The Night Of: Season 01, Episode 08: The Call of the Wild
These episode titles have all been intentionally provocative; the finale’s is a treatise on nature, man’s animalism, and the ultimate inability to escape one’s basest instincts. Its “previously on” highlights Naz’s mother asking “did I raise an animal?” In the episode itself we have a Prodigal Son scene, a physical leper sitting across from the metaphorical one, and the un-ironic words “everybody’s got a cross to bear.”
There’s something to be said about being so brutally direct a high school freshman can suss out your basic metaphors and references. Directness can be refreshing, when you’re not trying to be so obscure and too fancy. The problem is The Night Of’s directness, like its eczema and emphasis on Dangerous Black Men, neither obscures nor enhances a deeper meaning. The directness simply exists.
The episode niftily pulls together three disparate events – Box’s private investigation and the conclusions he comes to; new evidence; the courtroom ongoings themselves. We see Box reviewing Andrea on a surveillance cam, it switches to an ‘objective’ account of Andrea doing things we saw in the pilot and know to be fact, then uses voiceover of the event to segue into to the courtroom where the voiceover is shown to be testimony. In this way we’re led through Box’s mental reasoning, and the episode gives is his piecings together as fact. The reasonings are properly established as Facts in-universe several scenes later, when Box’s sleuthing finds Andrea arguing with a man on yet another security camera. We don’t see how Box finds that footage, presumably a lot of footage scrolling by a lackey. It’s a ‘cheat,’ but it works.
It’s hardly the only cheat, small or egregious, in the finale. In a small yet typical filmmaking shortcut, it cheats by asking the court stenographer to read back the record and she has it just a couple inches up on her roll, like it happened moments ago. In a whopping cheat, it holds out on telling us until the very last episode that someone we the audience know was at the murder scene, and saw the victim, had an MO which matched the murder. Everyone involved knew this before it’s pulled out on the audience like a rabbit from a hat.
A six-six jury deadlock also feels like a cheat. But the real kicker of the whole show, the thing it spent eight hours leading up to, is that in the end we don’t know if he did it. The show needed to last that long so it could draw out the juicy pleasure of denying the audience Knowing. This ambiguous ending something probably only a handful of CSI episodes did. (The episode attempts self-awareness in its closing scene by having Stone watch a forensic special which refers to CSIs.) In so many ways, the show cheats around its ending. Until the finale, not only were we not sure of the guilty party, but we didn’t know all the suspects. We didn’t know the murderer. We didn’t know the show’s endgame. Some may call this genius, and I’m absolutely a fan of leaving the ending unresolved. But the way they do it, leaving true suspects unknown to us until the bitter end, feels too much like the ‘twist’ in one of those movies like The Bone Collector and its hundreds of ripoffs, where it acts as though it’s tricked you by putting the perp on screen for four minutes, not doing work of foreshadowing or hinting, then wham, ‘revealing’ he’s the killer.
This procedural episode with its ‘twist courtroom reveals’ a la Law & Order might not feel as much like a cheat if the pilot hadn’t been set up as an anti-procedural. An example of its anti-procedural-ness is the extended, slowly paced segment of questioning and cross-questioning. Most of our film, TV, even podcasts playing back real court excerpts, don’t allow any section to drag on this long, at least not without a series of interjections or voiceover or flashbacks. Thankfully, this episode resists flashbacks in the section where Weiss questions Naz. Their exchange is slow and patient, demanding attention in ways most modern media doesn’t, and most TV stations can’t, afford. It could be boring and monotonous but the acting raises this scene to a perfect degree of tension, and holds it there an impressively long time.
It effectively takes us past where procedurals go in the process of release, as well. The Naz who comes out is different than the one who went in. Or is he? Like the audience, mom wonders whether he’s been this animal all along. That’s what the entire exercise has been about. In that, at least, it was successful. In how it was about it, though, it was not always. Its mystery is solved in a hollow way, with a character who has far less screen time than a tabby cat.
The series certainly doesn’t play well by its women and black men, either. Boy, does it not do well by its women.
In one somewhat encouraging scene, Stone acts as though Chandra doesn’t have the right to make decisions about Naz testifying, but she immediately refutes that by pointing out she has been doing all the heavy lifting and lead work on the case.
She proceeds to undermine both her moral high ground and her smarts by becoming a drug mule for Naz, based on . . . falling in love or lust, apparently. Then she cries in the courtroom when her love is revealed to be untrustworthy. There’s a more charitable reading, which is Chandra seeing her decision to put Naz on the stand as being the decision which lost the case. That would be acceptable, but were that the case, it was completely obscured by the “I’m so in love with my client I smuggled drugs and risked my entire career for a kiss” plotline. What utter fucking tripe. The actress deserves better.
At least Naz has the decency to act as though he feels shame over his involvement in making Chandra . He then says he’s “ashamed” he ran after finding Andrea’s body. This makes us wonder: is he putting that on, too? Does he feel he ‘had’ to kill Andrea, and then lie about it, as self-preservation? The way this plotline adds to Naz’s opacity is its only redeeming quality, but that’s not nearly enough to salvage the ways the writers haphazardly assassinate the character and intelligence of the show’s only prominent woman of color.
‘Woman lawyer falls in love with her client, ruins career’ is the most egregious of several cliches. Naz gets more prison-specific, visible tattoos. Box sleeping at the precinct, a lone detective on a mission, opposed by the rest of his clan, following a lead based on instinct and having it pan out and leads him to an old perp he had arrested before. The DA lies in court, without consequence or worry about objection. Again, all might work well in a show which is more explicitly surreal, but in their Procedural On Steroids trappings, mixed with the overt Call of the Wild references, it all seems a bit too obvious.
In this wild, Naz completes the circle of nature. Naz becomes friends with new, jumpy inmate Terry, but is always circling, eying, and rips Terry’s throat out the moment he has a chance. Stone is much, much worse at playing the game. His push for a mistrial is rewarded with being top dog, but it’s a position he doesn’t want. [If you’re tired of the metaphor, blame the episode name and the actual gift of Jack London’s novel, not me. Stone states in court Rikers will turn anybody into a killer . . . you expect him to say “wolf”.]
If we could just believe that Naz “smells like innocence” and that casts a mystical spell on Stone and Chandra, if the whole thing were that old and mythical and surreal like the unicorn Freddie refers to, would it then work? Would it complete the animalistic overtones in a way which did something really new and interesting? Maybe.
Instead, we get more eczema, this time stress-induced Stone mixes all his remedies, and we spend several minutes with this sideplot before the episode gives an extended lead-up to a splotchy reveal. Taking several beats studying the back of Stone’s head even when we know it’s going to be splotchy is a microcosm of how the show is dealing with its reveals, holding out on the audience while thinking coyness and delay is a substitute for real twists.
Then we go back to the start, with visual mirroring of Stone on a train and Naz by the river, with a couple key details altered. The music wants us to note what remains the same [Stone] and be sad for what has changed [Naz], and tries to account properly for the dead woman with Naz’s drug-induced glimpses. It works fine.
The best parts of the show are those which frankly explore the often-hidden victims of the Justice System — the family and livelihood of those accused — and the scenes which delve into the eerie, trippy, mythological Symbols such as the hearse driver. The problem is, these two things are at loggerheads, and the rest of the material doesn’t tie them together. The acting is fantastic, the show is pretty, it does some interesting things, and it passes for daring in TV these days to leave the ending ambiguous. In the end, it’s about too hours too long for its contents, it plays far too coy, and it throws women and black characters under the bus in service of its protagonist, but if it doesn’t live up to its pilot, at least it gives us really great setpieces and things to talk about.
– The episode is fleshed out with insane amounts of pretty B-roll: rack focus from a punching bag to a doorway, a red railing in a dank stairwell, an aquarium Statue of Liberty, shallow-focus hallway symmetry.
– The exchange where Trevor hypothesises about cops smacking him around, then the camera cuts to Stone giving a mirthless chuckle of agreement, is goddamn perfect. Comedic timing: Turturro and the editor have it.
– Naz thanking Stone after closing arguments is touching. Dramatic capability: Turturro and Ahmed have it.
– Stone acknowledges bias inherent in the system, then almost immediately appeals to the jury’s ‘feelings’ about the tattoo’d brown boy in front of them. Not brilliant lawyering.
– The background noise track of the courtroom includes mostly people coughing. It’s like they recorded foley at a bronchitis convention.