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Rikers Island Has Turned Naz Into a Criminal

The infamous jail is its own character in ‘The Night Of’

HBO
HBO

In Episode 7 of The Night Of, “Ordinary Death,” the young clerk at the copy shop printing out a poster-size crime-scene illustration for John Stone asks the lawyer: “This is for, uh, Law & Order? It’s a very New-York-in-2016 question, naive and worldly all at once. It suggests a city containing infinite amazing possibilities, very few of which involve getting stabbed to death.

In a sense, the clerk could be asking after the show itself. We’ve spent the first six chapters of The Night Of trying to match its off-kilter pacing and predilection for Cronenbergian foot gore with the established rhythms of a cops-and-criminals procedural and not quite succeeding.

In last week’s review on The Ringer, my colleague Chris Ryan posited that the The Night Of was about who you are when you are in New York. I agree, but that’s not precise enough. The Night Of is about who you are, and who you become, when you are on Rikers Island.

The last 25 minutes or so of Episode 2, “Subtle Beast,” which depicts Naz’s stygian descent into the system, is The Night Of’s thesis statement. Writer-director Steven Zaillian creates an aural and visual montage for this section, cross-fading between story arcs like a DJ. Naz is driven, handcuffed, down to central booking. At “the tombs,” as the facility is colloquially known, Naz watches a guard pull a cellphone out of a prisoner’s ass. Later, torn between terror and exhaustion, Naz sits front row to a beating. At his arraignment, when the litany of charges is read, two other prisoners in the courtroom look at each other, impressed and incredulous, with one exclaiming, “Fuck me!” Naz is denied bail. As the bailiffs march Naz away, Stone grimly warns him, “Don’t talk to anybody.”

Finally, shackled by the wrist to another inmate, Naz boards a prison bus. It’s a bright autumn day. We watch the bus crossing a long, narrow bridge to an ominous pulsing of synthesizer music. A seagull flies by. After a long beat, the bus still traversing the span, a chyron reading “RIKERS ISLAND” appears at the bottom of the frame. Nasir’s Jackson Heights neighborhood from Episode 1 is the only other setting identified in this way. Not the tombs, not the precinct house, not Stone’s eczema support group. The Night Of is about Nasir’s journey from the world that he knows to Rikers. All other concerns are secondary.

Little wonder, then, that the standard cop-and-criminal story beats — like the downright curt introduction of suspects — don’t land in the right place. Or, sometimes — like the John Stone–Duane Reade cliffhanger at the end of Episode 5, “The Season of the Witch” — don’t land at all.

“Ordinary Death” builds on the Law & Order momentum of the previous chapter. But, as, you’ve probably come to expect with this show, not to any real, satisfying effect.

Stone’s investigation into Don Taylor reveals that Andrea’s lothario stepdad is deep in debt, giving him about 10 million reasons to want the townhouse that his ex-wife willed to Andrea. Later, Taylor stalks Stone, and nearly chokes him out with a bench-press bar.

In court, Chandra raises the issue of uninvestigated suspects and shoddy autopsy findings to varying degrees of success, worrying prosecutor Helen Weiss at least twice. Chandra and Stone discover that Detective Box removed Naz’s inhaler from the crime scene, and she confronts him about this on the stand. Chandra and Naz kiss in a subplot that feels like it was teleported in from a different show.

Dr. Katz, Stone’s crime-scene expert, presents his findings, raising, among other possibilities, the spectre of a missing murder weapon. Weiss cross-examines him; the two are so well-versed in the semiotics of court that they begin arguing about questions that haven’t been asked yet.

Despite this narrative movement, the show, admittedly, is not where you would expect an eight-episode crime miniseries to be in its penultimate chapter. The effectiveness of Chandra’s cross-examinations of Box and the medical examiner is blunted by her inexperience. Stone, for some reason (I am not a legal expert!), doesn’t report Don Taylor’s menacing assault to the police. The Night Of feels no closer to revealing who killed Andrea than it did in “Subtle Beast.” (Prediction: The revelation will be triggered by something having to do with Andrea’s cat.)

Exploring Rikers in a way that’s more sociological than narratological, and under the guise of a whodunit, is a very Price-ian move. How you feel about the show depends on your affinity for the approach. I like it a lot. That said: I’m born and raised in New York; I have asthma and am allergic to cats; my favorite author is Richard Price; I’ve seen John Turturro on the F train numerous times; and Steve Zaillian, you know, wrote Schindler’s List. I am basically genetically predisposed to like The Night Of.

Rikers Island is a rare entity in the fabric of New York City because of its universality. I don’t mean that every New Yorker has been there; I mean that every New Yorker can end up there. Every borough, every neighborhood, has its own landmarks and institutions. Central Park is wonderful, but Prospect Park is nice, too. After falling ill, one might end up at any number of hospitals. After getting into trouble, one might end up at any number of police precincts. But, in New York City, if shit gets really real — like murder one real — that can mean only one place.

Today, there are 10 jail facilities on Rikers Island, housing some 10,000 prisoners, male and female, adult and juvenile. But Rikers has always been a place for the forgotten, built and run by the corrupted. During the Civil War, Rikers was used to house Union soldiers in conditions so appalling that state senators proposed an investigation. After the war, Rikers was used, among other things, as a garbage dump. Its trash mountains were so alarmingly tall that the corrections commission, then overseeing the construction of the island’s first jail — a process then mired in several graft scandals — demanded that the dump be closed down. The jail would open in 1935, right around the time that a massive garbage fire forced planes at Glenn H. Curtiss Airport (now LaGuardia) to be grounded.

Rikers Island is currently embroiled in an ongoing scandal related to the role of its guards in the facility’s problems with violence and drug dealing. Allegations that prison guards ran a Fight Club–style system of organized beatings called “The Program” have been around since 2008.

This is the environment Naz finds himself in.

Detective Box, D.A. Weiss, Chandra, and John Stone are the same people they were at the beginning of the show. A little more tired, a little more cynical, a little smarter, and with healthier foot skin, respectively, but, still, the same. Salim and Safar Khan have dropped several rungs on the socioeconomic ladder, but they’ll be OK.

Naz’s descent into the underbelly of the system, though, has changed him inside and out. He started the series as a doe-eyed college kid whose dark side involved selling Adderall. Now, he’s swallowing 8-balls and freebasing on the regular. Naz nearly freaked out watching an inmate — who was going through withdrawals, ironically — get murked his first night in the tombs. Now, in Rikers, he’s distracting the guards so Freddy can slash a guy’s throat, and doing it without batting an eye. Whether Naz is exonerated of Andrea Cornish’s murder or not, Rikers has made him into a criminal.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.