The Night Of: Season 01 Episode 05, The Season of the Witch
Cold open: closeup on blue lights lights flickering intermittently, an electronic hum in the background. It’s very horror-esque, until the camera pulls back to show a blue UV light aimed at Stone’s scaly feet. The episode ends the same way, in flickering blue light, only this time Stone is truly in danger, alone in a dark corridor holding a crowbar. It’s traditional horror territory.
In between these two genre moments is an episode filled with evidence sequences and character interactions, occasionally moving story or character forward, but mostly treading water, as though there was one too many episodes in the series and this is filler. This one they fill with ‘color’ – Stone’s eczema and sex life, and their effects on one another; Stone at his kids’ career day; Naz having to smuggle drugs to keep Freddy satisfied; Chandra doing paperwork and getting shocked about life’s realities. So it goes.
Much of the color is composed of cliches. Box is retiring, so this is his One Last Case. Box sorts paperwork and draws a trail, intercut with slivers of Naz’s night. Dogs bark in the sound mix, babies cry in the visit room for good measure. Big Bads play chess, because of course they do. Dudes objectify women as bonding. A shot of a needle going into an eyeball, because they have the budget and time to make the audience squeamish. A medium closeup of a flaccid black penis because they’re on HBO. Fancy closeups of foliage and a lovely LAUNDROMAT sign with almost all the letters out, because they have the time. Tick the boxes until you get BINGO.
Naz shaves his head, because that’s what tough guys do. A few pushups and one session with the punching bag later, Naz swaggers into the TV room. He’s goaded into beating a defenseless man in the shower, and we’re supposed to read it as Freddy does: Naz taking out his suppressed rage at injustice, the system, and Calvin, on said Calvin.Outside of his Rocky montage, the exploration we get of Naz is lovely and twisted. We’re pushed to think of Naz not only as ‘not a good boy,’ but as ‘never a good boy’ . . . Cut to him choking on a grape, hyperventilating, obviously thinking “what the fuck am I doing, what have I gotten into, is there any way out.” Riz Ahmed sells the terror of trying to make it in a new, harsh environment. All this, combined with the revelation of Naz taking Adderall, and then lying about it, challenges his Good Boy status, but in interesting ways. We understand exactly why he did what he did, even as we realize it fairly casts doubt on his word. We’d probably do the same in his position, and that’s the true horror here.
Much of Naz’s actions in prison are simply posturing; when we see him in later scenes, freaking out at having to swallow the baggie pods, sweating and straining and chugging castor oil to pass them, we’re meant to think most of these prisoners we knock as bad guys or thugs are doing it to survive the system society has placed them in. Performativity of hypermasculinity and hatred corrupts, but often you have no other option to survive, this perpetuates the cycle, etc.
The main problem is, the show doesn’t take that route with anyone but Naz. Freddy, Freddy’s entourage guys, Calvin, Trevor, Duane, all are still seen as ‘legit thugs,’ and serve to stand in opposition to Naz’s path, instead of him serving as examples of what some of them used to be. Instead of spending so much screen time on Stone’s skin – which wildly distracts from the dialogue and procedure going on around it – why don’t we spend that time fleshing out the rest of these characters, making them two-dimensional? Naz is the only one allowed to have an arc, and while he is the center of the show, one of the points of a deconstruction of procedurals and murder investigations should be allowing us to explore the supporting cast.
One day describing this show will entail calling it “The one with the lawyer with foot ecxema,” not a legacy I’d want to aim for. We’re supposed to settle for small revelations of unnamed extras, such as the fact the black kid in Stones’ son’s class is the deputy inspector’s son. Is that supposed to surprise Stone? The class? The audience? We get the vignette, the show moves on.
Other moments, such as the cab storyline, are well visited. In an understated scene, we see how the system easily makes vulnerable (whether because of class, race, money, a combination of the above) people turn on each other when it means the difference between keeping or losing their livelihood. The insinuation Hasan is responsible because he was unable to keep his son from doing wrong – not murder, but taking the cab – and that means he needs to file suit on behalf of his friends’ livelihood, is powerful.
The issue isn’t the episode slowing down and breaking procedural, murder mystery, and prison drama into its base elements and exploring them. That’s great. It’s that in this deconstruction, the show often neglects to pay close attention to what the slow assembly of those pieces is saying about the characters. Being infinitely more concerned with style than content causes imbalance, and this episode is further offbalanced than the ones which have come before.
We know the beats. We know Chandra has to be a straight arrow, to counter Stone, to serve as the audience surrogate and get things explained. We understand the DA’s testimony practice with the Medical Examiner, who shows enough aptitude it’s obvious this is not his first time. Most egregiously, we know Stone is bluffing to the server/drug dealer that the middle aged balding guy guy drinking at the bar is a cop. It’s a damn stupid bluff; for all Stone knows, the guy is a regular and the server would know he wasn’t a cop. But it works, because it needs to, to advance Stone’s investigation. We know Stone will threaten, cajole, the guy will give up something, not much but enough. So it goes.
Because we know those beats, we want more about the characters, about their motivations or backstory or relationships, but this episode doles it out sparingly.
The best sequences are strengthened by their proximity. The scene with Freddie, Petey, and the grapes is not overdrawn. It’s twisted but the characters take it for granted. It’s gross yet not too explicit. It’s immediately followed with a short bit of humor, as Stone buys cat toys and tosses them into his guest room. Even the sickly green color of the pet store is a relief, as we’ve been mostly in the dark, cinematography wise. We can’t stand too many of these juxtaposed cutesy bits, but sprinkling them in here and there lightens the tension.
We’re obviously moving towards a trial, seeing both sides prepping along similar lines. Focus on the drugs, interview witnesses, sort out a timeline. With four more episodes and a reveal of another possible suspect, hopefully next episode will pick up some steam which has been leaking since the fantastic first episode.
– The episode description says Stone “rescues a detainee on Death Row,” which sounds fancy but means the cat.
– Nobody can accuse the show of not being pretty, thorough, and pretty thorough.
– Stone’s flat-rate investigator makes money on the side as a Scorsese impersonator.