I was listening to a podcast a while ago on the subject of reforming the justice system. One of the guests said something that I had never considered; she said she didn’t want to send anyone to prison. Even guilty men and women who had committed grievous crimes personally against her, she didn’t want to send to prison.What she knew of prison had convinced her that even her worst enemy didn’t deserve to be subjected to it. I had never heard anyone say that before, although I am sure she isn’t the only one. HBO’s Emmy-nominated series The Night Of is a meditation on imprisonment that, like that moment, made me question my settled thoughts.
The Night of opens with the night that ended Naz’s (Riz Ahmed) life. He is a college kid excited to go to a party in the city (with girls!) when his ride bails on him. He quietly sneaks out and takes his father’s taxi into New York City so he won’t miss it. He is lost and fiddling with the taxi’s controls when a pretty girl gets in the back. She’s his damaged unconventional dream girl in the flesh. What we know of him at this point is that Naz is a bit of an innocent. His family is Pakistani and fairly conservative; he has only slept with one girl before he meets Andrea. You can tell, watching the sequence that follows, that Naz has always imagined meeting a girl in this kismetic way. She’s vague about her troubles, but clearly troubled. She drinks and does drugs with a carelessness beyond her years. Sitting on a pier, looking out over the river, Naz looks cautiously, covertly ecstatic.
They go back to her place, do more drugs, engage in a very unexpected bit of knife play, and sleep together. He blacks out, and when he wakes she has been stabbed to death. To an almost unbelievable degree he screws up his response. Panicking, he runs out of the apartment and speeds away in his taxi with blood on his hands and the knife from the aforementioned “play” in his pocket. He gets caught, of course. From there, the show walks Naz through every bend of the criminal justice system.
Naz, as mentioned, is a pretty innocent kid. For a while, the night of Andrea’s murder contains everything we know about Naz. For half of the eight-part series we have to go back to that night to understand our main character. From that night we know a few things: he is romantic, inexperienced, sensitive about his race, impulsive, responsible, smart, academically talented, and drawn to the experience he lacks. This may be enough for a first date, but hardly enough for us to decide whether he is capable of murder. Once charged with her murder he is sent to Riker’s to await trial; it is there that Naz becomes a real boy. Ultimately, The Night of is a coming of age for both Naz and his lawyer, John Stone (John Turturro). Their stories parallel each other, even as their lives remain very different. John is having his mid-life crisis. Tired of the low-level criminals he usually defends, he sees Naz’s case as a chance to do something meaningful. While Naz is literally imprisoned, John is stuck inside his own eczema-ridden skin. His eczema keeps him from everything he wants to be doing and makes every task more difficult and painful. The series skillfully plays this theme of imprisonment on several instruments. John is trapped by his skin, but so is Naz, whose race and religion endanger him in prison and affect his choices there. Andrea, we learn, is trapped by her addiction. Naz’s parents are shut out of their community and ultimately their home by their son’s arrest. Even the detective who built the case on Naz is restrained by his impending retirement, an event that he views as tantamount to death by golf-induced boredom.
It is Ahmed’s performance as Naz that holds these disparate threads together. He keeps Naz understated until about midway through the series. Naz is in prison and is contemplating whether he should accept the protection of Freddy, de facto king of Riker’s. Freddy (Michael Kenneth Williams) is able to do almost anything he wants, whether it be screwing a female guard or getting McDonald’s brought in. He tells Naz that he wants to protect him, a deal that will surely have repercussions. He values Naz’s intelligence and education; contact with another educated man is rare in his world. Under Freddy’s sinister, fatherly influence Naz rapidly grows up. It is to Ahmed’s credit that the Naz from episode one is almost unrecognizable by the end of the series. As the episodes progress we begin to understand we are watching a tragedy unfold separate from the original murder. Naz is being processed through the criminal justice system and it is breaking down and utterly reforming him. Naz’s life ended that night as surely as Andrea’s did.There’s a moment in the show Rectify that I keep coming back to. Another show about imprisonment and the justice system, Rectify is about what happens when you put someone on death row for 20 years, release him, and then expect him to function as a free man. There’s a moment when his mother tells Daniel, the former inmate, that she believes he is innocent. You can tell she means it, and so can he. She isn’t saying it just to comfort him, or because that’s what you say when your son is exonerated on a technicality. Just to believe entirely in the innocence of another person is a profound gift and it affects Daniel profoundly. Even Naz’s mother doubts him as she protests that she never could. It is Freddy, in the end, who believes in Naz’s innocence. Casting off his pretense of wanting to befriend Naz for his intelligence, Freddy admits that it is Naz’s innocence that he covets. Is it any wonder that it is this parental figure Naz ultimately emulates?By the end of the series Naz is imprisoned in some ways, free in others. What he experiences is largely senseless and does irreparable harm to him and all who surround him. It hardly matters what actually happened the night of. The consequences of that night are the same. It’s hard to understand the point of the criminal justice system by the end of the series; the innocent, guilty, and in-between all suffer. The innocent are all turned into criminals. The criminals either suffer seemingly too much or too little. The Night of depicts a system that is struggling, and failing to do what it was designed to do. Within the ethics of the show it’s hard to wish either it’s incredible atrocities or its tiny crucial mistakes on anyone, guilty or otherwise.