Naz and John Stone on the finale of the show of the summer. (Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)
That’s how you do it.
That’s how you end a TV show.
I don’t know how many people watched “The Night Of” in real time, but it is a fraction of how many people will catch up on this show in the age of Streaming Entertainment.
Like its ancestors, “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” “The Night Of” is destined to be remembered as a complete piece of work — everything matters and everything is connected. Unlike its ancestors, it only got eight episodes to reach a satisfying conclusion. I would argue that any more time spent on this story would have lead to a split decision in its battle for a place in the modern television pantheon instead of the devastating knockout it delivered in the finale.
Over the last few years, the most popular show on television has been AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” and that’s not surprising because it is about zombies. Like the undead flesh monsters that haunt post-Apocalyptic Atlanta in “The Walking Dead,” we as TV watchers are stomping around the vast entertainment landscape scrounging for anything we can find and consuming as much of it as possible before we move on to the next feeding.
In that stomp-stomp-feed-stomp-stomp-feed approach to consuming content, we walked right into the trap Steve Zaillian, Richard Price, their brilliant cast and HBO set for us; they zigged when we assumed they’d be zagging and we tumbled right over a cliff while chasing the honking car of troupey cop drama television. The red herrings never stopped jumping and seemed to have sprouted wings during the finale.
Try counting how many times you thought to yourself, “Well, this is what gets the jury to vote Naz guilty, and then he is going to die in prison.” I clocked in at ninety-two — one for each minute until the greatest moment of the series. I won’t recount all of them, but here were the highlights:
RED HERRING #1: The Usual Suspects. In court, we got to see Trevor, Duane Reed, Mr. Day, and Don Taylor all take the witness stand to get grilled by the defense. While each was presented as a viable alternative to Naz being the person who killed Andrea, ultimately all were let go.
GUT REACTION: With no viable options, Naz is the only person who could be found guilty.
RED HERRING #2: What Are You Doing, Chandra?! The last time I audibly shouted “OH MY GOD” at the TV, Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson’s pass in Super Bowl XLIX. Chandra went from prosecuting attorney to drug mule in no time flat. I’ve been watching, analyzing, and discussing TV for a LONG time… I did not see a lawyer smuggling a bag of opiates to her client coming.
GUT REACTION: Obviously they both get caught, the prosecution finds out, Naz is found guilty, and Chandra goes to jail. Everyone loses.
RED HERRING #3: Naz gets put on the stand. After abstaining from cross-examining all of the defense’s suspects, D.A. Weiss winds up a balled fist and knocks Naz into the middle of next week. This scene was the prestige courtroom drama version of Ivan Drago beating Apollo Creed to death in front of Rocky with John Stone play the Duke role screaming, “THROW THE DAMN TOWEL!” This was Johnny Lawrence sweeping the leg of Daniel LaRusso. She put him in a bodybag. She boxed him into a corner where he doubted his own innocence in front of the jury.
GUT REACTION: She got Naz to doubt himself, so obviously he’s going to jail for life where he will receive many more neck tattoos.
RED HERRING #4: Naz looks like he’s going to get got. Back at Rikers, the prison guard on watch gets his hands on some surveillance camera footage and shows it to Freddy. Obviously, this is the footage of Chandra delivering the package of opiates to Naz, which he has obviously hidden from Freddy, and he is obviously going to heat up that razor blade and take Naz out before the verdict is rendered, not unlike he did to Victor in the previous episode. Freddy has already shown the audience what he does to people who step out of line in his organization. Even for his protege, the swift hands of The King of Queens are going to wrap around his neck because Naz stepped out of line.
GUT REACTION: Guilty or innocent, Naz doesn’t make it out of Rikers alive.
Luckily, “The Night Of” is a much different show than any other crime/courtroom drama in which any of these resolutions would have sufficed. I expected all of these things to happen because this is what we have seen before in every other TV show. This was the zig for which we content zombies were secretly clamoring. What we got was something so much better.
GIFT #1: John Stone gets his one moment in the sun. John Turturro, in what needs to be an Emmy nominated performance, steps up to the plate and BLASTS a home run of a closing argument.
GUT REACTION: This might be good enough to get Naz acquitted, but not necessarily prove his innocence to the viewer.
GIFT #2. Box Comes Through Like We Knew He Would. Det. Box, after weeks of questioning the facts, unearths a suspect we mentioned (previously he was mentioned as “guy-at-funeral”) but didn’t focus on, Ray Halle. I could watch a sequel series of Box following leads, Weiss attacking in the courtroom, and Dr. Katz collecting and explaining forensic evidence forever.
GUT REACTION: We might actually get justice in the last 20 minutes.
GIFT #3: The Cat Theory Conclusion. I called it in my first recap, I mentioned it every week since, and I shouted it at my television in real time: THE CAT MEANS EVERYTHING As if the ASPCA commercial on the TV in Stone’s apartment wasn’t enough to tug at our heartstrings, we learned that he saved the cat after all. Throughout the series, the connective tissue from theory to theory has been that the cat represents the truth and how close Stone has been to it all along. John Stone, for all the setbacks that have befallen him over the run of this limited series, is a character with a rich backstory worth exploring. He wasn’t always a psoriasis-riddled, quixotic attorney scrapping his way to $60k a year on plea deals. At one point, he wanted to become a lawyer because he believed people need defending. His unwavering belief in the legal system, despite the wheels of justice having ground him into a fine powder over the years, was the gas in the tank of this show. Pursuing the truth is dirty work and we see him doing all of it in both episodic and metaphorical instances — from scrounging up business at 4 a.m. in police stations to chasing suspects down alleys to emptying litter boxes, etc. The pursuit of justice has done nothing but hurt this guy but he knows it is worth it and even if it is going to make him uncomfortable. I’m now almost positive his surname is Stone, because, like the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus, he is going to push a boulder of the responsibility of truth and justice up a hill every day for eternity.
GUT REACTION: I was right on the money from day one.
Unlike the true beauty of a show like “The Night Of,” these are exactly what they are labeled as being: red herrings and gut reactions. They are the troupes and obvious turns that we can expect from a TV show. Even after marveling at what the show did and didn’t do, I was still looking for reasons to point at and detract. Zaillian and Price too met this head on. Even in introducing, explaining, and zeroing in on the real killer in the final episode — a move I promised myself I would hate if they did — fits perfectly. It answers the question I’ve been asking throughout the entire series: Is this a show about who killed Andrea Cornish or is this a show about what happens in the wake of a tragedy? “The Night Of” is most certainly the latter and by showing that life — while not pretty, resolved, or free from strife — will continue. The ripple effects of what happened on October 24th will reverberate in the lives of everyone involved. I’m not sure we’d get the same result if this show were simply about a murder, even if it were filmed as exquisitely or presented on premium cable.
It took one night — three hours, really — for unthinkable events to take place. It took roughly eight weeks for Naz’s life to unravel. It took insurmountable adversity for the true nature of each character to reveal itself. Therein lies what the show really was; “The Night Of” was much more than a summer TV show — it was a promising glimpse of what TV could be.