How The Night Of upends everything you think you know about police and prison

The effect is interestingly eerie

Paul Sparks stars in The Night Of.
(Image credit: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

There's a sponge-like quality to the second episode of HBO's limited miniseries The Night Of, as the show expands past the detectives' intimate dance with murder-suspect Nasir in the pilot to absorb and wring out the ugly fluids of the entire criminal justice system.

I suggested last week that The Night Of was messing a little with the procedural format by sticking so closely to Nasir — a choice that pretty dramatically reverses the genre's convention of positioning us with the truth-seeking detective. The pilot expressly aligned viewers with the defendant. In so doing, The Night Of stuck us in a weird spot: Primed to watch a procedural and detect some crime, we instead experienced the horror of forensics as they closed around Nasir like a trap.

The second episode, "Subtle Beast," exploits a different strain of procedural claustrophobia. In a move reminiscent of co-creator Richard Price's earlier project The Wire, the show starts to zoom out, stretching past Nasir into the peculiar temporary communities that develop around a crime — from Nasir's unoffending family to the police in other Manhattan precincts to the victim's peculiar stepfather. There's a lot of grim but cordial sociality, which is … confusing. Box's apparent decency throws everyone off. It's brilliant (if unsurprising) for him to position himself as Nasir's benefactor, the man who broke the rules to let the Khans see their son. Typical good cop stuff. But we actually haven't seen a lot of smart "good cop" psychology onscreen in recent years, and the vertigo it produced felt real to me. I shared the Khans' disorientation. At least hostility is straightforward.

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That said, the "subtle beast" speech for which the episode was titled felt like a misstep (the phrase sounded alien in both John Turturro and Riz Ahmed's hands and felt very much like it was officially announcing This Episode's Theme). Still, it does highlight something real and worrying about Box's abilities.

The same goes for the surprisingly three-dimensional guards, who — because they come across as actual human beings — make Nasir's situation feel a thousand times worse. There are a lot of bleak corridors and gates in this episode, a lot of dimly lit precincts and prisons that evoke a kind of horror the guards' affect doesn't match. It's spooky. The camera smears out of focus frequently during the transports, its depth of field getting shallower and shallower until everything blurs. But fighting against that dizzy, grimy footage is whatever writerly and thespian craft went into giving every correctional officer a moment of bleary but specific humanity. Never before has a guard onscreen removed a cellphone from an inmate's rectum so matter of factly. Another show might have made that a set piece in sadism and inmate abuse; this scene was very pointedly not that.

The effect is interestingly eerie! The horrors we're trained to expect in a New Guy in Prison story keep failing to arrive in the trappings we expect. The Harvard shirt Box gives Nasir in what I interpreted as an ugly punishment — let's get you beat up since you won't talk to me — doesn't get him beat up. Why?

Interestingly, the fact that the show doesn't follow through — that it isn't following the Rules of Prison as we viewers understand them — thrusts us into confusion similar to Nasir's. It's destabilizing (to us) that he doesn't get attacked. Why aren't things neatly and predictably adversarial as we've been taught they should be?

Box addresses this: He pretends to resent the human instinct to commune rather than fight because it compromises his machine. He tattles to Nasir that Stone is hanging out with his enemies, the cops downstairs. "It's a big club, the criminal justice system," he says. "We can't exist without each other and we know it." His charge is that Stone is guilty of a form of crony capitalism: Jack Stone doesn't care. He's only in it for the money.

Let's take a minute to admire Box's moxie here. It's quite a move for a detective to suggest to his suspect that his lawyer has an ulterior motive. But he pulls it off. He even claims he's above that kind of sordid frat-bro complicity. He isn't drinking coffee with the opposition, he's up here with Nasir! Seeking the truth! A pro at weaponizing his good-guy brand, Box uses every blandishment he can to get Nasir to open up.

It's a testament to the quality of the writing here that we believe that Nasir (a very booksmart guy) might fall for it. I almost fell for it. Box seems so world-weary and decent, he makes you want to confess to him, especially after Stone refused to hear Nasir's explanation of what really happened. ("I don't want to be stuck with the truth," he says. "Not till I have to be.")

This is all to say that I don't see a lot of merit to the objection (voiced by more than a few) that Nasir was too stupid in the pilot — too trusting, too easily caught and manipulated. Box's gift for eliciting the truth and putting people at ease is how he gets Andrea's (extremely suspicious!) stepfather to talk to him. It's also how he arranges for Nasir to talk to his parents in a room within his hearing. Box isn't really a subtle beast — again, playing Good Cop isn't that innovative — but he is a clever weasel. The little play he staged with the guard who wouldn't let the Khans see their son was routine but heartbreakingly effective. Ugly stuff, particularly since you've watched the Khans try to navigate this insane system. Safar's plate of food kind of broke me (kudos to Poorna Jaganathan for her remarkably understated performance).

Let's dwell on that plate: The other damage this episode captured was the unreal financial havoc an investigation wreaks upon the innocent. "That's all they are, Your Honor. Charges, not facts," Stone tells the judge, but Khan and his family are decisively and permanently punished anyway, even if no one admits it. The cab, Nasir's stuff, the state even takes their computer — the tool they were using to navigate the system. It's quite clear they may never get any of it back, and that those consequences are dire for a family this hard up. It's especially ugly — in light of the losses we witness — that Box tells Nasir he'll help his father recover his cab, then goes to visit it and does nothing of the kind.

If the first episode's nightmare was more or less Stone's speech to Nasir — "the truth can go to hell because it won't help you" — the nightmare of this one is that the Khans' lives really are just a job for everyone involved. The camera lingers beautifully on the ennui of the court system — the security lines, the dead time that leads people to fetishize coffee. That shot of Jeannie Berlin (playing prosecutor Helen Weiss) almost in silhouette against a wall is beautiful and totally captures the legal system's fatal combination of boredom with high stakes. And stasis is better than the alternative. When the camera cuts from Nasir in the transport to Box in his car, listening to opera, to Stone riding the subway, it's clear that when everyone's moving, they're not going anywhere good.

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Lili Loofbourow

Lili Loofbourow is the culture critic at She's also a special correspondent for the Los Angeles Review of Books and an editor for Beyond Criticism, a Bloomsbury Academic series dedicated to formally experimental criticism. Her writing has appeared in a variety of venues including The Guardian, Salon, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, and Slate.