“I have a theory about the cat,” my friend whispered to me on Friday over drinks, referring to The Night Of finale as if he were announcing a spoiler. “The cat is how they solve the murder.”
I nodded seriously, and listened intently to a long, meandering prediction that didn’t even come close to what ended up happening on Sunday night. It was a familiar conversation among murder mystery obsessives. Whether talking about True Detective, Making a Murderer, or Serial, we would inevitably tease out an overlooked detail and hold it up as the overlooked answer to every question: the green paint, the tampered evidence, the pay phone. This time it was the cat.
Cats are wonderful animals. They are cuddly and sweet and the worst thing they can do is make you sneeze or ruin an expensive couch. But even then, you forgive them because they are cats. I know this. The internet knows this. And, judging from the excruciatingly long closing scene of The Night Of finale, leper lawyer John Stone knows this, too.
And yet, the nameless feline in HBO’s closeted procedural drama was a cruel distraction, one of many messy subplots that ultimately left the show feeling hollow, and its more empathetic viewers feeling a little used. Much like the feet, the kiss, or the dude named Duane Reade, Andrea Cornish’s cat functioned as a narrative prop, forcing viewers to assign their own meaning. The cat — who I am just going to name Peaches now out of respect — was the most manipulative. Because anyone with a soul immediately developed an emotional connection to Peaches, and by extension, a thesis about how the show’s ending would relate to him.
IndieWire floated five theories earlier this month. At least one Reddit thread was full of vaguely similar ideas. Peaches would somehow reveal who else was in the house with Naz and Andrea that night. Peaches represents Schrödinger’s cat. Andrea knew she was going to be murdered and that’s why she set Peaches free. Peaches is actually a ghost.
My theory was that the cat had somehow eaten some of the true killer’s DNA, and would eventually barf on Stone’s apartment floor (as cats are known to do) providing him with a handy clue. Stone would then use that evidence to solve the murder, set Naz free, and — ta-da — become the show’s inevitable underdog hero. I am neither a veterinarian nor a forensics expert, but why else would the camera linger on this animal, and what other explanation could there be for Stone’s weird love-hate relationship with it?
Judging from the finale, it’s likely that the show’s writers wanted to throw us off the scent of the true killer — exploiting our collective obsession with preemptively solving crimes by dangling an adorable, useless animal in front of us for their own amusement. If the show was aiming to transcend the whodunit genre, Peaches was a subtle message to all of us internet conspiracy theorists to chill out, and focus on — I dunno — the crippling bureaucratic nature of the criminal justice system or the dangers of our prison-industrial complex.
Aside from whatever bait-and-switch games the writers were playing, Peaches ultimately had a surprise function: a peek into the bleak psyche of John Stone. The final two scenes of the series juxtaposed the depressing fates of client and lawyer. Naz, sitting near the water getting high, and Stone, back to his old life as a subway ad lawyer, with only his feline companion. Both indulging in a cheap pleasure, and both not caring because, well, it makes their depressing lives just a little bit better. But hey, I guess you could say the same about constructing conspiracy theories about suspenseful television, too.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.