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The Night Of

July 20, 2017

Dear Reader,

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.

The Leftovers and The Leftovers

February 5, 2017

Dear Reader,

No one needs to tell you that television is good these days. Rather, I find myself needing someone to tell me what is or isn’t worth my time. We are fortunate to see this phenomenon repeated in contemporary literature, although I often find myself having to choose which form I have time for in a given day. Here, I want to talk about an intersection between the two.

Because there is so much out there in terms of thoughtful entertainment these days, you do need to know what you are getting in to with a show like The Leftovers. This is a show that requires a high level of engagement and thought. You cannot clean the house or write a paper or joke with a friend while this show is on. You also shouldn’t binge watch it, as it takes an emotional  and intellectual toll with each episode. But now that you’re forewarned that you will need to devote a good hour of brains to watching it, let me tell you why you should.

The premise is simple: on October 14, all of a sudden, 2% of the world’s population vanished without a trace. There is no explanation for this, although every level of society, government, and religion have sought one. The show does not try to find one itself, nor does it focus on the people trying to. Nor should you, for that matter. This show is not about answering that, or many other, questions. As Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker asserts, the show is really about grief and loss. And, more concretely, the show is about what it means to be left behind in a world that has become unrecognizable.

One of my favorite characters is Matt Jamison, a minister in the small town of Mapleton. To be a Christian minister in a post-Rapture-esque world is to be trying to provide comfort to a world that has been denied Biblical heaven. You either respond to that with despair, or by aggressively asserting that what has happened is not in fact The Rapture. He chooses the latter, spending much of the first season with the twin goals of bringing members of a despair-focused cult into a different fold and telling everyone that those taken on October 14 were not more worthy of heaven than those left behind. Both goals are motivated by the same desire: to assert that humanity, with all its ugliness, is worth holding on to. But to do this he has to dig into the often sordid humanity of each Rapture victim, or Departure in the show’s lexicon. He prints fliers about these people asserting their deeply flawed backgrounds, constantly confronting the question of whether it is better to reveal that someone’s lost loved one was a pedophile or a con man or unfaithful, or to allow people to believe that they were left behind because they were less worthy. One of the best episodes of the whole show, “No Room at the Inn” is about testing his faith in that humanity and about the extraordinary depth of potential responses we have to the ugliness around us. If you are looking to get a glimpse of the potential of the show, just watch that one.

At Boston Book Festival this past year I eavesdropped on a panel discussion on the process of bringing a book to the screen, whether small or large. The panel featured, among others, Tom Perrotta, who wrote the novel. The main difference between his novel and the show, he asserted, was the level of dark humor allowed in each. The book is darker, and perhaps more funny, but the show has something that I feel the book struggled to incorporate: real hope about humanity. The novel is an enclosed space, functioning in this instance sort of like a long-form short story. There is an interiority that the novel can provide that a visual medium often has trouble conveying, and the finely drawn portraits in The Leftovers privilege the humanity Perrotta struggles to assert hope for. The show, however, has an advantage in that it can dedicate a whole hour to a character like Matt Jamison, a character merely sketched in the novel. Many people consider season two of the show to be one of the best seasons of television out there. I agree with that assertion wholeheartedly, although I do really love the first season as well. Season three is coming out in a few months so it is just the right time to get caught up on this weird, experimental, deeply ambitious show. Let me know how you find it.