Eight episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
It takes a while to put your finger on why the opening episode of HBO’s The Night Of is so damnably unnerving. For most of its length, the premiere follows a fairly standard small-kid-big-city narrative, with Riz Ahmed’s nerdy college student Nasir Khan (that’s “Naz” for short) “borrowing” his father’s yellow cab to sneak out to one of the few parties he’s been lucky enough to score an invite to. Making his way through the maze of traffic lights and stumbling pedestrians, he’s surprised when a beautiful young woman (Sofia Black D’Elia) steps into the car, looking to catch a ride. The two lock eyes; from Naz’s perspective at least, it seems like there’s something there – and off they go on an unexpected escapade through New York.
At first, you wonder whether you’re simply a biased observer, knowing as will most viewers of the murder-mystery crime drama that something bad is about to happen. But then, all of a sudden, the subtle brilliance of what writers Richard Price and Steven Zaillian (the latter of whom directed seven out of the eight episodes in one of many True Detective-esque flourishes) are doing with their opening hour sets in.
You become cognizant, intoxicated along with Naz by the adrenaline rush of his spontaneous, wild night, of the unshakable feeling that he’s being watched. The camera leers, peeking out at him from every shadowy street corner – and so does every passerby. In his exuberant glee to be free – from academic pressures, familial expectations, and even his own self-doubt – Naz is leaving a striking trail in his wake.
Then, as it must, the gathering storm descends into a brutal crack of lightning. Naz awakens at the girl’s kitchen table and stumbles upstairs to say goodnight then head home – to find her not just dead, but savagely murdered. There’s blood on the sheets, the floor, the walls, and all over Naz, whose recollection of the night is spotty to say the least.
From there, the larger rhythms of The Night Of become apparent, as Naz is thrust – eyes bigger with every looming threat – into the inhuman clockwork engine of the criminal justice system. His booking and processing by hard-worn yet impulsively hostile cops (including the slyly loathsome Box, played brilliantly by Bill Camp) is depicted at agonizing length, as is the manner in which his Pakistani-American parents (Peyman Moaadi and Poorna Jagannathan), first optimistic and mildly trusting of the system, are grated down to nothing by a miserable procession of prosecutors and outsiders who judge, scorn, or manipulate their guileless innocence.
By the time Naz arrives at Rikers Island, it’s clear that The Night Of aims to prolong his crucible. Prison inmate-turned-kingpin Freddy (Michael K. Williams) is the seductive Kaa to Ahmed’s naive Mowgli, whispering promises of protection from vigilante-justice-dispensing prisoners even as what he demands of the boy takes a potentially even more devastating toll.
On the outside, his parents meet with scrappy defender Jack Stone (John Turturro, taking over the role meant for James Gandolfini before his untimely death), whose knowledge of the system can’t prevent him from becoming invested in the bug-eyed kid he has a hunch didn’t do it. Stone (played to a tee by Turturro, whose versatile facial expressions and sagging voice themselves deserve an Emmy) is an uncommonly fascinating puzzle-piece, nursing open sores on his feet from debilitating eczema but burdened by far more than physical pain. Though the question of Naz’s innocence serves as the crux of the narrative, Stone’s inner morality – and the dogged tenacity of his belief in a system he readily admits to be stacked against Naz – proves equally as fascinating.
A drama like The Night Of is nothing without its ensemble – and everything because of it. Turturro’s bitter yet commendable portrayal is mesmerizing, fleshing out the intricacies of a man caught between the more self-serving elements of his profession and an intrinsic desire to fight for something that may turn out to be worth the strain. Camp, too, is staggering in how cleverly his rough-and-tumble detective works every angle to pump even the individuals he’s not interrogating for every last scrap of information and insight. Enough can’t be said about the mighty gravitas and menace Williams brings to his performance as a criminal who’s already committed himself to self-preservation in an environment designed to quash him.
But Ahmed, who should have been Oscar-nominated for Nightcrawler, is best of all. As Naz, a caged animal who could be a lamb, a lion, or a snake, he’s downright chameleonic, sometimes courting our sympathies and other times throwing into question whether he’s deserving of them (as well as whether he might have been capable of the crime he steadfastly denies having committed). Ahmed thrives on the ambiguity. As The Night Of gathers in tension and mounts in scale, his work remains its haunting, hypnotic center.
Like The Wire and True Detective before it, The Night Of has a lot to say about the dehumanizing darkness of bureaucracy, and the ways in which prejudice can seep into the corners of the criminal justice system, corrupting it and throwing the scales into dramatic yet sometimes intangible imbalance. With Islam, immigration, xenophobia, misogyny, racial tension, economic disparity, and larger questions of innocence and guilt weighing over the proceedings, it’s astounding how compelling and hypnotic The Night Of remains throughout its length. This is the kind of drama that only comes along once in a very long while: one that can knock you flat, confound your expectations, expand your perspective, masterfully manipulate your mood, and leave you utterly trapped in its uniquely topical haze of lost souls searching for answers in a world that defies easy ones at every turn.
HBO's next great drama has arrived; The Night Of is a relentlessly dark and devastating look at the U.S. criminal justice system that feels eerily tailored to our consummately conflicted, painfully divided times.