The Night Of ended with an episode nearly as polished and grim as its premiere. But the finale — titled "The Call of the Wild" — was exhausted and ashen at all the beats where the premiere was bloody and sensationalist. The Khan family dinner in the finale was as quiet and total a bloodless tragedy as you're likely to see onscreen — so much so that I wish the show had ended where it began: with them. But finales take the measure of how far we've come, and the show's focus drifted from Naz: It ended instead with John Stone, a two-bit lawyer plagued by eczema who learned to love a cat.
This was not, in my judgment, the most resonant arc in this sprawling story.
Like its genre troubles, character development in The Night Of was brilliant in stages and spurts, but ambition got in its way. Many people were introduced with the detail and care that promised a long arc, that insisted — the way morally as well as aesthetically aspirational television will — it would see them in ways the system wouldn't. But the show didn't always follow through.
I'm thinking especially of Nasir's parents. The script really did a lot (more than most would) to show how much they needlessly suffered and lost. I will never forget Safar Khan's foil-wrapped plate of food as she sits waiting to see her son, or Salim's slow anger as he rejects his partners' suggestion that he charge Naz with grand theft auto. Those were perfect notes.
But intimately showcasing someone's plight is a little like that saying about saving someone's life: If you do it once, you're responsible for it forever.
This is especially true if your intervention doubles as advocacy. If you're pointing a finger and saying look at these people whose losses the system renders invisible, observe the particulars of their pain, you can't shrug off the intimacy you created just because you haven't left time for it. It looks like you're reproducing the system's amnesia, but worse: The only thing more painful than structural indifference is a sporadic sympathy that really understands but then moves on and forgets.
Peyman Moaadi and Poorna Jagannathan were huge assets as Salim and Safar Khan, and the finale would have benefitted from remembering its early bond with them. Even a single scene from their perspective would have been useful. But the series had zigged and zagged away from them for too long — this was a maximalist aesthetic stuffed into eight episodes — and they receded into a crushed middle distance that effectively spared us from experiencing their slow catastrophe with them.
The same happened with Naz, whose head we started in, but who became hermetic and unavailable to us. That drift is likely intentional — a comment on how people thrown into the prison system become illegible to the outside — but the effect is that the only perspectives we ended up occupying with real intimacy were those of Stone and Dennis Box (Bill Camp). I like Turturro and Camp a lot, but for a show that started off looking like an amazing experiment, like it was going to reverse the terms of a genre, this was disappointing. I can't think of territory that's been more extensively mined — that's safer to occupy — than the psychology of the disillusioned cop and the private dick (which was functionally Turturro's role).
One difficulty with coming into Box's head as late as we did is that we came on board just in time for a redemption arc that overwrote much of the institutional ugliness he himself facilitated. (The more time we spend away from the Khans' perspective, the easier this becomes.) Remember Box's perfidy when he assured Naz he'd get the taxi back for his folks, then went to where the taxi was being held and did nothing of the kind? If your reaction is "oh right — that happened," that's the problem. We have to work a little harder than we should to remember that. The Khans are out of sight for long enough that we can enter into sympathy with Box and leave feeling pretty good about the guy. He ends up with a moral high ground that's pretty middling when you look closely at it.
I don't mean that Box is irredeemable — not at all. What I do mean is that shuffling a story through different subjectivities is a tricky business. It makes it easy to get slippery about stakes you set up earlier, and The Night Of slipped a lot. It's hard to document a complicated and corrupt system while also diving deeply into specific characters' private complexes, and the show was far more adept at the former than the latter.
I praised the second episode awhile ago for how beautifully it portrayed the temporary community that arises around a crime: the cops, the lawyers, the prisoners, the families, the guards. The Night Of became some of the best TV out there whenever those facets came into contact: when Stone and Box and Freddy competed for psychological access to Naz, when Stone and Chandra wooed the Khans to represent him, even when Weiss and Stone were talking about a plea deal. Those were damning portraits of the obscure social capital that passes for currency in the criminal justice system. They showed how and why the people around Naz manipulate him (and each other) for reasons that have nothing to with him or with Andrea or with justice. Their choices and compromises were pragmatic and soul-deadening, to be sure. But they made sense in a way Chandra deciding to smuggle drugs simply didn't.
The show was least successful when it got too interested in its symbols. I'm the exception in remaining uncharmed by the revelation that Stone rescued the cat a second time. I'm glad anytime an animal lives, but the cat-as-metaphor-for-Naz is no more compelling than the cat-as-metaphor-for-Dwight or the cat-as-metaphor-for-Stone's-hope-for-humanity. (This is one of those cases where the literal object has more intrinsic weight than the symbolic function it's being asked to perform: By the finale, the cat's effect on Stone's immune system mattered more than the fact that it was the murdered woman's cat.) The eczema worked a little better, but still: These were both such obvious diminutions, such impoverished metaphors for the show's actual events.
What's more, the cat adds a veneer of sentimentality to the sharp and unfixable sadness of Naz smoking crack at the place where he and Andrea first bonded — and of that dinner with his family, and that conversation with his mom. It's a happy-ish ending trying hard to mitigate the awfulness we've witnessed by showing us that Stone has one good thing in his life. I mean, again: I'm glad he does! But my questions about this show were never "How is Stone feeling about all this?" And the fact that the show considered this its last and heftiest emotional note speaks to how diffuse it had grown by the end.
If symbols in dreams are the substitutes our minds concoct to protect us from fears and events and traumas too horrible to confront, the work of analysis is unraveling those symbols, to dig down to the horrors that motivate our nightmares. By ending instead on its symbols, The Night Of felt like it was trying to wrap its horror back up again. It's our equivalent of Naz's hit of crack — a moment of relief from the pain that's not answering any of the questions that matter, and serving no one especially well.