‘The Night Of:’ The Right Place at the Right Time

David Oliver Contributor
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43562. It’s a series of meaningless numbers, seemingly an arbitrary mesh, but on “The Night Of” — and for any prisoner — they signify an identity.

The Night Of

(Photo: HBO screen grab)

Nasir Khan and 43562 are one in the same. That’s what’s most painful about HBO’s limited series. This seedy underbelly of the criminal justice system is nothing but routine. It doesn’t matter if you committed the crime or not; where you came from; your prior record. You are a piece in the puzzling system, a character in a story, a racial stereotype to fit a gut-wrenching narrative.

After last week’s slow-burn of a premiere, episode two kept the same pace. The series’s theme is reminiscent of Netflix’s documentary “Making A Murderer,” with a ferocious orchestra furiously driving an episode’s impending anxiety.

Stone reminds Naz early on to keep his mouth shut, though he doesn’t take his advice fast enough. The two are an odd pair, whose common ailments (asthma and eczema) simultaneously fuel their relatability and inhibit their power.

The episode’s title, “Subtle Beast” is a critical element of the episode. Stone uses it to describe Box: “He’s a talented oppressor, a subtle beast.” Box’s actions throughout the episode warrant the description. Upon revisiting the crime scene, he eyes Naz’s inhaler (and later gives it back to him in a manipulative move, seemingly a confirmation of guilt).

Andrea’s stepfather Don Taylor — recognized as the “House of Cards” veteran Paul Sparks — is much like his “House of Cards” character. Quiet but secretive; story after story beckoning behind his eyes. He first says it’s not Andrea when asked to ID photos, then confirms it is after being asked to go then see the body. Later, he tells Box, “There’s a lot I don’t know about her.” Same, Don. Same. We do learn some details about Andrea: She’s (allegedly) had a lot of boyfriends, has had trouble with drugs before, her mother died of cancer last year, her father died when she was 10. Seems like a rough life for such a young woman.

As for Naz, his poor family has no idea where to find him or what the criminal justice system is like. They initially go to the wrong precinct; his mother wants to give him food but she can’t; they can’t talk to their son in the holding cell since he’s over 18. Box waives this “rule” and lets them chat, attempting to get in their good graces. But he’s also watching via surveillance. Naz realizes this and switches languages, though Box certainly caught on to Naz’s insecurities and vehement feelings of his innocence. The good graces attempt worked; Naz’s mother says of Box, “He seems like a nice man.” Naz echoes Stone: “He’s a subtle beast.”

Stone grows angry with Naz for talking to his parents; he didn’t want him to talk to anyone at all, remember? “You think I did it,” Naz apprehensively accuses him. “I don’t think anything,” Stone coolly replies.

Box tries again to get to Naz, playing on his family ties. Naz hardly budges, which initially seems like a good thing…until Box writes “Homicide” on the whiteboard in the police station next to Naz’s name. The shot of Box sitting next to Naz with the cell separating them was a smart directing and film choice. It showed the two on a level playing field, as human beings, yet split by a rigid system. Box even addresses an issue like this when talking with Naz, alluding to the relationship between lawyers and policemen. Criminals, too, have their place.

The episode also revealed important details that gave further nuance to the principal players. We learn Box listens to opera while driving; Stone has a black teenage son, takes a long time with security lines because of his literal deep pockets — including eczema cream — and takes the subway; Naz’s mother discovers Naz’s hidden Maxim magazines right before Box and the police come to search their home.

Naz gets a taste of prison while waiting for his arraignment, witnessing a cell phone removed from a fellow prisoner’s butt and a puking inmate beaten. On the plus side, Naz gets to keep his inhaler.

Naz is denied bail and sent to Rikers Island before prosecution begins.

The series weaves in social commentary with finesse. Another client of Stone’s, a black man, complains in court after a “Jew” receives 18 months in prison versus his three years. Stone complains in the police station, “Bloomberg would’ve been appalled by the snacks here.”

Also, while Naz was clearly at the wrong place at the wrong time, Stone and others acknowledge that he was the right place at the right time. It’s a point of contrast amid similarities, and one to remember.

While there’s a “whodunit” obviously brewing — and for the record, my money’s on Taylor after tonight — I’m more interested in the sociocultural complexities than resolution, especially at a time of heightened discussions on this topic right now in the U.S.