Does the whodunnit of “The Night Of” matter? (Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)
“The Night Of” is not what I thought it was going to be. After seeing the trailers for the series during the most recent season of “Game of Thrones” and doing some digging into the IMBD pages of show creators Steve Zaillian and Richard Price, I thought I had come up with a pretty decent composite sketch of what to expect: a tragic event and the solving of a mystery — pretty formulaic whodunnit procedural TV performed at the highest level because it’s not TV… It’s HBO.
Over the weeks and episodes since “The Night Of” premiered, this show has evolved into something much more than I expected, or rather revealed itself to be something more than I expected. It’s a show about a murder, but not really; we have not revisited the murder since we discovered the body. It’s a show about proving the prime suspect is guilty of a crime, but not really; we haven’t watched any character discover new evidence or piece together the chain of events that would lead us to a conclusion. It’s a show about a character persevering against unbelievable odds, but not really; Naz is morphing from the caterpillar we hope doesn’t get squished to the sinister moth from “Silence of the Lambs.”
With only two episodes left in this limited series, we may not get all the threads tied up into the bow we’ve come to expect from crime drama, and that just might be fine. We’ve known since the first episode what the show could have been; it was either going to be the Case Against Nasir Khan, the Redemption of John Stone, or the Murder of Andrea Cornish. We checked all of those boxes in first 75 minutes. What has happened since is something completely different, and in the 2016 TV landscape, that in itself is more refreshing than if somehow Detective Box cracked the case on his last day before retirement. We’re venturing beyond troupe right now and I’m fine with it. So sure — “The Night Of” both is and isn’t well-executed crime fiction drama. Ultimately there is a gift somewhere buried underneath the mountains of pretty, genre-pushing wrapping paper and the fun part of getting any type of present is in the unwrapping.
I haven’t had as much fun dissecting lead from red herring since “LOST” hit its apex in 2006. There were a lot of red herrings in “LOST” — arguably too many — and for all the sleight-of-hand TV tricks showrunners Damon Lindeloff and Carlton Cuse played on the audience, they ultimately answered the questions the audience should have been asking all along. In that way alone, “The Night Of” and “LOST” are on the same page. The answers we will get in the penultimate and super-sized final episode will be focusing their attentions solely on the question we should have been asking and why we should have been asking them.
In my first recap of this series, I posed the question, “Guaranteed all the clues we need to solve this mystery have already been shown to us. Did you see them?” The answer is, “yes, we did,” although we’re still sorting out what exactly we saw and their order of importance. In last few episodes, we’ve revisited two of the leading “suspects” and in both instances they’re produced way more smoke than fire — the quiet “friend” from the sidewalk — revealed to be the comically named Duane Reed (not the pharmacy), and the angel of death driving a hearse, Mr. Day. While both threads seem to still be dangling out there as possibilities, I think both have served their intended purposes; Duane Reed was the character we spent the least amount of time with and due to the lack of clues, seemed like he could be the missing piece to the puzzle. I’m just an amateur TV sleuth, but I am pretty sure that the reason we last saw him he was sprinting through a maze of alleys means he’s in the wind and that lead is literally not worth chasing.
Episode 5, “The Season of the Witch,” ended with John Stone chasing Duane Reed after assuring Chandra he wasn’t going to do anything stupid. Episode 6, “Samson and Delilah,” began in the same fashion with Chandra tracking down Mr. Day, whom had encountered the couple at the gas station hours before the murder took place. For what these interactions lacked in establishing actual suspects in the crime, they added new layers to the prosecution team; both John and Chandra leveled up big time — John got his first taste in a long time of what it meant to really care about a case and Chandra ventured out beyond her high-priced firms day to day activities to try and get her hands dirty. These two specific leads were explored to show the heroic journey of the underdog lawyers, which arguably is just as important to the overall story as it would be to stumble into a confession when cornering a potential suspect.
Mr. Day, on the other hand, provided a completely different advancement of the narrative which unfortunately for the legions of detectives looking to wrap this thing up before the finale, had nothing to do with the murder at the center of the limited series. This dude… is not a good dude. To paraphrase the Ringer’s Chris Ryan on his podcast “The Watch,” Chandra went to question potentially the last person to see Andrea alive and wound up confronting the Zodiac Killer. In addition to a million other creepy things that transpired between Day and Chandra, we got a pretty good view of Day’s look at humanity through his telling of — in his opinion — the only Bible verse we need to understand: Judges 16; the story of Samson and Delilah. While Day’s spewing of biblical literature about how women are put on earth to ruin men (all told while Day is painting the fingernails of a corpse), would certainly put a big red exclamation point over his head to signify that this guy is the person we should be looking at for the murder, this too is a giant, glaring red herring. He’s a big boss level creep, but he is not the psychopath we are looking for.
His bastardized retelling of Samson and Delilah is worth examining for very different reasons. In case it’s been awhile since you sat through catechism, I’ll summarize. Samson, a hero of the Israelites and the most powerful man in all the land after receiving old testament super powers from God, gets seduced by a women in league with his enemies, Delilah. By confiding in her the source of his power — his hair — she is able to tell the opposing army — the Philistines — how to defeat him. He is then bound, tortured, blinded, and defeated. Day tells this story in a way that would make his hatred of women seem like a motive for killing Andrea.
If this were “Law and Order,” Det. Benson would have had the cuffs on him already, but because it’s not 10PM on NBC (or any time day or night on basic cable — shouts to the longevity and watchability of any and all Dick Wolf productions), this story is not an admission of guilt — it’s another ghost for the audience to chase down an alley. Its placement in “The Night Of” is more about the evils of seduction and the perils of allowing oneself to be seduced, which is the what Naz is facing in prison the longer he is there.
Many of the challenges Naz has faced in Rikers to date have been out of his control — he didn’t burn his own bed, he didn’t douse himself with scalding hot baby oil, and he didn’t slice his own arm standing in line to be re-admitted into prison. These challenges are what lead Naz into his partnership with Freddy. What has happened to Naz since have been his own choices, albeit heavily influenced by those around him. Getting tattoos — “SIN” and “BAD” on his knuckles (a stylized choice of SINBAD — a middle eastern folk hero) a howling wolf on his upper arm (Naz answering the call of the wild) — getting high on his own supply, accepting a cell phone to start his own prison business, etc., are all examples of Naz allowing himself to be seduced by the spoils of prison life.
This shift in behavior for Naz is coming from somewhere, and just like John Stone’s pre-visit to Dr. Yi feet, is the manifestation of guilt. Something is eating away at him although we don’t know exactly what. You would think it would take more than a month for Naz to go from the honor roll to prison tattoos and freebasing cocaine through a Bic pen, but something inside him is pushing him along. I doubt it is the knowledge that he killed Andrea and is more likely the fear that he and those around him — his parents, his brother, his lawyers, and his city — think he is capable of such a crime.
That fear, that is as plain on his face as the ink on his knuckles, might as well be a target for his seducers. Freddy lays it out pretty easily for him by whispering in his ear, asking if he really liked his life on the outside and if he knows how to get everything he could need in his current environment. I would posit that Freddy could have been behind all of Naz’s troubles at Rikers in order to reel him into his boat. Like Samson to the Philistines, Naz is a trophy for Freddy, no different than the TV, books, news clippings, and magazine covers that he has displayed in his cell.
This is why the Samson and Delilah allegory makes sense in the greater dissection of “The Night Of.” Naz is allowing himself to be seduced by his new environment and unknowingly he’s binding himself to it for eternity. He’s blinded by what his life has become, not what he could get back if he is found innocent. This was never just a whodunnit and at this point, and I’m not sure who-actually-dunn-it is important. Answering the questions of how this affects those caught up in the riptide of this murder and what happens next is a much more compelling story to tell.