After last week’s episode seven, I wrote that it would be unforgivable for HBO’s The Night Of to end without the audience knowing who killed Andrea Cornish. Even if the police, the prosecution or defense, or Nasir Khan didn’t know who really committed the murder, the audience deserved to know after following this story along for eight episodes, through its many frustrating digressions and focus on characters that may not have ultimately mattered.
Technically, writer Richard Price and Steven Zaillian left us hanging. We don’t know for certain who stabbed Andrea 22 times on the night of Oct. 24, 2014. Though we have a pretty good idea. Detective Dennis Box and Prosecutor Helen Weiss seemed pretty damn sure that Ray Halle, Andrea’s financial advisor — a character we weren’t introduced to until episode four and didn’t really get to know until episode six — was the killer.
Halle managed the estate left over when Andrea’s mother died, which Andrea and her stepfather, Don Taylor, were fighting over. Eventually, he and Andrea developed an entirely different relationship. And with power of attorney over the estate, he was able to withdraw $300,000, presumably to cover his gambling habit. Andrea found out about it when she finally opened one of the bank statements delivered to her apartment and appeared to confront Halle over it. Before she entered Naz’s cab on that fateful night, Andrea apparently had an argument with Halle about his exploiting their relationship.
Detective Box discovered this while doing what he should have done all along, but neglected to because Naz looked like such a prime suspect. Also, because it was his last case before retirement, Box didn’t investigate the case as thoroughly or cover all the options that he might have otherwise. As we saw last week, when his retirement became official and his colleagues threw him a party, Box wasn’t very happy. And not just because he didn’t want to retire and spend the rest of his days playing golf. He knew he made assumptions, even when his instincts told him that Naz wasn’t a killer despite the considerable evidence pointing at him. Giving Naz his asthma inhaler, removing a piece of evidence from the scene, was an indication of that.
Unfortunately for Box — and for Naz — he started digging too late. Even after Box reviewed surveillance footage and cell phone records that showed Halle attempted to make contact with Andrea before she ran off with Naz and showed his whereabouts during the timeline of the murder. Halle had a criminal record, beating up a prostitute and getting shot by her pimp. Box even worked that case. He confronts Halle with what he knows and his suspicions at a casino, not only showing him a screen shot of the surveillance footage, but also a vacation photo with Andrea. She was not just his client.
(The more cynical or savvy viewers also likely looked at a relatively known actor like Paulo Costanzo playing Halle and figured out that he wouldn’t have been cast in such a minor role. It’s a mistake that many TV shows and movies make, getting a good actor for a role, but essentially putting a red flag over that character’s head in something like a murder mystery. Gee — oh, spoiler alert — could Stellan Skarsgard have been the killer in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo when he was the only family member played by a prominent actor? Apologies if I gave away a movie that’s nearly five years old.)
Despite having all this new evidence, which plausibly explains Halle’s motive and whereabouts on Oct. 24, 2014, Weiss isn’t moved. Though she’s intrigued and maybe even convinced, they have more evidence against Naz. Furthermore, Weiss made him look guilty on the stand, pointing out that he had the presence of mind to remove two incriminating pieces of evidence — a vial of ketamine and a knife — from the scene, despite Naz’s insistence that he wasn’t thinking clearly and couldn’t remember many details. When Naz says he doesn’t know if he killed Andrea, and is clearly upset that it’s the only answer he can give, it doesn’t come across as believable.
The Night Of was never a murder mystery, though it appeared to set itself up as one from the beginning. Every subsequent episode since the first demonstrated that this was a story about the criminal justice system. (The BBC show that the HBO series is based on was even titled Criminal Justice.) Detectives and prosecutors don’t always arrest the right person and convict the culprit because he or she is guilty. They arrest and convict who they can make the best case against, whom they can prove is guilty more than another suspect. While no one knew for certain that Nasir Khan murdered Andrea Cornish, he appeared to be the most likely suspect and thus was going to be convicted for the crime.
Justice does end up getting served, but maybe it’s not always the correct justice. And the process leaves behind plenty of casualties in its wake. The most obvious casualty in The Night Of is the young woman who was murdered. But plenty of others suffered grave indignities. Naz’s life as a promising student and hard-working kid has been forever changed by being accused of murder and serving time in prison. His parents lost their jobs and put their house on sale to pay for Naz’s defense. However, no character may have been treated worse in this story than Chandra Kapoor.
During our episode seven recap, I joked that The Night Of could easily have been titled “Poor Judgment” or “Bad Decisions” instead. That certainly applies to Naz, who stole his father’s cab, took drugs and had sex with a complete stranger, fled the scene of a murder and took key pieces of evidence with him. Shaving his head and getting several prison tattoos while on trial for murder also were not the best choices he could have made. But at least you could argue that Naz made his bad decisions in a panic or was trying to make the best of a terrible situation in prison.
What compelled Chandra to kiss Naz in his holding cell, quite possibly the worst judgment demonstrated by any of the characters in this series? Did she have that much empathy for Naz, whose life was on the verge of permanent ruin? Was it an attempt to show compassion? Was she lonely, having recently broken up with her boyfriend? When Zaillian cut to a shot of the kiss being recorded by surveillance cameras, you knew that was a decision that would eventually hurt Chandra and jeopardize Naz’s defense.
Sure enough, Stone becomes aware of the camera footage, though probably not as expected. Over at Rikers, Freddy’s favorite prison guard shows him the footage, likely because he was keeping tabs on his favorite pupil. (Is it possible those few seconds were being passed around among gossipy guards?) Somehow, Freddy arranges for a DVD of the footage to be dropped off at Stone’s doorstep. Once Stone sees it, he’ll surely argue that Chandra’s behavior will lead to a misconduct violation and allow the defense to push for a mistrial. That’s exactly the card Stone tries to play, convincing Naz to let Chandra go down for this bad decision and possibly save his life.
But the judge (played by Glenn Fleshler, who many HBO fans know as Errol Childress from True Detective) wants no part of a mistrial and sees through Stone’s blatant attempt to force one. (Earlier in the episode, the judge also has some great exchanges with Trevor while he’s on the stand, educating the witness on the purpose of the Fifth Amendment.) With only closing arguments remaining, he orders the trial to finish with Chandra booted to second chair and Stone making the final statement on Naz’s behalf to the jury. Stone’s gambit failed — and worse, he’s now has to argue for Naz after sitting second chair during the trial and letting Chandra take the lead.
This is seemingly the moment John Stone has always waited for, a chance to show he’s a real attorney who can successfully litigate in court, not just take plea deals at $250 a pop for the petty criminals that populate precinct jail cells every night. Yet the pressure of fighting for Naz’s life, to make an impression on a jury that’s only seen him sit at a table, and having all of this thrown in his lap at the last minute, causes extreme stress for Stone. And with that comes the return of his old friend eczema.
The disease comes back with a vengeance too, after being kept at bay for so long. It’s not just Stone’s feet that are under attack. He itches and breaks out everywhere. Panicked by the return of the eczema, along with the pressure of writing a convincing closing argument, Stone tries every remedy that’s ever been recommended to him. The Chinese herbs, the Clorox baths, the corticosteroids he’s prescribed. It’s all too much at once, and Stone ends up in the emergency room, his entire body now a walking sore.
It’s a heartbreaking development for Stone, who had seemingly conquered his embarrassing skin disease, finding his confidence as a lawyer and a person. No one has ever put on shoes and walked down the street feeling better about it. When he has to make the closing argument, Stone is a beaten, broken man, his skin irritation and inflammation apparent for all to see. He has to wear the sandals again and cover up his hands with white gloves that make him look like a sick joke of a jazz dancer.
However, Stone fights his self-doubt and irritated skin to make the closing argument he surely envisioned from the moment he decided to take on Naz’s case. He tells the jury about the scared kid he saw in the precinct that night, and his belief in Naz’s innocence is clear to the jury. We know that he’s not just arguing for a young man on trial for murder, but also for himself, to show that he’s a hard-luck attorney who perhaps could have been a high-priced defense attorney under different circumstances. Yet constantly being judged and scorned for his condition and career allows him to relate to Naz in a way that Chandra, Allison Crowe or another lawyer likely never would have. He doesn’t want to see the system rob someone of what can still be a good life.
Stone’s argument is more heartfelt than Weiss’s and convincing enough to hopelessly deadlock the jury, despite the judge’s attempts to force further deliberation and reach a verdict. Had The Night Of been longer than eight episodes, maybe we would have gotten a glimpse of those deliberations. But since the jury was largely anonymous throughout the series, and lawyers and civilians never get to see the jury have those closed-door discussions, that probably would have been a bad reach by Price and Zaillian. With the jury refusing to budge, the trial is over and Weiss has no interest in seeing the case retried with new lawyers (and new suspects). Naz is a free man, an outcome many initially rooted for, but came to question as his innocence became more doubtful.
Regardless, no one in this story appears to receive a happy ending. Chandra’s law career is over, and maybe she was never a good lawyer to begin with. Box and Weiss may find some redemption in successfully prosecuting Halle for Andrea’s murder. Freddy is heartbroken by losing his friend and protégé, whose innocence captivated him. Maybe Don Taylor has the best ending here, if he’s able to get his hands on Evelyn Cornish’s fortune.
Naz may no longer be in jail, but everyone around him casts judgment, seemingly convinced he committed murder. He now has a drug habit, thanks to smoking heroin with Freddy. His family life is wrecked, and he can’t get past his mother doubting his innocence. Getting his former life back seems impossible; he’s been forever changed by this experience. Stone is back to crawling precincts and taking small-time cases for $250 apiece, cash only. Defending Naz and forcing a hung jury hasn’t changed his life. Though maybe he now knows he can do better. At the very least, he has Andrea’s cat, allergies be damned. Stone saved more than one life in this story. Seeing him become some kind of hero feels like a pretty good ending.
[You can read all of our The Night Of recaps and coverage here.]