What should we expect — or want — from ‘The Night Of’ finale?

Some thoughts on tonight's The Night Of – and on my hopes for next week's finale – coming up just as soon as this is for Law & Order

“Did I raise an animal?” -Mrs. Khan

The first installment of The Night Of was among the most vivid,  engrossing episodes of television I've seen in a long time. It's not that the larger story was all that new, but Price and Zaillian's attention to detail and ability to inject enormous amounts of dread into seemingly innocuous moments made it feel fresh and alive and different.

The series has had no choice but to become a bit more conventional with each ensuing hour. There are still peculiarities unique to it and its characters (though Stone's eczema remains under control, the scene where he visits one of Don Taylor's former sugar mamas makes sure to dwell on the woman's manicured bare feet) and each individual moment feels put together with the same care as Naz's disastrous evening out. But there are only so many ways to dress up a long cross-examination in court (here by leaning on the relaxed familiarity between old pros Helen Weiss and Dr. Katz), or a retiring cop attending his own farewell racket, or even a jailhouse execution like the one Freddy performs on Victor (as punishment for Victor's role in the death of Petey and loss of a drug supply line), before they begin to echo some of the other eight million stories in the naked city. This has been a superb season of television – and if the creators decide they have a new story to tell under the same banner(*), I'll gladly watch – but my enthusiasm for it was at its height at the moment Officer Wiggins pulled the knife out of Naz's jacket, and the energy of that premiere has carried the show at times in the later chapters.

(*) In the UK, Criminal Justice returned for a second season with all new characters, in the same anthology mode as American Horror Story or True Detective. In early stages of development, this show was talked about as an ongoing series. It's been treated as a mini since James Gandolfini's death, but at TCA, Zaillian and others suggested they were open to the idea of continuing, given the overwhelmingly positive response. If so, we'll have to see if they adapt the second British season or go with a wholly new story.

HBO isn't making the finale available to critics in advance, which means we're all on the same page going into the conclusion, and I'm wondering what I want out of it. Obviously, there has to be a verdict in the case, and some sense of what will happen not only to Naz, but to Stone and Chandra and Freddy and the rest of the Khan family, whether the result is conviction and acquittal. But is the show under any obligation to reveal who actually killed Andrea?

From much of what we've learned about Naz in recent episodes – including how comfortably he slots in as Freddy's wingman for the murder of Victor, looking nothing like the shy basketball tutor or the kid in the borrowed Harvard t-shirt trying not to look at anyone in the cell around him – he has the capacity for great violence, but that doesn't necessarily make him guilty of the crime to which he's accused. The series has always seemed much more in the way the gears of the system grind – how a Dennis Box can get tunnel-visioned in the face of all the evidence against Naz, how lawyers on both sides try to present the version of the facts that most flatters their case, and how a civilian like Naz learns to look and act like a criminal just to survive what may be a temporary incarceration – than in the matter of whodunnit. Maybe it was Naz, or Taylor, or creepy Royal Day. Maybe Duane Reade emerges from the shadows next week holding the missing fourth blade from Andrea's knife set, or maybe the cat means to do Stone harm like it did its former owner. There's no one answer that feels like it would be particularly satisfying, or even necessary. About the only one that would feel genuinely frustrating would be if we found out that not only did Naz kill her, but he somehow knew it the whole time – that he and The Night Of were both lying to us about what he knew and how he felt about it – but the drugs and ensuing blackout create a scenario where he could have done it without rendering his behavior afterward, and the show's portrayal of him, a lie.

Mainly, though, I just want an ending that feels thematically and emotionally satisfying, and true to all that's come before, regardless of the verdict or revelation of who committed the crime. And if the finale can somehow manage to recapture the intensity and magic of that opening chapter, well, I wouldn't object to that at all. Now, that last episode has a lot of story ground to cover, but it's supposed to run around 95 minutes. The series premiere was super-sized as well, and much of its power came from the way it was able to linger over every moment. My hope is that Zaillian and Price have something similarly, agonizingly great in store for us next Sunday.

Some other thoughts on “Ordinary Death”:

* The cross-examination between Weiss and Katz was a real treat, like watching a long tennis rally between two players who don't move as quickly as they used to, but know all the angles their opponent is going to use.

* The kiss between Naz and Chandra didn't come out of nowhere – the scene in “The Art of War” where she tells him what to do about the plea deal suggested she felt more of an emotional connection with him than she would the average client – but still felt a bit undercooked, compared to how much effort the show has put into developing Stone both as an individual and relative to Naz.

* If last week was Stone in full flower, this one is a reminder that the herbalist didn't cure everything that ails him. Not only is the cat allergy still a big issue, but his son barely even registers the improvement in his footwear options, and Don Taylor unsurprisingly notices that one of Nasir Khan's lawyers has been poking through his life, and threatens in turn to do great harm to Stone's. (Taylor is, in fact, so heavily telegraphed as the bad guy here that I'd guess he will not turn out to be his stepdaughter's killer.)

* On the one hand, Mr. Khan's former partners royally hose him for buying out his share of the taxi medallion at a fraction of its value. On the other, this is set in 2014, and NYC taxi medallions began taking a big hit in value not long after thanks to Uber. So Salim might have been in for some big financial upheaval even if his idiot son hadn't stolen the cab and gotten it associated with a murder charge.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com