Law is Hell
Obvious Editor’s Note: SPOILERS AHEAD
Entering the finale, The Night Of was either the tale of an innocent man broken by a broken system, or that of a guilty man whose impropriety was slowly revealed to himself and those around him. I began the final episode of the miniseries unsure which I was watching. I didn’t want to believe Naz was guilty. Neither did the show. That’s why we met a quiet, reserved young man in the premier, one anxious to attend a party with a crowd he obviously yearned to be a part of. But slowly we learned about Naz’s seedier past. We learned he sold drugs. He assaulted two classmates. We saw he had the propensity to seek violent retribution again a fellow inmate and aided Freddie’s murder.
All of which is to say, at the climax of the finale when the jury returns to the courtroom, deadlocked, it may have been the only fitting ending to a courtroom drama that was as complex as the concoction of drugs Stone filled his body with the night before his closing argument. Stone said earlier in the series the defense only needed one juror to agree with their argument. In the end, they found six. For a show steeped in realism, the idea that an average collection of people would be split over this verdict rang true.
There’s plenty of reasonable doubt to go around, for the audience as well as the fictional jury. The show positioned its audience in the jury box, never giving us more than they would learn in court. We learned of Naz’s second assault along with Chandra. We never learned more about Duane Reed or any other suspect than what was admissible in court. Including Naz, the jury learned of four possible killers with opportunity, motive, and a history of violence. That doesn’t include Andrea’s financial advisor, who is about to receive the wrath of the district attorney. Simply put, no one really knows what happened that night, including Naz, who admitted as much on the stand.
This ambiguity is the show’s strongest statement on the criminal justice system. We want answers, especially when it comes to trials, and especially when it comes to the murder of an innocent girl. The props department expertly crafted posters with pictures of Andrea ripped from a Facebook profile to lend the air of a true victim. There were those little touches that made you sympathetic for her, that there are so many people with motive to kill her, when her only flaw was a drug addiction. In real life, people want justice for that person. We want answers. But The Night Of was never about seeking answers, so it’s no surprise we didn’t get any.
In this pursuit of ambiguity, the show demonstrates there is no certainty in court. There is rarely obvious guilt, and it’s troubling a man could be dragged through so much grime before he could be released an innocent man. I’ve said from the beginning this show was more focused on the repercussions of Naz’s indictment than his innocence or guilt, and the show held true to that theme. Looking back now, the ambiguity in the finale makes his descent into the depraved depths of the justice system all the more maddening. It’s easy to fervently bang on a table about a system that incarcerated a man that didn’t commit a crime. It’s easier to swallow watching the process if Naz was guilty. But when you truly don’t know, the series shows there are no easy answers in this system. What should have been done differently? When a mountain of evidence erects itself behind a suspect, as it did with Naz, what is to be done differently?
While this show shines a critical eye of New York’s legal system, with themes that can be extrapolated to wider problems, The Night Of wasn’t about critiquing the courts or offering solutions, but simply asking its audience to stop fetishizing the legal process. After that final shot of Stone’s apartment faded to black, it was clear none of these characters were left better by this experience. In fact, most are certainly worse. The district attorney prosecutes a man she isn’t convinced committed the crime. The well-intentioned detective discovers the presumed culprit too late. A young attorney destroyed her career. The righteous attorney is covered is rashes and scabs. And a man who entered the process innocent leaves with blood on his hands and a drug habit to go with it.
When this show first began, I wrote that is belonged to the true crime drama that has made a cultural renaissance over the last few years. It still possesses similar tones and tropes as shows like Making a Murder, Serial, and even True Detective. But this ending serves as a middle finger to the modern true-crime genre. In a day and age when the lawyers from Making a Murder are celebrated as heroes, Stone leaves us a leper, seemingly excommunicated from society. His son won’t answer his calls or even acknowledge him on the playground. There is nothing to aspire to in Stone’s story. Naz is even worse off. He’s exposed to his family and the world around him as a man capable of violent crimes, even though the jury doesn’t return a verdict of guilt. While I hope this series doesn’t expand past these episodes, if it did, do you imagine any petitions about Naz’s wrongful incarceration? Based on the snippets of television programs and the bigoted graffiti, who on the outside wanted Naz free? The Night Of wasn’t about critiquing the legal system, but how we consume television programing focused on the legal proceedings, and reminding us that while we may leave these shows and documentaries entertained, the protagonists and supporting parties leave the process irrevocably damaged.
When it comes to war movies, there are two types, those that exude patriotism and glorify heroism on the battlefield, and there are others that stamp the film with the thesis that “war is hell” and spend the duration of the flick graphically pounding that mantra into its audience. The Night Of is that latter of those two films, only set inside New York City’s legal system. It doesn’t provide answers, only raises questions, and is sure to remind us at every turn in the road, law is hell.