’s guilt. The show’s decision to pull back from telling us what really happened meant that it also held back from framing what was happening to the characters involved. Naz’s arc in particular is an entirely different commentary on the justice system if he’s innocent versus if he’s guilty.
This restraint is one of the great strengths of the show, even though it’s ultimately also frustrating. “The Night Of” sends us searching after details, puzzling over shifts in character and discrepancies in power dynamics. It asks us to interpret all of its facts as elements in a narrative that could go at least two different ways, and sometimes even more. It allows both the New York Post and Nancy Grace into the narrative, with their capslock and bombast. We gain and lose trust in Naz’s story, just as our respect for Stone waxes and wanes.
That is to say, it both is a story about ambiguity, and it also pushes the audience to accept the prevalence of doubt. Just like the characters, we’re running after clues for what happened; just like them, we’re asked to engage with a story that we ultimately don’t fully understand. We don’t know, and we’ll never know, and if Stone can live with that — with his eczematic feet and unfilled prescription of Viagra — then goddamn, so will you, the viewer. “The Night Of” is what it’s about, and that’s a special kind of brilliant.