The Night Of: Season 01, Episode 03, “The Dark Crate”

This episode has even more literal and figurative closeups than the prior two. Closeups on grimy tiles, directive signage, broken windows (get it?). Closeups on  the monotony, the paperwork, Naz hyperventilating, newspaper front pages in the lawyers’ nice briefcase, stone lions in Naz’s neighborhood. Slow scenes revolving around diets based on religion, washing of hands, cops having to redo their paperwork, quibbling about the term “throwing up” and “walking.”

After the rookie officer yet again protests the inclusion of his throwing up at the murder scene, Detective Box talks about how looks (especially looking guilty or innocent) matters more than truth and actuality. Box thinks a newbie cop throwing up will read well to a jury, it will humanize the cops. Ironically, Naz’s father thinks the same thing about Naz. “The jury will see you,” he says, assuming that to see Naz is to know he is innocent. In reality, it’s likely that for the jury to see him – an imprisoned brown person whose word is versus the cops – is to assume his guilt. Freddie is quick to point out guilt and innocence don’t matter in prison, either. Prison has its own inter-prison judicial system. Drugs are fine. Rape and murdering a girl is not.

It should be noted rape in most prisons hardly carries that stigma, but then one also has to note in the US, the actual judicial system is a 180 way in regard to drugs and rape. It’s wishful thinking the former is acceptable while the latter is punished. And why does Freddie take interest in Nasir, anyways? Why does the prison allow local news conferences with detailed criminal charges to be shown in the common rooms? How is the Court TV judge’s speech completely on-the-nose regarding Naz’s situation? All this because The Night Of  enjoys its fairy tale touches, albeit the darkest of fairy tales wrapped around a lot of truth.

One of the most interesting thing about the show is the way it packages and shoots a grim fairy tale about almost all mundane happenings, and the way they wrap truth in subterfuge.

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Stone talks fees and details about the case, tries to be charming, fails miserably. He tells the truth about how swamped the system and public defenders are, but he does it for his own reasons, as fearmongering and a way to land the case he wants. Even with truths are presented in this show, they’re being played as an angle.He ultimately asks for 50,000, and suggests the Khans take out a second mortgage. He barters, he wrangles, he sweats, and he grovels.

Then after all that, Alison swoops in and undercuts Stone on cost, pretending it’s because she’s good at heart, while in reality it’s because she can afford to, and because the publicity means more to her. Naz’s father thinks “she doesn’t want anything,” but she wants power and publicity she couldn’t otherwise buy. We know this the moment she’s introduced, surrounded by cameras. Telling the truth, maybe. But always in a way to get herself what she wants.

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The several neatly, openly arranged cell phones in Freddie’s cell tells us everything we need to know, but the episode makes sure to drive it home with several exhibitions of his power and reach. The casting here banks on Michael K Williams’ reputation as Omar from The Wire, even though he was most recently in the much-less-grim Ghostbusters. They mostly want a chance to show sex (because it’s HBO) with a guard out-of-then-back-in uniform, (because it’s edgy and explains the drugs). There’s basically no chance they acknowledge the rape dynamic in play, we just take this as our introduction to an accepted fact of prison life, like the guard threatening to put unruly inmates in the hospital, and surely meaning it.

Until now, the threatening characters have been cops/lawyers, and black men. In prison, we meet a white guy who — by nature of having a minor speaking role — looks to become an antagonist. Instead, we get . . .just more black guys. The fact they’re after Naz because they believe he’s a rapist does little or nothing to undercut the show’s consistent portrayal of black guys as thugs and murderers, and white guys as blue- or white-collar bureaucratic criminals.

While the prisoners toy with their prey, Helen plays nice to Stone’s face minutes after badmouthing him to a colleague. Any niceties exhibited are performative, mere layers to keep ‘civil society’ from thinking the lawyers and cops are just as vicious as the prisoners. Animal instincts must be kept veiled in polite society. It’s impossible to miss the symbolism of humans being cagey animals; actual animals are used as warnings for how ruthless the world can be. The description of what makes veal, the cat being dropped off and given 10 days to live while dogs howl, both are effectively creepy even if a bit fairy-tale-dramatic.

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Though it’s full of metaphors and stylization, the show doesn’t pretend it’s not referring to famous American cases, such as Adnan Syed, Kalief Browder, and echoes of the OJ Simpson case (which has been everywhere recently) when lawyers discuss jury composition. The race and religion ‘cards’ are all on the table, and the State is the one playing them. At a press conference, the prosecution coyly insinuates Naz has terrorist or gang ties, without ever saying as much. 

The main non-Naz-related subplot here involves Salim and his two friends being unable to work because their cab is considered evidence. The way police impound vehicles, how they will keep the car until after the trial or forever, and make money off it afterwards, is shown as just an inexorable fact, which benefits the State but may have devastating real-life implications such as bankruptcy for innocent people. Unless, of course, Salim files charges of Grand Theft Auto against Naz. The State will happily turn father against son, friend against friend, as they fight to survive and make a living. The cop will get kickbacks by referring the lawyer. It’s all a game, and the State has rigged it. 

Naz’s parents are dealing with blow after blow. Their means of making a living has been confiscated, as have their computers. Their son is in prison, they may have to take out another mortgage on their house, and finally Naz tells his parents the whole story,looking the most haggard he’s looked the whole show. He broke their trust, then he drank, then he had sex. Whatever happened, there’s more than one or two victims here. Several lives are being ruptured, not only Andrea’s and Naz’s.

Naz looks like a deer in the headlights in prison, an easy mark. There’s a really effective tension in the first shower scene, and Riz Ahmed’s performance wonderfully inspires both fear and empathy. After Naz is given the speech by Freddie, we know something will happen to break the unbearable tension. It’s almost a relief when it’s as ‘benign’ as his bed being set on fire. But it won’t end there, and we and Naz know he’s going to have to take Freddie’s deal.

All that is well done, and I’m sure the writers wanted to break it up with mundane as well as humorous bits, and tidbits which will surely come into play during the trial portion. Many such tidbits are inserted throughout, to mostly underwhelming effect. That’s the thing with HBO – if you don’t have to cull things for time, sometimes too much gets left in. I imagine some of the middle scenes as an attempted haiku:

A lost cat appears.
Gross eczema is treated.
Call to prayer is made.

The showing of these mundane, beautiful, and gross things all together, and their varying implications, are not as profound as the show maybe wants to think. It strives for high poetry, but ends up schoolyard verse. Not terrible, just fine. 

Nearly halfway through, we’re set up for a double-underdog trial, with Naz and Stone both at wild disadvantages. We know it will be Stone and not Alison, because we’ve seen television shows before. The sooner we get past the political maneuverings, posturing and machinations, the sooner we can get to the bottom of what happened to Naz, and what he really did or didn’t do that night. 

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Stray Observations

– The my-job-fired-me-because-they-think-I’m-ugly-now plotline works because it is truly terrible and gross, but still darkly comedic when viewed in comparison to the rest of the show.

– “Motherfucker what I just tell you!” and the genuine annoyance at Naz’s naïveté made me laugh out loud for probably the first time this series.

– The snapshot effect as Salim walks away obviously sets up someone is gathering information, in the most cliched way possible. As for ‘who and why,’ the show merely cares about sensationalizing and teasing future revelations.

– The focus on eczema has got to go. Surely there’s another way to insist Stone take antihistamines at a crucial juncture. If it’s supposed to be a grand extended metaphor on the futility of attempted solutions for an insolvable problem, it’s terrible. The support group is a weird comic relief, and though it follows the pattern of pursuing the details of the characters’ lives down to the mundane, but it also seems to be standing in for character development.

– Speaking of which: I can only imagine the foley artist getting a note: “we need a sound effect which is a grown man walking, wearing Birkenstocks, while his feet are smeared with Crisco and wrapped in saran wrap.

– The dramatic effect of metal-wanding kids and patting down adults has waned since the TSA has risen in prominence and power. What was once a powerful image revealing violation at the hands of strangers is now something we have to endure just to travel to Grandma’s house at Christmas. Thus, showing it here just elicits a shrug. How terrible all of that is.

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