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‘The Night Of’ Couldn’t Outrun Its Genre

Maybe you can’t rewrite the crime-fiction playbook, only rearrange its pages

HBO
HBO

The Night Of finale delivered the ultimate ambiguous, unsatisfying, no-one’s-life-is-better-for-this-except-the-cat’s ending we all should’ve expected. And to get there, it used all the beats of the dyed-in-the-wool procedural that this series spent eight weeks stressing it was not.

A solid half of “The Call of the Wild” was spent asking the questions we’ve been yelling at our television sets for the last month and a half. Who exactly owned that multimillion-dollar brownstone on the Upper West Side? Might they have beef with the 22-year-old who’s living there for free? Shouldn’t we look into the criminal history of the multiple menacing bystanders who show up in security footage? Is there an actual person named Duane Reade in the (fictional) world?

First, this line of questioning comes from Chandra Kapoor, who barreled through a grab bag of creeps before she was thrown under the bus by her co-counsel, her client, and the show. (More on that later.) Then it was pursued by the now-ex-detective Box, who finally has the crisis of conscience we’ve been waiting for and takes it upon himself to find the real murderer. What followed was closer to an episode of the series winkingly referenced on last week’s installment than the show we’ve been conditioned for: half an hour of shoe-leather police work, with a definitive suspect on the other end. It all started not because of some information that another criminal traded for a plea deal or another similarly banal game-changer from the Realistic Crime Fiction playbook, but a split-second look over the shoulder that Box couldn’t get out of his head. It was the green paint from True Detective all over again.

As it turned out, it was the financial planner, with the missing knife, in the house of the woman he’d stolen 300 grand from so that he could pay off his gambling debts. (He was also once the victim of a shooting at a strip club on Yom Kippur, at which point I said, “God bless New York,” out loud to my empty living room.) Also, it was the guileless mensch all along, and everyone else — including Naz himself, who even the show’s fan base was starting to turn on — was just a red herring.

HBO
HBO

The pattern held up on the legal side of things as well. The Kiss, the clumsiest and most baffling move The Night Of had pulled thus far, ended up being the start of an equally clumsy narrative pivot. Leaked footage of it got Chandra fired, and it was immediately obvious that the show was working backward from the foregone conclusion that John Stone was a hero and Chandra was a footnote. For Stone to take back the spotlight, Chandra had to leave it. And for Chandra to leave it, she had to do something completely inconsistent with her character.

When Stone’s attempt to force a mistrial with the footage backfired, he was placed in charge of closing arguments. His eczema came back with a vengeance, a kitchen sink’s worth of establishment and Chinese-prescribed herbs proving to be no help whatsoever. Of course, John Turturro delivered a barn burner of a monologue: Stone used his shoddy reputation, and even his appearance, to his advantage. Like Freddy, he knew a real criminal when he saw one, and Naz wasn’t it. The redemption narrative even came with an eczema-inspired moral of the story: “Everyone’s got a cross to bear, Naz. … Fuck ’em all. Live your life.” Cue chopstick.

All this was in service of an ending that was every bit as open-ended and deliberately unsatisfying as the typical murder mystery, or Inspiring Courtroom Drama, is not. What Stone’s speech earns isn’t an exoneration, but a hung jury; only by the grace of Jeannie “Only I Can Vape On-screen and Look Good Doing It, Thanks” Berlin does Naz go free, and when he does, it’s without the comfort of a true “not guilty.” Or a mother who stuck by him through the trial. Or sobriety. Or friends. Chandra’s career is ruined for nothing. Stone goes back to taking jail calls, and the countless hopeless cases like Naz’s they represent. He has a cat to keep him company, and the knowledge that he’s capable of the self-sacrifice required to keep it around.

HBO
HBO

That The Night Of left all this plot machinery until the very end is in keeping with its main project. Other shows are about who murdered whom, Steven Zaillian and Richard Price were saying; other shows have inspirational speeches during which the hero talks about civil rights over swelling music. The Night Of was willing to take the hit for largely deemphasizing the murder victim in return for fast-forwarding past the procedural milestones that tend to come with it. Instead, it focused on Rikers Island, Naz’s family, and other dramas typically implied by crime narratives rather than explored by them.

The problems with that approach were twofold. One was that a weakness within the criminal justice system that The Night Of was pointing out — it doesn’t care what actually happened to Andrea Cornish; it just needs a satisfying story — became a weakness of the show itself. The other was that it couldn’t skip over those story elements completely, so it compressed them into the finale instead.

The Night Of landed plenty of the shots it took; no one who watched that gorgeous, pointedly anticlimactic walk out of Rikers could argue otherwise. But it never quite reconciled itself with the genre it was subverting. Instead of integrating procedural elements throughout, The Night Of left them to the last minute — stuffing them in the closet until they came bursting out. It was never quite at peace with itself, or the countless crime shows in its DNA. Which fits, since The Night Of left us nothing if not uneasy.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.