A review of The Night Of finale coming up just as soon as I forget my hat…
“Who did it?” -Stone
The Night Of was, in no particular order, a murder mystery; a legal procedural; a drama about the way the gears of the criminal justice system can grind on cop, criminal, and family member alike; a harrowing portrait of how a civilian survives behind bars; and a black comic character study of the low-rent attorney who finds himself in the middle of it all.
These are not incompatible kinds of stories; you often see many of them comfortably overlapping in the same production (even if John Stone's eczema was unique to Criminal Justice and this remake). But as The Night Of moved along, it became clear that Price and Zaillian were better at – or simply more interested in – certain aspects than others, excelling whenever the focus was on Stone or Naz going through their respective transformations, and stumbling around at times when the creators remembered they had to move the trial, and the question of who actually killed Andrea, along.
There's a version of the finale that could have played into that imbalance, by focusing on how the characters felt about what was happening, and less on the plot itself. That version could have still ended with Naz going free after a mistrial, and perhaps even with Box figuring out that Andrea's financial planner/boyfriend Raymond Halle was the actual killer, but there would have been more ambiguity, or at least less of an emphasis on the who/what/when of it all, when the why was the part that mattered, and worked, most.
Instead, “The Call of the Wild” tried to service plot and character equally, and fell down enough on the former to affect the latter.
In particular, everything with Chandra over the last couple of episodes was a mess. I understand that the jailhouse kiss was an idea inherited from the UK version, and Chandra's ultimate fate speaks to the series' larger themes about how wide-ranging and damaging the effects of any criminal investigation can be, but it came out of left field and badly undermined a character who to that point had been portrayed as inexperienced but not particularly dumb or prone to giving into her emotions to that degree. Even worse, though, was her decision in the finale to smuggle drugs in to Naz. We know why he would ask, for the sake of both Freddy's business and Naz's own growing addiction to the product, but nothing of this particular circumstance or what we know of Chandra suggests she would actually go along with it, all just to make a trial maneuver that Stone had so vehemently warned her against. (She can be naive enough to think Naz's testimony is a good idea, or maybe – maybe – to smuggle in drugs because she thinks it's to protect him, but not this particular combination together.) If the creators felt the kiss and/or the drugs were vital to the story they were telling, then they needed to lay a lot more groundwork for each of them than what we got.
Beyond that, there was the resolution to the mystery itself, which in turn affected the ultimate legal outcome for Naz. In the age of Reddit and other forms of Internet crowd-sourcing, long-form mysteries are harder and harder to pull off without somebody figuring it out and telling many of his or her online friends. (Here, for instance, is a commenter who noted the incongruity of Paulo Costanzo playing such a seemingly minor role.) It becomes almost a no-win scenario – either the solution is something the audience has long since guessed, and thus has less impact, or it's so surprising that it feels like a cheat. Don Taylor or Duane Reade being the killer would have been the former; a wholly new character, or someone ridiculous like the judge or Helen Weiss, would have been the latter. Halle falls somewhere in between the two extremes, but still minor enough to feel unsatisfying, particularly since the finale's closing minutes suggest Box and Weiss are going to actually bring a case against him. The moment in Weiss's office where she hears the truth of what Box is telling her but chooses to continue on her current path because the conviction of Naz seems a gimme was a powerful one. A seasoned product of the system like Weiss would know the extreme uphill climb of trying to charge an alternate suspect after a failed initial prosecution, and while there's a sense that Box's exit from the courtroom in the middle of her closing shook her to her core(*) and perhaps rekindled her belief in fighting the good fight, no matter the odds, it feels truer to the spirit of the show to end with Halle getting away with it because the system isn't flexible enough to see past the initial trial. After all, the finale even opens with one of Box's former colleagues suggesting that the TV drama he really wants to see is “a series about a cop who doesn't give a shit.”
(*) Box's abrupt exit, and the way it throws Weiss off her game for a moment, was a reminder of how effective the show could be when a moment was properly set up, since Chandra's lecture to Mrs. Khan last week primed us to understand the effect a demonstration like that can have on the jury.
And yet, outside of the unfortunate Chandra material, the character work was spot-on, capturing the ways that each of the principles had been harmed, helped, or a bit of both, by their association with the case.
In particular, all the Stone material was wonderful. Unsurprisingly, the Chinese herbal remedy not only stops working, but triggers a far worse eczema attack than anything Stone had been dealing with beforehand, and he's forced to deliver his closing argument to the jury – his first in years, if not ever – with a splotchy face and a pair of Mickey Mouse gloves trying to hide the worst of it. Yet he rises to the occasion, with a closing statement that was – in a familiar manner for this kind of story, albeit done very well here – as much about himself and his career as about Naz, up to the emotion in his voice and the tears in his eyes at the end of it. Stone does care about this kid, and has risked a lot (including chasing Duane Reade down a dark alley) on his behalf. But this is also his shot at the big leagues, and even though he's petrified of delivering that closing (which contributes to the eczema escalation as much as any side effects from the Chinese herbs) it's a rhetorical miracle in the wake of Naz admitting to Weiss, and the jury, that he doesn't know if he killed Andrea. Without Stone, the chances of the jury being that hopelessly deadlocked seem almost nil; with him, and with the seed of doubt growing in Helen Weiss's head about the case (not only out of a desire for justice, but a realization that a new team of lawyers could discover the same things Box did), Naz gets a mistrial, and then his freedom. In the end, Stone goes back to his sad old life, grossing out fellow passengers on the subway as he picks at his feet, and taking one obscure $250 plea bargain opportunity after the next to pay the bills. He's a career minor leaguer, but when he had his one brief, shining moment in the bigs, he proved he could play there, and he'll always have that, even if he can't wear wingtips anymore.
And while Naz has his freedom, he is permanently altered, from his physical appearance to his family's economic status (they are selling their house to pay their mounting bills in the wake of drastically reduced income) to the drug habit he took with him out of Rikers along with the ink and Freddy's Jack London paperback. Regardless of the words his mother uses, Naz knows she'll never be sure he didn't kill Andrea (perhaps not even if there is a very public and successful prosecution of the real killer), and beyond that he knows he did some things in jail that his parents would find equally horrifying. He's a pariah in his own community, and though his time at Rikers taught him how to properly return a stare, but he seemed more comfortable and confident there than he does on the outside.
The first couple of episodes showing Naz behind bars generated a lot of tension from how slowly they moved, and how long it seemed to take Naz to go from place to place, with the feeling that danger could be lurking around any corner for a skinny, naive kid like this. His exit from Rikers was paced the same way, and years of watching Oz and other prison melodramas conditioned me to fear that Naz's walk to freedom would be interrupted by someone seeking revenge on him (or using him as a proxy for Freddy). But the physical danger had long since passed. Naz is stronger, tougher, and even walks differently from the way he used to. What the finale, and the series as a whole, did so eloquently was to show how there's so much more to fear from incarceration than being jumped in the shower. At times the show had to rush Naz's transformation(*), trusting that Riz Ahmed could sell the difference (a far greater physical and emotional change than the one Stone goes through), but it all hit very hard here at the end, whether Naz was whispering a very sincere “Thank you” to Stone after his closing or locking eyes with his old friend at the coffee shop.
(*) This is the same number of episodes as True Detective, and perhaps 8 was all the creators could get for a show whose original star died suddenly, and that sat on a shelf for a couple of years after being completed. Creatively, though, a more HBO-standard 10 episodes would have done a world of good, not only because it would have allowed this episode to be split in two, with certain scenes expanded, but because the show as a whole worked best the slower it moved, and the amount of plot to cover in 8-plus hours meant it had to sprint more than it should have.
It feels appropriate that one of the series' two main characters named his son after Dwight Gooden, who had a phenomenal couple of years early in his career (one of the best pitching seasons ever in '85, and a World Series title in '86), before injuries and a drug problem rendered him far more ordinary. But to millions of Mets fans like John Stone, the memory of those first few seasons was so indelible that Gooden would always be the unhittable Dr. K to their mind – and, on occasion (like the night he pitched a no-hitter for the eventual world champion 1996 Yankees), he lived up to their memories. The Night Of, meanwhile, opened with a heart-stopping installment that's among the best hours of TV drama I've seen in years, and even as the show began moving more quickly and conventionally, memories of the worst night of Nasir Khan's life (and the last night of Andrea Cornish's) stuck with me and buoyed my feelings about the series as a whole.
“The Call of the Wild” frequently circled back to the events of “The Beach,” whether Box watching the security footage until he found something new, or Naz flashing back to Andrea's smile as he does drugs on the same spot overlooking the George Washington Bridge where they once sat together, or Naz hearing the Rikers guard deliver the same introductory lecture he heard when he arrived. That's good dramatic structure for a show about how the system keeps moving forward no matter what – as would often happen in the finales of the last HBO drama Richard Price wrote for – and those echoes of that first episode did reverberate through the finale and make it more effective than it might otherwise have been.
But this was the flawed finale of a flawed series that happened to get off to an incredible beginning. If Price and Zaillian decide they have another story in them – whether Stone improbably getting involved in another high-profile case or, preferably, something featuring all new characters – I'll gladly watch, and hope that they look at this season as something to build on, rather than an unassailable model for any future ones.
And if this turns out to be it (the HBO announcer described it as “the series finale,” but that means nothing if all parties involved decide they want to make more), then at least we ended on the best possible full-circle image of them all: Andrea's cat wandering across the screen again, back in the home of a man who has no business owning a cat, but who can't help fighting for lost causes, because the world sees him as something of a lost cause himself.
Some other thoughts:
* The last words of the series (for now, at least) came after the closing credits, and were the right ones to pay tribute to the man who not only was originally going to play John Stone, but who championed the project through development at HBO: “In Loving Memory of James Gandolfini.”
* That was Gordon from Sesame Street himself, Roscoe Orman, as the defeatist jury foreman. As with most of the actors involved, this wasn't Orman's first HBO drama rodeo, as he popped up in the final season of The Wire as a cop named after the real-life version of the Bunk, Oscar Requer.
* Helen Weiss slipping into her sneakers after the trial ended was a nice contrast not only to the way Chandra breezed out of the courtroom to face the end of her career as far away as possible from the man responsible, but to Stone, whose footwear options dwindled rapidly over the course of the finale.
* Stone assumes that Box sent him the DVD of Naz and Chandra's kiss, but it was, of course, Freddy, who was slipped it by his favorite guard. The finale made clear that there were certain lines Box wouldn't cross, even when he believed the state had the wrong man on trial. And Freddy doing something that could have helped secure Naz's freedom suggests that he's not lying when he says he took him under his wing because “You smell like innocence.” (Then again, his time with Naz was drawing to a close either way, since a convicted Naz would have eventually been sent to prison upstate.)
* Though it was necessary to support Stone's concerns about speaking to the jury after Chandra examined the witnesses, I do wish he could have been the one to handle Taylor in court. Instead, the satisfaction he gets is from (literally) dropping the subpoena on him in an alley, and then flipping him the bird while going through the courthouse security line.
What did everybody else think? Did the ending satisfy you, frustrate you, or both? If there is another season, would you want Stone and/or Naz to return, or for the creators to go full anthology miniseries?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org