& Biblical Parallels
As soon as I heard the mortician-undertaker in episode 6 of HBO’s The Night Of refer to the book of Judges from the Hebrew Bible, I knew it referred to Samson and Delilah, without even knowing the name of the show’s episode. When Chandra later read passages to Naz’s attorney John Stone, I was surprised that someone as savvy as Stone didn’t already know that story in its entirety. If creator-writers Steven Zaillian and Richard Price were giving that information to us viewers, however, then I’m less surprised: how many people even know the story of Samson and Delilah these days, let alone that it comes from Judges? More interesting to The Night Of, however, is how the story of Samson and Delilah relates to that of Naz, a Pakistani-American college student accused of rape and murder, and to that of the murder victim, Andrea (Sofia Black-D’Elia).
In Judges 13-16, Samson is favored by God from the moment of his conception. In fact, an angel of God comes to Samson’s mother, who has been barren, and tells her that she should have no wine or other fermented drink because she is to bear a child. As he grows, Samson is blessed by God, though we are never given a specific reason for this, and, further, “the spirit of Lord stirs in Samson.”
Always the bad-boy himself, Samson has a thing for the foreign ladies. He falls for a Philistine woman and wants to marry her, to his parents’ dismay. They ask, “Must you go to the uncircumcised Philistines to get a wife?” (14:3) But God is controlling the story of Samson in order to show His own might: “[Samson’s] parents did not know that this [love for the Philistine woman] was from the Lord, who was seeking an occasion to confront the Philistines; for at that time they were ruling over Israel” (14:4).
Eventually, after shows of strength, being betrayed by his wife, and displays of both anger and strength, Samson falls for another foreign woman, Delilah. We can only assume that, since God causes or allows Samson to love his first wife, who is ethnically and religiously “foreign,” God also allows Samson to love Delilah.
In order to be betrayed? So that Samson will lose the “gift” of his strength and, after he is a blind captive, return to God, showing God’s forgiveness and power?
I’m not sure of the reason: God doesn’t explain Himself. But Samson is betrayed: Delilah cuts off his hair, causing him to lose his strength, and he is captured by the Philistines. Imprisoned, Samson prays to God for one last burst of strength to pull down the pillars of the Philistine temple, knowing full well that he himself will die with the enemies of his people and of his God.
I don’t know if The Night Of intends to take the story that far, but its writers are the ones who named the episode after the Biblical story, and then quoted it in the episode itself, so let’s see what we have.
Is Naz the Samson in The Night Of? Naz (Riz Ahmed, center) doesn’t seem like a strong-man, though his attack on the Rikers inmate who burned him gave us a hint of the depth of Naz’s strength, anger, and violence. Naz doesn’t seem like a man blessed by God either, though because of his ethnicity and religion, he is in a post-9/11 land that is relatively hostile to him, despite his having been born in New York city.
An outsider like Samson, Naz also has secrets, as Stone (John Turturro, above R) and Chandra (Kara Amaran, above L) learned in the previous episode and again last night. Samson’s secret was the key to his strength: his unshorn hair. Naz has already shorn his hair, so that doesn’t seem to be the key to his “strength.” In fact, I’m guessing most viewers don’t think Naz has much strength, unless naïveté and stupidity count as “strength” when you have enough of either one.
In fact, let’s count Naz’s shaving his head before going to trial for rape and murder as one of his more stupid choices. I’m not even going to go back to episode 1 where Naz stole his dad’s cab to go to a party, picked up a strange girl, took unknown drugs from her, had unprotected sex with her without even knowing her name, woke to find her dead and ran out, broke back in after he found he’d forgotten his keys, then ran out again with the bloody knife in his pocket. From the premiere, we knew Naz was unrealistically naïve and foolish.
But in episode 6, we can add getting prison tatttoos, just before your murder trial, in places you can’t hide (on the knuckles), tattoos that say Sin and Bad, no less, among those incredibly stupid choices that Naz makes. Oh, and let’s not forget Naz’s free-basing with Freddie (Michael Kenneth Williams).
I realize that Naz is in prison, and that he’s asked Freddie for protection, but nothing says Naz has to do drugs and further dull his already-befuddled mind in order to survive. His ability to beat up one inmate and intimidate others has proven that the boy already has most of what it takes to survive the penal system.
But back to the metaphor of Samson and Delilah.
Samson fell hard for the seductress Delilah, and she apparently toyed with his affections in order to learn the secret of his strength so that she could betray him and have his enemies capture him. Delilah asked Samson multiple times what the source of his strength was, and Samson lied to her every time but the last.
Samson’s secret was the source of his strength, and, in The Night Of, Naz has more than enough secrets: his rage, his capacity for violence, and his taking illicit amphetamines which can cause further rage as well as psychotic episodes. But do Naz’s secrets give him strength? I suppose it depends on how you look at it. They seem to be helping him survive in prison, even amongst the baddest of the bad boys.
Did those secrets get him involved with the victim? Naz’s secrets don’t seem to have had anything to do with that, unless the illicit Adderal “persuaded” Naz to steal his father’s cab and to have drug-and-alcohol-fueled sex with a complete stranger.
So, if Naz is the betrayed Samson, then who is Delilah in The Night Of? Is the murdered rich girl Andrea the seductress? As a representative of the type of girl Naz dreamed of, perhaps Andrea unconsciously tempted him much as Delilah tempted Samson. Of course, she’s not the initial reason Naz stole the cab, but she did get his mind off the party he was planning to attend, and she did convince him to take drugs, get him back to her home, and get him to play dangerous games with knives.
In the original biblical story, however, Delilah is the one who betrays Samson, after he is already in love with her, though it is understood that Samson is as much responsible for his own downfall as is the seductress Delilah. After all, had Samson not abandoned his God to be with a foreign woman, he would never have revealed the secret of his strength, been shorn and lost his power, then been blinded by his captives.
(I realize there’s a problem with the story of Samson and Delilah itself, since God is the one that causes or allows Samson to initially be attractive to foreign, Philistine women, so that God can show His own strength and power through Samson, but that’s one of the unresolved mysteries of the Bible stories.)
In any event, though Judges presents Samson in a relatively non-judgmental, mostly sympathetic light, Judges still puts the burden of responsibility for his ultimate capture and suffering solidly on Samson’s own shoulders.
If we are to follow that interpretation of the biblical story, then Naz, as Samson, is the one mostly, if not completely, responsible for his own downfall. Just as Samson got involved with a woman who was not of his ethnicity or religious beliefs, a woman whose loyalty was to the Philistines and to the money they would give her for her betrayal, Naz became involved, if only for part of one night, with a woman who was not of his socio-economic class, his ethnicity, or his religious faith.
Whoa. Are the writers of The Night Of getting moral on us here? Or did their protagonist Naz just make some incredibly stupid and immature choices that night, choices that happened to involve a rich white girl? After all, if Andrea is the Delilah of this story, then she ends up dead, not wealthy after the betrayal of her lover.
As we learned in last night’s episode, Andrea was wealthy from the death of her mother. She was, in fact, wealthy enough to make her stepfather angry after she refused him half of her mother’s estate. As attorney Stone learned last night, Andrea’s stepfather has a history of marrying wealthy, older women. Thus, the stepfather has become a suspect in Andrea’s murder.
So far, Andrea doesn’t seem like much of a Delilah, despite the mortician-undertaker’s referring to Judges, and despite his calling Andrea, whom he met only briefly, a “cat” that plays with men like “yarn.”
So what is all this Samson and Delilah stuff in The Night Of? Are viewers supposed to look at the source of the Biblical story — Judges — more than at the story itself? If so, who are the judges in this limited mini-series that is exploring the criminal justice system, and that finds it most sincerely corrupted?
Is Detective Box (Bill Camp), who never for an instant doubts Naz’s guilt nor seeks any other suspects, a Judge, condemning Naz without a trial?
Is DA Weiss (Jeannie Berlin), who has virtually coerced her witnesses into testifying according to her script, a Judge, also condemning Naz without trial, and, worse, manipulating said trial witnesses’ testimony so that Naz is condemned without sufficient evidence?
Are attorneys Stone and Chandra the Judges? Though they represent Naz, they see his flaws, and they realize that he has secrets and that, worse, he has lied to them: about his personal illicit drug use during the night of the murder, as well as about his violent past when Naz, without provocation, threw a fellow student down a set of steps, breaking the boy’s arm, and got expelled from school so that Naz then had to transfer to another high school.
I’m guessing that we viewers are the Judges in The Night Of.
Not only are we judging Naz and his victim, we’re judging the criminal justice system itself, from the police officers to the detectives, from the attorneys to the judges, from the penal system to our society itself. We are judging the criminal justice system and finding it corrupt, biased, and inhumane.
Further, we are judging the criminal justice system and finding it terribly and relentlessly horrifying for anyone who happens to get caught up in its maws.