Countless reviews of HBO’s “The Night Of” have called the limited series a procedural, which is by all means correct. It’s a wandering, thoughtful examination of a crime and its subsequent punishments, and the lives affected as a result.
But the framework of procedural, as it applies to television, conjures images of an assembly line — like the bleak atrocities that come up in 22 minutes of “Law & Order” or any number of “CSI” spinoffs.
“The Night Of” is not that. It’s a slow-burn showcase of humanity (mostly its darker shades), mapped out across the New York criminal justice system and the cultures and families entangled in it.
Episode one, “The Beach,” is a procedural (it sort of had to be) — and by the end of it we have a murder victim, a low-brow lawyer, a self-interested police detective, comic relief beat cops and a suspect who turns the world of his humble Pakistani-American family upside down.
This will be a lengthy chewing through of the 79-minute premiere, as it’s TheWrap’s goal to examine the episode in beats, and arm you with information to carry through the next seven weeks. Starting with …
Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed) is a mumbling college student, so damn sweet and innocent-looking that someone eventually refers to him a “Bambi.” He tutors the university basketball players (a team overly named “the Kings”), frustrated with their lack of interest in textbooks but not immune to fandom as he watches them practice from the bleachers.
In the first moments of episode one, Naz scores an invite to an athlete party in Downtown Manhattan — a world away from his tight-knit Muslim community in Queens. Naz’s parents are a cab driver and shop worker, content with their eldest and his younger brother discussing Carmelo Anthony at the dinner table, but Mom is hesitant.
“I don’t like you going to that something like that,” says mom Safar (Poorna Jagannathan).
“Like what? Like a black party?” Naz returns, as he and his brother laugh at their traditional mother’s conservatism. It’s the first mile-marker in what will be a long meditation on race and culture but, yes, the college basketball players are black. And, yes, Naz is vibrating with excitement to gain access to their circle, even if it’s just for a Friday night.
And then a snag. His wingman, the team equipment boy, can’t pick him up as promised. Naz is grounded, decked out in his leather jacket and all rehearsed on his opening lines for the ladies.
He makes a split-second decision to take off in father’s cab (an investment Dad shares with two friends) and heads for the city. (Annoyed he didn’t just take an Uber? Read more about that here).
Joy riding out of the borough into Manhattan, with a quick obligatory toll booth surveillance camera shot along the way, Naz smiles like any kid emboldened by a bad decision well executed. But some technical difficulties catch up with him, as he cannot seem to switch on the cab’s “off-duty light,” and pedestrians keep trying to hail him.
He’s pulled over trying to find directions when two bearded hipsters pile into the back and refuse to get out despite their driver’s protests. It’s a passing cop car that helps Naz muscle the unwanted riders — he even asks one of the officers for directions to his party, but before he can head out again, a young woman (Sofia Black-D’Elia, whose name alone probably got her cast) climbs into the back.
A Problem Like Andrea
She’s raven-haired and pouty and broken. She’s dangerous in all the right ways, and the second Naz spots her in the rearview mirror, he’s toast.
Where does she want to go? “The beach.”
It’s a beautiful exchange, really, if you didn’t know this was a crime series and could guess what’s in store for these two. They speak in one-and-two word responses. She wants to see the water and Naz wants to be in her company. On this new journey, it feels like Naz would blank on the proper name of a basketball let alone remember there was a team party he’s expected at.
He takes her uptown to a spot along the Hudson. It’s the only thing close to a beach. There’s a specific kind of loneliness conveyed in his decision to indulge this troubled girl. He’s not just an awkward kid rehearsing his pick-up lines — there’s real longing in him to connect, perhaps on levels beyond social and sexual. Her name is Andrea, but we won’t know until much later. Too late, in fact.
En route to the river, he makes a gas station stop, and more surveillance footage is captured. She’s thirsty, and while he fetches her a drink, she flicks her cigarette near the gas pumps. A tall, stone-faced African-American hearse driver (truly, sitting on the hood of a hearse) stares her down, and walks the lit butt back up to the cab.
“Do you want to be my next passenger?” the man asks, stubbing it out on the glass of her window. This will not be their only confrontation with passerby that night, but back to the river. She produces Ecstasy, and with little-to-no fight Naz takes it.
Naz parks the cab (in front of a fire hydrant, noticeably) and parades with Andrea down a street of expensive Westside townhouses. They’ve left the river for her place. It’s either the pill or the promise of things to come that have them looking like longtime lovers, and things stay cosy until two passing African-American men lob an ethnic slur at Naz.
Juiced from the drugs he’s taken, Naz hears something along the lines of a “Mustafa” joke from the aggressor in the pair (JD Williams) and asks,”What did you say?”
The men turn, shocked for a moment at the nerve of Bambi to shout back. Andrea helps break the tension, but one guy lingers in the confrontaiton — a staring contest ensues, a vicious kind of heat coming from the anonymous man watching Naz enter Andrea’s home.
Once inside the expensive triplex (the decor of which is somewhere between a children’s psych ward and the mud room of a Trump Family elk lodge), a new game starts.
Naz is allergic to Andrea’s cat, and after a few pulls on his inhaler she takes the furry thing outside through the downstairs kitchen. As she slams the street-facing security gate, it bounces off the rusted lock and sits ajar.
Andrea then busts out tequila shots (and a razor sharp Japanese knife to get those lime wedges perfect), a powdery white substance she coerces Naz to snort and a terrible round of the knife game that ends up with Naz puncturing her through the top of the palm. For Andrea it’s not a buzzkill, it’s an aphrodisiac.
The pair fumble upstairs and as they progress, there is no end to the surfaces Andrea’s bleeding palm touches. Naz’s face and neck, the banister at the end of the stairs, the walls, the bedroom doorknob, his shirt as she pulls it off, her own clothes peeling off. The last thing we see before the camera fades on the two making love is Naz’s back — covered in what look like faded scratches, which could easily be from Andrea as they headed upstairs. Or not.
Doors (Open and Closed)
Naz comes to in the kitchen, two floors below the room where we last saw him rolling around with Andrea. He’s found his T-shirt and his underwear. As he tries to make sense of his surroundings, what looks like morning light illuminating him is actually a glow from the wide-open refrigerator door.
He’s got to get dressed, he’s got to return the cab, he’s got to sleep off the remainder of the drugs and alcohol and process his wild Manhattan night. He walks to the bedroom for his clothes and talks to Andrea, laid out on the mattress, politely trying to leave. She does not respond.
A quick flick of the lamp switch gives Naz an answer he doesn’t want. He turns it off, then back on. Andrea and everything in her vicinity are completely soaked in blood. She is stabbed, angry and primitive wounds everywhere.
So Naz flees in total panic. It’s a face-palming moment, for several reasons we can explore over the next few episodes. Once back at the cab (which has a ticket in the windshield, thanks to that hydrant!) Naz realizes he doesn’t have his car keys, phone or jacket.
Back to the townhouse now, where he has to break through a glass panel on the front door to get back inside. There he retrieves his stuff and makes off with a parting gift — the Japanese knife they used to play
If “The Night Of” is a procedural, then it doesn’t arguably start until Naz is back in his father’s cab, speeding away from a gruesome murder scene — one he discovered after waking up from a presumed blackout at the home of a one night stand.
At a red light on his way back to Queens, Naz has an eerie moment with a motorcyclist staring him down through his matte-black helmet. He then realizes the knife is sitting on the cab dashboard, visible, and quietly slips it in his inside jacket pocket. The exchange rattles him further and moments later, after an illegal left turn, Naz is stopped by the NYPD. Now the clock starts ticking.
It’s easy for the responding Officer Wiggins (a brilliant, totally-over-it Afton Williamson) to tell Naz is under the influence, as she says, “I’m getting high just conversating with you.” She pulls him from the car for a sobriety test, but the officers get a distressed call from dispatch.
The cops decide their urgent call is just that, but don’t want Naz back on the street in his condition. They tell him to abandon the cab and climb into the squad car. Naz is now distressed — his dad needs the cab for work — but is not met with sympathy.
As you can imagine, that call they’re responding to is a possible break-in at a fancy townhouse. The officers and Naz unwittingly retrace his steps back to Andrea’s and there, standing in the middle of the street, is plaid peacoat. In moments police discover the body, more squad cars arrive, neighbors form behind police tape to spy. And Naz is just sitting there, presumed tagalong drunk driver. He is eventually sent to a local precinct by the just-assigned detective Sgt. Box, who doesn’t want any peripheral players on his murder scene.
We’re almost at the finish line of the premiere, but if enough hadn’t happened in the first hour, the final act presents some need-to-know characters.
Box (Bill Camp) beautifully plays an entrenched law enforcement agent stopping just short of full cliche. He’s an operator within the police force and the groups they work with in greasing the wheels of criminal justice. He’s the kind of guy that finishes your sentence, and has a folksy but masculine quality that says “I understand you.” But does he? It’s a coin toss. He wants cases off his desk. He especially wants a conviction in the murder of a young, rich white girl.
Naz lingers in the station for what feels like ages, one eye on the door. It’s been a long night, and officers don’t seem to know who is being processed for what. At one point, Naz tries to casually walk out, but an approaching Box sends him right back inside.
The revelation that Naz was never given a breathalyzer gives him, literally, a get out of jail free card for his suspected DWI. Except, before he goes, a body search. In perhaps the best of several agonizing sequences, Naz gets a head-to-toe frisking as Box is heard in the background describing Andrea’s mutilated body and the kind of weapon used to do it.
And then Naz’s body search turns up the knife. From the tequila limes and knife game, from hours ago, from what feels like a different show entirely. He makes one more attempt to run, but it’s over. They remand him to custody as a suspect in Andrea’ murder. Her last name, her file says, is Taylor.
The Coming Days
Now that Naz is in the hands of a pro like Box, we see the “Night Of” writers take us beyond the intrigue of a dreamlike sexual encounter and the gruesome murder of a young woman. We’re never going back to the beach. We’re in the precinct, and the view doesn’t look likely to improve.
Box engages Naz in a line of questioning that would give the ACLU heart palpitations, but will not immediately charge him with a crime. Some are absurdly leading: When Naz says firmly he did not kill Andrea, Box comes back with, “Well, you had sex with her.”
It’s a bold attempt to extrapolate one from the other, and a predatory move on a “good Muslim boy,” as Box put it, who clearly isn’t in the habit of recreational drug use and casual sex.
The word “lawyer” isn’t even mentioned in their lengthy chats at the end of the episode, where Box describes almost lyrically how much evidence exists to pin Naz with the crime — whether he owns up to being wasted and engaging in consensual sex or he doesn’t.
He’s also subjected to an invasive DNA sweep that pokes his cuts and scratches, photographs every inch of his body and swabs his penis. It’s interesting to see an investigation of this nature play out with someone who seems so innocent. Bambi’s penile swab.
Blood From Stone
In the last minutes, we meet defense attorney John Stone (John Turturro, who rest assured will be prominent in the episodes ahead). This isn’t a public defender, he’s the small potatoes salvation for hookers and drunks and misdemeanor drug possession. He advertises on the subway, “No Fee ‘Til You’re Free.”
While in the same precinct as Naz, visiting a prostitute client named Pauline, Stone gets one look at the doe-eyed boy now stripped of his Friday night party clothes, poked and prodded like the crime scene his body was labelled as and leaning defeated in a jail cell. Stone can’t help himself. He lies to the officer on duty and says he’s representing Naz, and the two meet for the first time ever as attorney and client.
Naz will need him, and not just for the sage advice “Don’t talk to nobody,” which Turturro has been repeating in trailers and promo spots for weeks.
In addition to the physical evidence, Box has found the guy who made the “Mustafa” joke outside Andrea’s earlier that night. The Kahns are about to learn where their son — and their cab — has been. And the New York newspapers can always smell blood.
Come back next week for a recap of “The Night Of,” episode two.