The premiere of “The Night Of” was arguably 2016’s best hour of television. It so distinctly established itself as something different, I found myself amazed that:
A. HBO released it early on it’s on-demand platforms (a move reserved for shows that struggle to find an audience).
B. A bigger deal was not made of the fact it was available when it hit the internet. For all of the discussions this show is generating, it should be generating twice that amount. I’m both disappointed and ectatic that as a collective TV-mystery-sleuthing-cultural-task-force, we are yet to crack the mystery of “Who Killed Andrea Cornish?” Disappointed because the best theories out there right now either that the step-dad or a guy named after New York’s version of CVS did it, and ectatic because we have three more weeks of #PeakTV to roll around in.
This is the type of show that Golden Age of Television truthers crave: a patient, aesthetically pleasing, crime drama with the DNA of a Mount Rushmore of Modern Age Media discussion pumping through it’s veins — “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Serial,” and “True Detective.”
Since its debut episode, many viewers have argued that the slow-burn pace of the show has overshadowed the actual plot. If that is your take, you’re correct. This is not “The Night Of: Special Victim’s Unit.” If that is deterring you from sticking with the show, then you’re making the completely wrong move. Simply put: if you like TV, then this type of show is good for you. There is a reason why HBO paired this show with “Ballers” and “Vice Principals” — you have to eat all your vegetables before we roll out the ice cream.
Shows like “The Night Of” are very rare, even more so in the U.S. “The Night Of” is a limited series; there are eight episodes and that is it. While anthology series are all the rage now on cable — “Fargo,” “American Horror Story,” “True Detective” — there is an inherent sense of “we’re gonna get a few cracks at this to get it right.” Even though each season is a standalone story, they are connected thematically, and designed to share lots of similarities. Within that, the audience knows that there will be multiple attempts for these anthologies to make up for any lackluster seasons. I don’t know if anyone really loved “American Horror Story”: Hotel and I doubt it will dissuade people from watching whatever AHS: 6 winds up being.
A show like “The Night Of” doesn’t have that luxury, not that it needs it. This eight episode dissection is all we’re getting, and that is a good thing. To put this in context, the three episode stretch of Naz acclimating to prison, John Stone’s gross feet, and the back and forth between legal teams representing our protagonist, was essentially season two of “The Wire.” While maybe the crisis at the docks isn’t your favorite part of that series, it’s all connected and a necessary part of the experience. Could you imagine bailing on McNulty, Bunk, and Kima because you didn’t like Ziggy and the Sobotkas? You would have missed so much Omar!
Part Five of “The Night Of,” “The Season of the Witch,” was the clear end to the second act of the show as each of our main characters met with some serious conflict all circling around the central question we’ve largely refused to ask ourselves: Who Is Nasir Khan? Seriously… who is he? Throughout the show, we’ve assumed he’s a good guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’s the son of immigrant parents. He’s the smart kid who is doing the best with the opportunity he has earned. He’s a math whiz. Every single fiber of our TV watching being has been trained to think that this guy didn’t do it. But what if he did?
One theory I keep coming back to in every episode deconstruction is that in dealing with Naz we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator, which is defined as a first person character whose credibility has been seriously compromised. While “The Night Of” isn’t told from a first person point of view in the same was as its contemporary prestige-y dramas like The Affair or Mr. Robot (two other shows that lean almost exclusively on this narrative device), the idea that Naz doesn’t quite have a handle on what happened on October 24th, 2014 is developing into the most pivotal plot point in the story.
As highlighted in The Season of the Witch, Naz’s tox screen came back reading like a recipe for bad news: ecstasy, alcohol, ketamine, and amphetamine. When his legal team, John and Chandra, present him with this information, Naz is visibly shook. Even taking into account the incredibly stressful situation Naz finds himself in during that moment– he is trying to complete a drug hand off for Freddy– he is agitated by Stone poking holes in his “just a Kid from Queens” persona. It takes several direct accusations but Naz finally admits to using adderall– the likely source of the amphetamine in his blood.
Question: Is this the behavior of a character you can trust?
As the waiting room hand-off unfolds, John launches into a laundry list of reasons why a college kid taking adderall who is also on trial for murder is a bad thing:
“1. Without a prescription it’s illegal. 2. You weren’t up studying you were going to a party. 3. It counteracts the sedative effects of the K making your ‘I passed out story’ less believable. 4. You take enough of it, it makes you psychotic. 5. You lied to me. So I’m going to ask you, because your life depends on it: What else have lied about?”
As all of these accusations are being hurled his way, Naz is trying to time the distraction of a prison guard to the exact moment when his accomplice, Petey, will be walking by him with a hand full of eight balls that he must then dry swallow in front of his lawyer. Lots to process for both main character and audience. I had to re-watch the scene five times to catch Stone’s entire list of ‘drugs are bad’ bullet points.
The audience is being manipulated purposefully into confusion to show that Naz can’t things straight when situations get stressful, even when those stressful situations are controlled and he knows what is coming.
This point is driven home in the next scene when Naz has to deliver the product in front of Freddy and his team. After passing the three bags he swallowed, Naz insists there are four, a statement with which Petey instantly agrees. Petey’s reasons aside (stress, the knowledge that if he says there are only three the obvious implication is that he and Naz are trying to hide the fourth from Freddy, etc.), we know Naz is wrong. The audience has watched Naz swallow three eight-balls, not four. This is done to show us that no matter how stressful the situation, no matter how much danger or perceived danger he is in, Naz’s recollection of the situation is flawed. He is as unreliable a narrator as you can get.
Question: How can this character, all things considered, be counted on to remember anything and what proof do we have that we should believe him?
In trying to answer these questions, I did a little digging on Wikipedia, and I thought this example summed it perfectly:
Sometimes the narrator’s unreliability is made immediately evident. For instance, a story may open with the narrator making a plainly false or delusional claim or admitting to being severely mentally ill, or the story itself may have a frame in which the narrator appears as a character, with clues to the character’s unreliability. A more dramatic use of the device delays the revelation until near the story’s end. This twist ending forces readers to reconsider their point of view and experience of the story. In some cases the narrator’s unreliability is never fully revealed but only hinted at, leaving readers to wonder how much the narrator should be trusted and how the story should be interpreted.
So what else is Naz misremembering?
Naz’s guilt or innocence hangs in the balance of what he both remembers and is willing to admit, and after The Season of The Witch, that is not an easy thing to pin down. Consciously, Naz believes he is innocent, but unconsciously he might know something different, with his physical transformation being the biggest hint. In addition to trying mirror Freddy physically — boxing, the tight space workouts, and big dogging Treach from Naughty By Nature after deciding the TV room will be watching Ellen — Naz decides to shave his head. In any visual storytelling medium, that is a sign of transformation and it rarely carries a positive connotation.
Elsewhere in prestige cable land, a close up scene of a main character shaving his head is the manifestation of guilt. Walter White shaves his head and commits to becoming Heisenberg. He evolves from mild-mannered science teacher to Caucasian Scarface. It doesn’t happen immediately, but the ball is now rolling. On the Walking Dead, Shane — a most reluctant villain — shaves his head after literally throwing someone in front of a horde of animated flesh monsters in order to save himself. Instead of admitting to the other survivors what he did, he shaves his head and things get more evil from there. He evolution into villainy is a bit faster — from people’s champion in post-apocalyptic Atlanta to zombie.
In both cases, the change comes from the character struggling to come to grips with their specific actions. It’s the easiest way to show the audience that there is something the character is struggling with. Very literally, they have a hard time looking themselves in the mirror and opt to make a drastic change.
While Naz probably won’t become the Walter White of Rikers Island and I doubt the final twist of The Night Of is that the dead rise from their graves, there are real monsters at play here. More so than the evil step-dad, the random guy from the funeral, or the elusive Duane Reed, the evidence we have points to Naz having the most potential to evolve into the monster we’ve been hunting. He remembers more than he is letting on even if he isn’t ready to admit it.