In college, I was on the Mock Trial team. It shares similarities with a debate team, except in the format of a trial. Each year, you’re given a fictional case, with fictional witnesses. You perform cross examinations and closing arguments before judges and get scored on everything from the logic of your argument, to your auditory skills, to whether you wore the correct tie (seriously). I bring this up because it colors how I view The Night Of. I am, by no means, a lawyer – at best, Mock Trial gave me a base understanding of the law and trial processes – but after a few years of pretending to be lawyer, I’ve realized I view this show in a pragmatic way.
I haven’t been as invested in the emotional beats of the show as much as the legal ones. To be clear, the emotional beats are there. The show has hit hardest when following the destruction of the Khan family. Poorna Jagannathan’s blank stare at the throng of reporters outside her home was devastating in its simplicity. Peyman Moaddi’s bewilderment when he learns his son must withdraw from school because of the violent actions of others. Their lives have been turned upside down because of something Naz is accused of doing. But in The Night Of, just like the real world, there is no presumption of innocence, and as a result, Naz’s family has suffered as much as he has.
Despite the show setting fire to my emotions like a cot of an unwanted inmate, when the prosecutor was questioning Naz, I truly thought he would admit to the murder. Almost everyone, from his current lawyer (Crowe) to his former lawyer (Stone), told him to accept the plea deal. Even I was sitting on my couch screaming (silently) for Naz to take the deal, because that was a pragmatic deal and the best option he’ll get besides spinning the roulette wheel we call a jury trial. The prosecution can prove he was in the house of the victim, had sex with her and then ran before being caught with the murder weapon in his pocket. You don’t need to participate in Mock Trial to know that’s a nearly unwinnable case. Leicester City had better odds of winning than that.
But The Night Of has conditioned its viewers to think in practical terms. In that moment, the show doesn’t want you thinking heroically, that Naz is going to stand his moral ground and profess his innocence. Our “hero” lawyer, John Stone, just told him to take the deal and walk away with a lot of life still ahead of him. There wasn’t even a hint of heroism in that moment. The confusion on Riz Ahmed’s face as he proclaims he wasn’t the murderer demonstrates there is still room for naivety in Naz, even as we watch him grown more calloused with each passing day in prison.
Unlike everyone else in this world, Naz seems to be the only one holding onto the idea of truth. He believes he didn’t kill Andrea, which is interesting as the show has complicated this point by reminding us that he doesn’t actually know this with certainty. As Naz stated in episode 3, he would “feel” it if he killed her. But would he? He obviously still feels this way, as he followed the advice of the understated Chandra, who provided Naz with simple advice: if you didn’t commit the crime, don’t confess (Naïve advice for a recent law graduate with little experience dealing with homicides, but points for the rational words keeping with the theme of the show).
While Naz doesn’t feel like he is a murderer, The Night Of might be a miniseries about the making of one. As Naz accepted Freddie’s offer of protection at the episode’s conclusion, we can only assume there will be retaliation for Calvin, the inmate that attacked Naz with a concoction of boiling water and baby oil. The episode made it clear what happens when you cross Freddie. You might end up in a sparring match with a former boxing champion. Freddie isn’t afraid to beat you down with the whole world watching (a perfect metaphor for the American judicial system). But by going to Freddie, Naz is sanctioning violence against a fellow inmate. Justified violence, but violence nonetheless. This is a far cry from the man who claims he would “feel” if he committed the murder. Naz might not have entered the prison a murderer, but I’m afraid he may leave this ordeal as one.
I’d like to jump to the Crowe storyline, as her inclusion into this plot confused me. Her presence in the show was to separate Stone and Naz, so they could have an emotional reunion down the road. But I don’t know how well it played for me because I still feel they depicted Crowe as too competent a lawyer compared to Stone, and worse, they ultimately give Naz the same advice, take the deal. I wonder if the suspense with the plea deal would have been greater if Stone was still his lawyer, and Naz rejected it against Stone’s advice. The friction in their relationship may have been a more interesting a story than Stone’s reclamation.
Even while Stone was away, The Night Of didn’t waste his time wallowing in defeat. Allowing Stone to act as an amateur detective worked to rehabilitate his image with the audience and demonstrate that he is, in fact, a competent lawyer, if not as sleazy as expected (illegally buying and selling medical documents, soliciting a former client/prostitute), but this is what makes the character so compelling. He’s the type of sleazy lawyer archetype that an audience is familiar with, but in a unique way. The writers’ insistence on putting eczema at the forefront of his character development at times can distract from the larger plot but is an interesting way of making Stone appear as grotesque externally as he’s viewed internally. When the show allows us to see Stone’s moral consequence, however, he does truly care about others and doing right, even if it’s covered under John Turturro’s masterfully gruff New York exterior.
The Night Of is now halfway through, and we’ve still seen relatively little movement toward a trial. We may get a single episode devoted to Naz’s day in court, something my Mock Trial mind would certainly enjoy. But for now, The Night Of isn’t defining itself by any single aspect of the world it’s depicting. It is a show about lawyers and detectives, the innocent and guilty, and above all, a world in which we live where being clinical and practical sometimes trumps emotion.