“The Night Of” is about a lot of things.
It’s not, however, about whether or not Nasir “Naz” Khan murdered Andrea Cornish.
Andrea’s mysterious death may be the catalyst for everything that happens on HBO’s “The Night Of,” but this is a show that has its sights on far grander things. This story is being told as a statement. That murder case is just the hook.
Here are some of the things “The Night Of” actually is about: Naz’s (Riz Ahmed) complete transformation from shy college kid to hardened inmate; his father’s (Peyman Moaddi) taxi cab becoming the permanent property of the state; his mother (Poorna Jagannathan) being unable to get any job better than janitorial work simply because of their relationship.
Like its HBO predecessor “The Wire,” “The Night Of” is a statement show. It has things to say about our criminal justice system, and how it can ruin somebody’s life even without convicting that person of a crime, and about how impersonal and dehumanizing the system is for everyone involved.
If you simply looked at the premise, you might easily think it’s a mystery show. Naz meets Andrea (Sofia Black-D’Elia) in a pretty random fashion. They hang out, drink, do drugs, have sex, pass out. When the man wakes up, he finds the woman has been stabbed to death.
That’s a classic mystery hook right there, presented in the sort of way that, in a standard mystery story, would indicate the main character has been framed and the good guys have to figure out who did it before it’s too late — too late normally meaning before he’s convicted of the murder.
We’re approaching the end of this story now, though, and Naz has not been convicted. But we’re already far beyond “too late.” Naz is ruined. His family is ruined and at this point believes he did it. The people of New York and the rest of the country already think of him as a murderer. Racism-fueled violence against Muslims and brown people is on the rise in NYC, specifically because of the murder charge that Naz faces.
And in the system itself, nobody cares if he did it. His lawyer, Jack Stone (John Turturro), doesn’t care because his possible innocence is immaterial to his defense. The cops and the prosecution team don’t care because they know they have enough evidence to convict him regardless. People, including the presiding judge and the prosecutors, keep telling Stone how happy they are for him that he got a big case — to the system, Naz barely even registers as a person.
If he ends up being acquitted in Sunday night’s finale, there’s no chance his life will simply go back to how it was before. There can be no happy ending for him. The damage is done.
If Naz does get off, his life will be dictated by the debt he owes Freddy (Michael Kenneth Williams) for protecting him in Rikers. Even from a prison cell, this man rules Queens, where Naz is from — Freddy owns him now. Naz wouldn’t be able to go back to living with his family, either, after the extreme damage that’s been done to their relationship. He’ll probably turn to a life of crime, because most of the personal connections he has left are criminal ones.
Nasir Khan’s life as he knew it is already over.
All of these things are what “The Night Of” is actually about. The mystery itself matters little. Even Naz himself is secondary in the big picture — he represents every real person who’s been put through the system in this way, and there are a ton of them.
The show recalls “The Wire,” which also went beyond solving crimes even though a lot of its main characters were, you know, cops who were attempting to solve crimes.
Both “The Night Of” and “The Wire” (“The Night Of” co-creator Richard Price, by the way, also wrote several episodes of “The Wire”) are about broken systems and government institutions that perpetuate the kind of things they’re ostensibly trying to stop or prevent, and the people on all sides who are ground up and spit out by them.
So whatever happens in the finale — whether or not we find out for sure if Naz did it, and whether or not he’s acquitted — remember that.