Review: ‘The Night Of’ gets to know Jack Stone in ‘Subtle Beast’

A review of tonight's The Night Of coming up just as soon as this blog is like Jeopardy

“The truth can go to hell, because it doesn't help you.” -Jack

Where last week's premiere understandably spent most of its time on Naz, “Subtle Beast” more evenly splits things between lawyer and client, allowing us to really get to know the man who's going to try to keep Naz from going to prison for the rest of his life.

It's a simultaneously funny and poignant running gag throughout the episode that everyone Jack encounters – cops, lawyers, judges, even his ex-wife – instantly recognizes that he must have stumbled into a case this big, even as they all seem to be rooting for him. Whatever ambition he may have once had in life has long since given way to his life as a bottom-feeder, handing out “No Fee Till You're Free” business cards and negotiating plea deals for small-time offenders like Pauline. The eczema on his feet, and his constant scratching on it, has turned him into that guy on the subway whom nobody wants to sit next to, but you get the sense that his life was already a wreck even when he could wear proper shoes. He has a teenage son named after Dwight Gooden, but the boy seems to primarily live with his mom, and Jack shambles through his existence, picking up one job, then the next, then the next, and not overtaxing himself with any one of them.

Naz's case is different. It may, in time, turn out to be much more than he can handle, but for the moment, he's the kid's lifeline, and the Naz half of the episode illustrates that he's even in deeper over his head than Jack. The most common premiere complaint from those who found Naz too stupid to function was about his delay in asking for a lawyer. Keep in mind that this happens far more often than you might think from watching police procedurals (and Naz doesn't come across as the type who grew up on Law & Order repeats), but also he was in shock the entire time from what he had witnessed (and perhaps done before blacking out), and that this isn't his world at all. When Box gives him the inhaler, or lets him see his parents, it doesn't even occur to him that the detective is playing good cop and figuring out a way to legally hear Naz talk about what happened that night, because why would it? He thinks the truth will set him free, when Jack has been doing this long enough to know that the more Naz talks to anyone but him, the worse things will get.

Price and/or Zaillian make a lot of interesting visual choices in this one, from the way the camera seems to slide back and forth between Naz's cell and the crime scene, so it looks like he's being held right next to where Andrea was killed, to that lingering shot of the sky over Naz's head – the last glimpse of non-jail air he may get for quite some time – as he gets in the van to Rikers Island, to the way scenes of the cops and lawyers going home for the day are intercut with glimpses of Naz in a prison van. Though Jack and Box and even Sgt. Klein are heavily involved in the case, they get to go home at the end of their respective shifts, where this is now Naz's life, 24-7.

There's a moment early in the episode where Andrea's stepfather, Don Taylor, is about to be shown pictures of her corpse, and is told, “I have to warn you: pictures like these can be kind of… gritty.” Once upon a time, “gritty” was shorthand for a certain kind of cop show – your NYPD Blues or Homicides – that aspired to a certain level of commitment to the harsh realities of policework. After a while, though – particularly once CSI and its imitators turned the horror of the job into a digital parlor trick – the term began to take on parodic meaning, so that any show you called “gritty” (or “edgy”) was actually ridiculous in some way. A show like The Night Of is so serious of purpose – even if Jack and other characters provide periodic humor – that it's reclaimed the word as one that seems an apt and flattering description for what we're seeing.

On the whole, “Subtle Beast” wasn't as intense as “The Beach,” because what possibly could be? We've moved past the actual night of, when there kept being moments where it seemed Naz might be able to escape a dark fate. Now, though, he's trapped in it, and the story has moved onto the harsh ongoing realities of that.

Some other thoughts:

* That's Jeannie Berlin as prosecutor Helen Weiss. Early in her career, Berlin was an Oscar nominee for her role as Charles Grodin's sunburnt wife in The Heartbreak Kid, but all but dropped out of screen acting by the mid '70s. She has returned in recent years in projects like Margaret, Inherent Vice, and now this.

* Though John Turturro came into the project late, it turned into a family affair, here with his brother Nicholas (formerly of both NYPD Blue and Blue Bloods) playing one of the detectives interviewing Maldonado and Wiggins about Naz's arrest.

* Add Paul Sparks (Mickey Doyle from Boardwalk Empire) to the list of familiar HBO faces in the cast, as he turns up as Andrea's stepfather, Don Taylor, who comes across as completely thunderstruck by the news of her murder. And there's also Ray Abruzzo (aka Little Carmine from The Sopranos) as the reporter trying to get a quote from Box.

* Whether the cops intentionally put Naz in a Harvard t-shirt as a way to make him appear extra vulnerable to the other cons in lock-up, or it just happened to be an article of clothing lying around, I laughed very hard at the image.

* The social stratification of the criminal justice system captured in one line by the judge sentencing Jack's other client: “You want Jew time? Do Jew crime.”

* Naz is such a good boy, even his porn is clean: Maxim instead of a magazine with nudity. (Though a 23-year-old buying magazines at all these days is a bit unusual.)

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at