In the most haunting scene of Sunday’s (August 28) The Night Of finale, Freddy (Michael K. Williams), Rikers’ most powerful prisoner, tells his protegé Naz (Riz Ahmed), “You smell of innocence.” The two men’s sticky bond — the most compelling, conflicted relationship in this mostly great HBO miniseries — is suddenly colored by Freddy’s uncharacteristic dreaminess. Praising Naz as a “unicorn” (while reducing him to a prized possession), Freddy has no concrete evidence that his student/friend/lackey/victim didn’t commit the murder he’s accused of, but he’s desperate to call a shard of goodness his own. Freddy’s belief — his desire to believe — is enough to judge Naz: Not guilty.
The Night Of stumbled hard last week, when Naz’s ambitious attorney Chandra (Amara Karan) leaned in for a fleeting kiss with her college-age client in what felt like a plot twist recycled from one of those sexy-lawyer soaps on ABC. The finale picked itself up and dusted itself off, finishing strong via a suspenseful series of courtroom scenes and a masterful conclusion of its most important themes. The show wrapped up its eight-part mystery without revealing who killed Andrea (Sofia Black-D'Elia) in a graceful and thoughtful elision that highlighted the unknowability of truth and the murkiness of justice, especially in our broken court system. Reasonable doubt means that the best that a jury can do is collectively guess at a suspect’s culpability.
For those who need closure, writers Richard Price and Steven Zaillian offered up a name — that of Ray Halle (Paulo Costanzo), Andrea’s gambling-addicted boyfriend and embezzling financial adviser. But it’s not impossible that Naz killed his one-night stand. Combined with the cruelties of bureaucratic expediency, like prosecutor Helen Weiss’s (Jeannie Berlin) calculation that her office had more on Naz than Ray and the judge’s (Glenn Fleshler) petty refusal to grant a mistrial despite a disbarrable offense during trial, the limits of investigation and deduction on display make for a commanding rebuke of the usually pleasingly self-contained whodunit genre.
Throughout its run, the miniseries toggled between realism and the tropes of police drama, and it tempted WTFs the closer it hewed to the latter. In the end, it was somewhere in the middle. The finale’s wry opening banter, between two police officers who joke that a more realistic pop-cultural depiction of law enforcement might involve an indifferent cop who puts away his sleuthing cap the second his shift is over, emphasizes what a detective ex machina Bill Camp’s retired gumshoe turned out to be. Not only did Chandra’s lip lock with Naz make no sense, but it wasn’t even necessary, except to bring the itchy and scratchy ambulance-chaser John Stone (John Turturro) and his debilitating eczema back into the story. (Chandra could have delivered her closing statement to a deadlocked jury, too.) Unfortunately, the renewed focus on John was fairly welcome because Chandra never evolved into a fully developed character.
But even that deeply dumb kiss didn’t derail The Night Of’s most powerful story line: Naz’s need to survive his criminal trial by engaging in the kinds of crime he couldn’t have ever imagined himself committing before, as well as the stench of violence that follows him and his family even in his post-trial freedom. As the newly-arrived inmates suggest, Naz’s descent into brutality is a process that happens every day, though we rarely hear about it or see it dramatized so compassionately. Price and Zaillian’s decision to set their series partly in the Pakistani-American community in Queens was a stroke of genius that heartbreakingly illuminates how criminality is attributed and retributed differently, depending on who is accused. By spinning necessary doubt about our wayward paths toward justice on the one hand and evincing dead certainty about how jails and courts shove upstanding citizens into corners outside the law on the other, The Night Of, for all its faults, finished as an essential TV crime story that used its broad canvas to explore how criminals are made.