Though HBO’s The Night Of seemingly comes at a perfect time when our culture is intrigued by episodic true crime stories like season one of the Serial podcast or Netflix’s Making a Murderer, this miniseries has been in development for a few years. A reminder of that comes during the opening credits when James Gandolfini’s name is listed as an executive producer.
Upon finding out that Gandolfini was originally involved in the production, and that this was a pet project of his, I wondered if his presence might hang over the series somehow. Like would we watch John Turturro’s performance as lawyer Jack Stone and ponder how Gandolfini would have played the role?
But after one episode and a small role in the pilot episode, it’s difficult to say definitively. Yet it’s hard to imagine anyone besides Turturro as Stone, a weary, rumpled, smart-ass of an ambulance-chasing attorney. And we’ve barely gotten to see Stone do any lawyering yet, any questioning of his new client. As the series progresses, he will surely be a pleasure to watch.
Maybe Gandolfini’s name in the credits, besides proper acknowledgment and tribute, is a stamp of quality, of assurance that The Night Of is worth our time and attention. (Although writers Richard Price and Steve Zaillian assure plenty of quality with their own names, based on past excellent work with crime and legal stories.) The first episode certainly did not disappoint.
Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed) sets out on what looks to be one of the most fun, most memorable nights of his young life, only to have it turn horribly wrong. The night of Oct. 24, 2014 does indeed turn out to be memorable for Naz, but for the worst reasons possible, circumstances that can only be described as nightmarish.
“Am I really here?” Naz asks at one point in the episode, and it’s a question you can imagine reverberating in his head over and over again as the night continues.
Naz is a Pakistani-American college student, presumably a good one since he tutors a player on the basketball team. Maybe he hopes that provides him with a modicum of cool by association. Trying to tell his fellow student what he needs to study for the next exam, Naz is dismissed by the jock who has no interest in hitting the books on a weekend. A sympathetic teammate ends up inviting Naz to a team party. Naz can’t resist. He’d never go to such a party otherwise.
But the friend who’s supposed to go with him ends up bailing at the last minute, and Naz takes his father’s cab from Queens into Manhattan. As Naz drives into the city, the procedural aspect of the story becomes apparent. He’s seen on camera taking the bridge and paying the fare, details that will surely become pertinent later on.
Lost in the city and forgetting to turn on the cab’s off-duty light, a mysterious young woman (Sofia Black-D’Elia) eventually ends up in the back of Naz’s cab. Given that it’s late on a Friday night and she’s indefinite about where she wants to go (“the beach”), the woman appears to be trying to get away from something. Or maybe she’s just Naz’s dream woman who the universe led to his cab. Why else would he be willing to buy her a drink (again recorded on camera at the convenience store) and take her to the Hudson River? She certainly seems intrigued by Naz’s wide-eyed innocence (a trait that is mentioned frequently throughout the episode).
After taking some ecstasy, the two go back to her apartment, a really nice brownstone on the west side. How she can afford such a place is a question that will surely be answered later in the series. Before heading upstairs, a pair of African Americans make a crack about Naz’s ethnicity. Emboldened by the drugs, Naz calls them out and confronts one of the men before the woman steps in to diffuse the situation. But as they go inside, the other man stares menacingly at Naz and the woman.
Naz is allergic to her cat, so she lets it outside. Did that security gate close all the way? That’s another detail that may come up later. The two do tequila shots and cocaine, and she asks him to play a knife game with the blade she used to slice limes for their drinks. What looks to be a terrible idea is confirmed when Naz accidentally cuts her hand. She doesn’t seem to mind and they go upstairs to her room. But she touches the bannister with that bloody hand. And Naz. And his clothes.
Afterwards, we see Naz in the kitchen, savoring the afterglow of his improbable night while also trying to shake off the effects from the tequila and the drugs. Needing to get back home before his father realizes that he took his cab into the city, Naz gets dressed and is about to say goodbye when he turns a lamp on, and the lampshade is covered in blood spatter. He quickly turns the light off. Then he turns it on again. The woman is a bloody mess on the bed, having been stabbed multiple times.
Rather than call the police, Naz flees the scene. In another baffling decision, he sees the knife on the coffee table and decides to take it with him. Where the knife was is surely an important detail, but one that Naz is not in a position to dwell on in the moment during a series of bad decisions. He runs to the cab, only to realize he left his keys and jacket in the apartment. To get back in, he has to break a window to unlock a door. That noise attracts the attention of a neighbor across the street, who witnesses Naz go into the apartment, then run out and drive off in the cab.
From there, The Night Of almost becomes the darkest of black comedies. Naz is pulled over by police for making an illegal left turn, but the cops are then called to respond to a break-in. The officers decide to take a clearly intoxicated Naz with them on that call, rather than let him go. Naz begins to recognize the scene as they drive to the scene in what becomes a bitterly funny irony. The break-in that the cops are responding to is the one which the neighbor witnessed from across the street. As Naz sits in the back of the police car, the officers and their back-up discover the dead body upstairs.
But there’s no reason yet for the cops to link Naz to the crime. He’s someone they picked up in a cab blocks away from the scene. The detective on the case, Box (Bill Camp), doesn’t want any stragglers messing up the investigation and has Naz taken to the station. Once there, the surreality of the situation becomes even more stark. The station is dim, cold and nearly empty. Those who are there are surly and combative. Well, except for the neighbor witness who also eventually comes in for questioning.
No one is coming to talk to Naz, as he’s apparently a DUI case that just needs to be processed. He eyes the door several times, contemplating making a run for it. Who would stop him? But each time he begins to walk toward the door, something obstructs his path. The final time Naz tries to bolt, the detective and officers return from the woman’s apartment. He can’t leave now. Time for him to finally be processed.
That leads to another moment of bitter irony. As Naz is being searched, Detective Box describes the suspected murder weapon to the desk sergeant. That’s when officer pulls the knife that fits the exact description from Naz’s jacket. If it wasn’t such a gut-punch of a moment for Naz, it would be darkly funny. Of course, there’s nothing funny about this as Naz suddenly looks like the No. 1 suspect in the murder being investigated. He tries to run, but is tackled by officers and then identified by the African American man he encountered outside the apartment.
From there, Naz is interrogated by Box and dread sets in from the tension that the detective will ask a question that causes the suspect to contradict himself, change his story or say something potentially incriminating. Why doesn’t Naz ask for a lawyer? Does it not occur to him as fear sets in during a situation he’s never experienced? Does he not feel the need to ask for one since he thinks he’s innocent? Meanwhile, Box calmly — almost compassionately — explains all of the evidence that’s been collected, hints toward the obvious conclusion that’s being drawn, and nudges him toward what might look better to a jury.
Naz is then subjected to an invasive strip-and-search, during which we see several scratches on his back. Did he suffer those while having sex? Did they occur in some sort of struggle before the murder? Are they from something else entirely? Naz is photographed, fingerprinted and submits to a DNA swab (the words “penile swab” are jolting), all of which seems invasive and harsh, especially if you’ve come to sympathize with this character. But is he really innocent? If the answer was obvious, we wouldn’t have a series.
The situation looks utterly helpless for Naz. He sees Jack Stone wandering through the station, looking for people he can help, and finally realizes he should get a lawyer. Soon thereafter, Stone sees Naz sitting in the pen, giving off a vibe of someone who just isn’t supposed to be there. He looks frightened, like someone who hasn’t been arrested before and has no idea what will happen. He asks one of the officers about the kid’s story and is intrigued. He can’t walk away.
Does Stone see someone in need, a clean-cut kid in over his head? Is he sniffing out an opportunity? Whatever the reason, Stone asks Naz about his citizenship and politics (amusingly asking him to name two Yankees who should be in the Hall of Fame to prove he was born in America) before telling him not to speak with anyone anymore unless his lawyer is present. But there’s no easy out. Naz wasn’t told he had to talk, and he was read his Miranda rights.
Stone finds out the crime Naz is about to be charged with and that Detective Box is on the case, which apparently means that Stone’s job is about to become much more difficult than he originally believed. Naz finally reaches his parents, who have been searching for him after discovering that he didn’t come home during the night. But how can he even begin to explain what’s happened? Hey Mom, I’ve been arrested and am suspected of murder. His father is about to get him, but discovers that his cab is missing. There’s a detail Naz forgot to mention.
As Naz’s father tries to process everything that’s going on, is that Andrea’s cat that walks behind him on the street? Nice touch. What does that cat know? Maybe we’ll find out during the next seven episodes.
[You can read all of our The Night Of recaps and coverage here.]