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‘The Night Of’ Was Like Life

It was all about your friends

HBO/Ringer illustration
HBO/Ringer illustration

In New York City, people and things pass through your life, change it, and move on. Someone else, someone else, someone else, as John Stone says to Naz — the leper and the murderer (in the eyes of others), sitting at a restaurant table, in a late-night rendezvous at the end of The Night Of’s series finale. By this point, Stone is almost gone himself, on to the next client, the next case, the next life. Naz is about to be gone, too — under the bridge.

The Night Of was about many things — crime, crime shows, racism, economic disparity, institutional negligence, cats, dermatology, a set of steak knives — but the most interesting parts of the show were those that fell just outside of those boxes. It showed what happens when lives brush up against one another for a night, and how those lives can change forever because of it. It also showed how we stay the same. Sometimes, that chance meeting is just a weird thing you remember, 20 years later, looking into a mirror. That’s how life works. To see that on television, it’s like seeing a unicorn.

That’s what Freddy called Naz late into “The Call of the Wild,” in what would prove to be their final conversation. There was a split second in this when it looked like Naz might choose life as a knight in the chess game of prison, rather than being a pawn on the outside. To be seen as a unicorn (however figuratively), to be admired and coveted and to inspire wonder … that never happened to Naz in his regular life. He was anonymous: the tutor, the guy who didn’t get invited to parties, the lovesick quiet kid who didn’t know how to talk to girls. By the end of his time at Rikers Island, he had a crown tattooed on his neck, and “SIN” and “BAD” (or Sinbad) inked on his knuckles, and opiates flowing through his blood. He has a different shape. He’s become a different person.

At the center of this show was a crime and the investigation into it. Then there were the people and relationships. Some of them felt too lurid to take seriously — like the widower Don Taylor and his personal-training subjects — and some were too sad to really reckon with — Naz and his mother, Safar. Then, off in the margins, where the show’s writers kept getting pulled, there were these friendships — ones that were good for the characters, even though they felt bad, or bad for the characters even though they felt good. Is there really a difference between those?

“Worst comes to worst, it’s not so bad in here,” says Freddy to Naz. “You got people that care about you.” Freddy cared about Naz, even if he made him his drug mule. John Stone cared about that damn cat, even if he kept bringing him to the pound.

There were parts of The Night Of that made it feel current, and parts that made it feel like a thriller, but those two relationships were what made it feel unlike anything else. Was Freddy drawn to Naz due to his intelligence? Because he was clay to mold? Because he could be a useful part of a supply chain that brought drugs into prison? Or was it what Freddy said to Naz toward the end of the series: “You smell like innocence.” Was that really the rarest commodity for Freddy? Was Naz his drug? The relationship between these two characters, and the way Riz Ahmed and Michael Kenneth Williams performed these scenes, had an uncommon humanity, and genuine unpredictability. It was the best part of this fantastic series.

And the cat? Man, the cat. He didn’t want to get rid of the cat! Did the once-again extended life of John Stone’s feline friend mean that our cynical lawyer, the once and future hero of this tale, had softened a bit after his experience with Naz? Was it him accepting that his skin condition, his allergies, his humiliation were his crosses to bear? Raise your hand if you were more emotionally invested in the life of the cat than you were in the death of Andrea Cornish, or the African American victim that got waved off in the beginning of Episode 7, or whether Naz and his mother will make amends.

Now, do a Jonah Hill Moneyball fist pump if you thought that that might be the joke, and we might be the punch line. Were Richard Price and Steven Zaillian poking a little bit of fun about how our hearts can break at the right ASPCA ad, but go cold when confronted with things that would make our lives actually uncomfortable and inconvenient, like murder? Maybe The Night Of didn’t just have a healthy contempt for crime-fiction shows, but also for crime-fiction fans. Maybe it should’ve.

“Ordinary Death,” the seventh episode, begins with one murder that we barely registered, and ends with another that, deep down, some might have cheered. As Detective Box walks into his retirement party, he is starting to realize that Naz may not have killed Andrea Cornish. At that same moment, Naz acts as an accomplice in a killing in Rikers Island. A prisoner’s throat is slit while he is watching TV. On screen, a television courtroom judge says, “The only pleasure I had is knowing how much of a pound of flesh both of you clowns have had to pay for your decisions.” The sequence, scored by Carter Burwell’s music from The Man Who Wasn’t There, is the most viscerally gripping moment of the series. It’s no accident that the judge is talking about pleasure in taking a pound of flesh. She is us. Even if we’re not there.

HBO
HBO

As Stone noted in his closing arguments, people commit crimes all the time. With a runtime of nearly one hour and 40 minutes, you wouldn’t think “The Call Of the Wild” left any loose threads. And it didn’t, really. It’s just that, like life, some things have more satisfying conclusions than others. If Naz “gets off,” doesn’t he deserve something more than solitude and addiction? If Chandra’s faith in Naz was right, doesn’t she deserve more than unemployment and disgrace? Do they — Stone, Box, Helen Weiss — all just disappear back into the blinking city?

These things can happen anywhere. But they really happen, like this, only in New York. Everyone living all over everyone else — in the buildings, on the trains, in the streets. Rich and poor; Pakistani American and African American; retiring cop and heiress addict; timid college student and jail-bound crime boss; ambulance-chasing lawyer and orphaned cat. What’s life without friends, I guess.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.