HBO’s critically acclaimed limited mini-series The Night Of examines the current state of criminal justice in America via a fictional New York murder case. Created by Steven Zaillian and Richard Price, and based on the BBC series Criminal Justice, the miniseries has metaphorically battered the legal system starting with the show’s premiere. From the police to the attorneys, from the prison guards to the judges, the criminal justice system in The Night Of assumes that everyone accused of committing a crime is most certainly and without exception guilty. In episode 4, “The Art of War,” this metaphorical slash and burn was expanded to indict the medical establishment alongside the legal one. In symbolically parallel stories involving the accused murderer, Naz, and his attorney, Stone, the legal and the medical arenas were mercilessly dissected. Naz is a victim of a legal system that is predisposed to find him guilty because of race, ethnicity, religion, and circumstances, while his attorney Stone, suffering from disfiguring and painful eczema, is a victim of a medical system that appears to have little empathy for anyone’s suffering. Both Naz and Stone are victims. They are pariahs and outcasts — unwelcome and undesirable.
The Night Of began its twisted journey with a young Pakistani-American college student-tutor, Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed) taking his father’s cab, without permission, to attend a party for members of the basketball team. Though he is a good student and a tutor, Naz is an outsider to these players. He is not an athlete, and, probably worse, he is a good student. One basketball player invites Naz to the party, but another is annoyed by Naz’s inclusion. Naz doesn’t care that he’s not fully welcome: he just wants to meet the type of girls who will be at the party, girls he ordinarily would consider out of his league. Instead of making it to the party, Naz is sidetracked by an enigmatic stranger (Sofia Black-D’Ellia) who gets into the cab and asks to be taken to “the beach.”
Naz takes the girl to her home, where a passing African-American who sees the couple calls Naz “Mustafa” and inquires about his “bomb” materials. Though Naz is approximately the same age as the girl, he is not the same race: he is again branded as an outsider. Once inside the girl’s home, after doing some drugs and shots of tequila, Naz has sex with her. When he awakes later, he is in the kitchen, and the girl is dead upstairs. At the crime scene, the police and detectives assume that the “Arab” who was with the dead girl is guilty by race, religion, and circumstances. Before he is charged, Naz has become a pariah.
Enter John Stone (John Turturro), an “ambulance-chasing” attorney who takes Naz’s case simply because Stone was “in the right place, at the right time.” More importantly, Stone probably takes the case he is an underdog himself. He seems to specialize in representing underdogs and undesirables: he is shown helping transvestite/transgendered prostitute Paul-ine, so it’s no surprise that Stone appoints himself Naz’s attorney after he sees the young man completely isolated in a holding cell at the precinct. After Naz’s family hires a more important lawyer because she offered to represent Naz pro bono, Stone continues to investigate the circumstances of Naz’s case. Instead of being an “ambulance chaser” in it for money, Stone seems to be the only one who actually cares about Naz’s welfare. A fellow outsider and pariah, Stone empathizes with Naz in a way that no one else in the judicial system seems to.
Attorney Crowe (Glenne Headly), who lives up to her name as a scavenger and predator, goes to the DA and brokers a plea deal for Naz. Despite Crowe’s statement to Naz’s parents that she would fight for the accused young man because his case reminded her of why she went into law in the first place, and despite Crowe’s denigrating comment that Stone would do nothing but “cut a deal” because he isn’t a trial attorney in a big, exclusive (insiders’) firm like she is, Crowe immediately sold out her client without even attempting to gather any evidence in the case. After negotiating a plea with the District Attorney, Crowe went to Naz and said she would try to get the very deal to which she’d already agreed on his behalf. Naz is nothing but a means for Crowe to further her own career. He is a prop, an actor who needs to “rehearse” his lines in her play.
Crowe misrepresented herself to Naz’s parents, and treated them as annoying inferiors who had to be chastised. Outside the courthouse, when Naz’s father Salim (Peyman Moaadi, below) asked, in a whisper, if he could make a statement to reporters, Crowe coldly scolded him, ordering him never to “interrupt” her again. Like his son Naz, Salim is an outsider to the justice system as well as to the entertainment business: Crowe is a legal insider who wants to be a celebrity, à la Nancy Grace.
Crowe misled Naz’s parents, but she lies to Naz outright. With Naz’s life in the balance, Crowe’s showed herself ruthless and self-absorbed. She was furious with Naz when he didn’t answer the DA’s questions “correctly.” Instead of pleading “guilty,” as insider Crowe had instructed, the outsider Naz went rogue: in court, Naz stated that he did not, in fact, kill the girl. It was obvious that Crowe wasn’t upset because she believed Naz to be guilty and wished to save the state the cost of prosecution. She was concerned with her legal reputation and with the fact that Naz’s response had upset the judge’s expectations.
Naz is an outsider who breaks the insider rules of the plea deal, and he further alienates himself from the justice system when Crowe quits. At every move, whether because of his own action or that of others, Naz becomes more of a pariah. Though Naz metaphorically fights back against the legal system by refusing to admit guilt in the plea deal, he is already in prison without bail. Given that stark reality (and the clear bias against the legal and judicial system that The Night Of is presenting), it is not likely that things are going to turn out well for Naz. He is an outsider, and it looks like outsiders get destroyed in The Night Of.
Imprisoned without bail at Rikers as he awaits trial, Naz is mercilessly reminded that he is a pariah. Everyone gives him advice, but most of it is conflicting and ends up hurting him. From Attorney Crowe to the judge, from the “friendly” inmate who later viciously assaults Naz to the powerful convict, Freddy (Michael Kenneth Williams, below), who wants to “protect” the college student, everyone wants something from Naz. None of these insiders has Naz’s best interests in mind as they attempt to manipulate and control Naz. He is an outsider that others want to use, not help.
A pariah in the post-9/11, racial-profiling world, Naz is a victim of a criminal justice system where he is already and forever an outsider simply because he is not a policeman, detective, attorney, prison guard, or judge. Further, once he is an accused criminal, and the worse kind of criminal at that, Naz will remain an outsider, unwelcome and despised by the insiders.
There seems little possibility that Naz will be able to successfully fight the impersonal justice machinery. The police and detectives have, from the beginning, assumed his guilt rather than his innocence “until proven guilty.” The attorneys do not wish to be “stuck with the truth,” or they care more about their personal reputations than Naz’s fate. The inmates and guards in the violent and merciless penal system care only for their perquisites, their “names,” their standing in the convict society. In the criminal justice environment, Naz is an undesirable because of his ethnicity as much as because of his alleged crime. He is undesirable unless he can somehow help someone else’s career, be it legal or criminal.
The only person who seems to genuinely empathize with Naz is attorney Stone, who is an outsider himself. With his rumpled, disheveled suit and overcoat, he is given advice on an appropriate tailor and on what kind of proper suit to wear to a trial of this magnitude by District Attorney Weiss (Jeannie Berlin) after their own plea deal falls apart.
He is heckled by police officers as an ambulance chaser. He is ridiculed by chief investigator Detective Box (Bill Camp).
Stone is threatened by the Director of a Rehab House (cameo/guest appearance by Turturro’s cousin Aida Turturro, below) after he is seen taking photos while investigating the murder victim in Naz’s case.
Though Stone is a street-wise attorney who technically should automatically be an insider in the criminal justice system, he remains an unwelcome outsider. To emphasize his pariah-status, The Night Of writers have Stone fruitlessly fighting the inhospitable medical establishment, which is set up as a symbolic parallel to the justice system that Naz is fighting.
Seeking a treatment for his incurable eczema, which stands as a visible symbol of Stone’s “undesirable” status, Stone faces doctors who regularly contradict each other or who dismiss their colleagues’ treatment plans, as well as pharmacists who openly scoff at the prescribed medications. By showing Stone’s following the recommended “medical” treatments — like applying Crisco onto the eczema-affected areas then encasing his feet and lower legs in Saran Wrap — The Night Of reveals Stone’s desperation to be healed, to be cured. It is also his desperation to fit in, to become an insider rather than to remain an outsider.
The symbolic sub-plot of Stone’s adversarial and confusing “fight” with his eczema as well as with the members of the medical community brilliantly parallels Naz’s “fight” with the criminal justice system. Insiders of both the medical establishment and the legal system consider Stone and Naz to be uncooperative outsiders, guilty of disobeying the “rules,” whether they are supposed to be following scripts for plea deals or told to follow recommended medical treatments. No matter what these two men do, neither system will accept Stone or Naz as one of the privileged insiders. Neither of them will be welcomed to the inner group.
Stone is street-wise, tough, and not easily intimidated: his interactions with the police officers at the precinct where Naz was jailed, with the lead investigator Detective Box, with the judge at the bail hearing, and with the District Attorney during a plea deal all prove that Stone is competent and clever. He knows the personal and professional lives of his “opponents;” he knows how to “attack” them even if they seem to be baiting him in jest. Technically, Stone should have already been accepted since it is clear that he is an insider. For some reason that remains unclear to viewers but which is symbolized by Stone’s incurable and disfiguring eczema, the attorney remains a pariah. He is not accepted. He is not welcome. He is undesirable.
Just as Stone’s disfiguring eczema can be managed but not cured, Naz’s race and ethnicity could be tolerated, but they cannot be changed or completely ignored. His race and ethnicity, combined with his religious beliefs, made Naz an outsider and a pariah before the circumstances of the murder make him appear guilty of a heinous crime. Naz and Stone are pariahs, undesirables, unwelcome outsiders in a criminal justice system and in a medical system that will, no doubt, forever remain closed to them.
If you’ve missed The Night Of, your summer is not nearly as exciting as it could be. No matter how harrowing its presentation of the American justice system, this show is compelling drama, well written and extremely well acted. You can catch up any time on HBOgo or HBOnow. The mini-series airs Sundays at 10p.m. ET on HBO, and the rest of the week on other HBO channels. Viewers who are HBO subscribers can watch the premiere “The Beach” free. Other viewers can see the tease or the official HBO trailer for the miniseries.