The Mourning After The Night Of Finale

By  · Published on August 29th, 2016

Another television obsession meets a disappointing end.

What’s more unlikely for a defendant looking at certain conviction, a last-minute reveal of the actual killer through further digging into surveillance tapes or a hung jury? The deadlock conclusion of the trial in the finale of The Night Of made me more annoyed than anything else that has happened in the show over eight episodes. More than any stupid mistakes Naz (Riz Ahmed) makes throughout. More than the more unbelievable mistakes Chandra (Amara Karan) makes in her romantic interest toward Naz, the drug smuggling bit being way over the top of reason.

Sure, hung juries happen. And in New York City, where the show is set, they’ve been reported as having a higher estimated rate than much of America, and in general they’ve reportedly seen an increase in the past 20 years (there’s not really great data to go by scientifically). But they’re still rare enough that it was a strange outcome here. The show went for the none of the above option on whether or not Naz would be found guilty or innocent, but that’s not the ambiguous decision that means a lot, other than it allows for the prosecutor (Jeannie Berlin) to show her doubts.

It’s a tie, even if it’s a partial victory for the defense, which fits the theme that there are no real winners and losers in this story. Except the cat, though even he, as metaphorically aligned with Naz, is probably harmed by his time in the pound and for all we know is now plotting to murder John (John Turturro). It also distracts from the more significant ambiguity, which is that we are left without knowing for sure if Naz is in fact guilty or innocent, or if it truly was the financial advisor or the step-father or anyone else. None of their innocence is proven or disproven by the show. Hinted, not proven.

Most viewers will be certain that Naz is innocent, and he probably is. Many of those viewers will also be certain that Ray Halle (Paulo Costanzo) is guilty. But many of us were also fairly certain earlier that it was the step-father (Paul Sparks). It reminds me of the little-addressed problem of the Paradise Lost documentary trilogy, which convinces us much more clearly of its defendants’ innocence but also spends a whole second installment hinting to us of one step-father’s likely guilt only to change course in the third installment to point fingers at another man. Again, all implication, no proof.

The cat is another big distraction for the show. And maybe the cynical point at the end, literally there with the last reveal and relief, is that audiences care more about what happens to an animal than a human being. The point can’t just be about how a probably innocent young man’s life is ruined – as is his family’s, his community’s, his lawyer’s (though that’s her own damn fault) – by the imperfect criminal justice system, because we got that a number of episodes ago. There has to be more to it. Or should we just look at the series as a mere singular story with great performances?

Well, as a singular story, it’s still not that satisfying. It’s either a very detailed, realistic tale of a man with both bad luck and bad choices and their effects on everyone around him or it’s a drama where improbable, out of nowhere plot turns happen, such as that kiss and the late reexamination of evidence by Detective Box (Bill Camp). The character arc with Box is definitely interesting, but should it be so much his story at the end? Are we to be happy about his now-gives-a-shit character development? Camp is so good in the part, we almost don’t think to question the role as written.

I do like how the show deals with some of these more incredible story developments, such as the judge (Glenn Fleshler) shooting down the obvious attempt to throw Chandra under the bus for a beneficial mistrial and the prosecutor’s surely realistic response to Box’s eleventh-hour evidence as too little, too late. Berlin is easily overlooked in this show, and that moment for her character is perfect. Sadly it’s a little undone during her closing argument pause, as we don’t need it stressed that she has a conscience, but otherwise it’s a great cynical jab at the justice system.

Despite the big picture regarding ruined lives, the show actually goes out far less cynically than expected. The prosecutor gives into defeat, the detective gives into doubt, the cat lives. And nothing else bad happens to Naz in prison, even though it appeared Freddy (Michael Kenneth Williams) was learning via surveillance video that Naz had smuggled in drugs for his own personal use behind his back and that maybe there’d be a very dark end for Naz just as he’s being released from Rikers. Instead, the two remain on good terms and Freddy shows the most sentimental hand of any character.

The Night Of does two things by its end that kills it after starting out brilliantly. One is it horribly handles the parts where it’s awfully faithful to the original British series, Criminal Justice, mostly the Chandra stuff. Everything it does unfaithfully makes it a much-improved remake. The other is how it gradually loses its unique attention to procedural detail in favor of ordinary dramatic plotting. But it’s as difficult to pinpoint the one element that blew the series for me. The show just slowly becomes inconsistent, unfocused and unacceptably unbelievable.

But hey, acting! And making us think about the judicial system again! Of course, I am happy that everyone is aware of how great Riz Ahmed is now, even if I wish all this attention existed when he was even better in and more in need with Nightcrawler. And of course, I’m always appreciative of criticisms with the legal systems, even if i wish they received as much interest in the real world with real cases. The Night Of is a decent show, yet it kicked off looking like it’d be another one of the best of the year. It’s just good, not great, and that’s always a disappointment for TV obsessions.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.