The HBO crime drama’s second episode reveals the truth will not set you free.
In the second installment of HBO’s crime drama The Night Of, “Subtle Beast”, suspected murdered Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed) is trapped and has nowhere to go. This episode goes past the streets and courtrooms on The Wire and Law & Order to delve deep into the dark trenches of the American prison system and what it’s like to be stuck inside it. The show paints a harrowingly realistic picture of the criminal experience through the eyes of a young brown man.
We open on the morning after the night of and Naz is still being held at the station for possession of a deadly weapon. He hasn’t been charged of any crimes yet but already he feels helpless and desperate for someone to believe that he is telling the truth. But as Stone (John Turturro) explains to him, it’s not the truth that will set him free. Naz still has a lot to learn when it comes to the criminal justice system. His first lesson was to not talk to anyone but his lawyer, and he’s still learning that as exemplified by his open discussion with his parents Safar and Salim Khan (Poorna Jagannathan and Peyman Moaadi, respectively). His second lesson is that in a court of law as political and bureaucratic as theirs, what matters most is the story. Naz will have his own story, the cops will have theirs, and a judge and jury will decide on which story they believe in the most. This is the way the criminal justice system works, per Stone. It’s not about the truth, it’s about what you can prove to be true in front of an audience that already suspects you’re guilty. And being brown and Muslim doesn’t help the case.
While Naz slowly starts to get the hang of his unfortunate situation, we get to learn more about the main players of the case. First up is Detective Box (Bill Camp), an expert at using manipulation tactics to get what he wants in order to appease those above him, namely his superiors and the district attorney’s office. He is a “subtle beast”, Stone warns Naz, and we begin to see his true colors as he tries to find ways to prove Naz’ guilt. He pretends to empathize with the victim’s stepfather Don Taylor (Paul Sparks) to get him to identify Naz. He plays nice with Naz’ parents in order to listen to their conversation with their son. He even tries to coerce a confession from Naz using references to religion and guilt. But Naz is not as religiously devout as Box thinks and, taking a cue from Stone, he declares he is not talking to Box anymore.
Unfortunately for Naz, he is under the control of the criminal justice system, and therefore Box, who has him immediately shipped to a city jail to await his arraignment. And if he thought the station was bad enough, prison garb and all, city jail is even worse. Box sends him off with what seems to be a regular change of clothes – a shirt with a “Harvard” logo on the chest. It becomes clear that this was a strategic ploy as Naz enters a van full of hardened criminals. During a body search, a cop asks, “How’s Cambridge?” to which Naz replies it’s not his shirt. But it’s too late. He is a marked man. It’s already obvious to most of the criminals that Naz is a weak, virgin prisoner – rocking a preppy Ivy League tee and an asthma inhaler only makes matters worse.
If there was one silver lining in Naz’ world it would be Stone, a small-time attorney whose tacky advertisements line the subway train interior. If it seems he is a bit out of his league with this case, it’s probably because he is but he won’t admit it. He’s a believer in fate or being in the “right place, right time.” Whether or not he is right he knows a win on a case like this could really make it for him. He’s a good, ambitious dude with a big job ahead of him, and we can only hope he can deal with it better than he does his foot eczema (seriously though…).
The strength of the show lies in its realistic depictions of a murder investigation and all parties involved. Directors Steve Zaillian and James Marsh do an outstanding job of highlighting little details to suggest impending doom—a prison gate slowly closing, a glance from an intimidating suspect, Safar and Salim’s fleeting last look at their handcuffed son. These glimpses are only magnified as Naz’ situation grows worse. He’s losing his rights one by one and it’s hard not to feel terrified for him. While waiting for his arraignment at a city jail, Naz witnesses a brutal beating and knows he’s desperately in over his head.
Stone tries his best to defend Naz at the arraignment but the severity of his charges – resisting arrest and aggravated sexual assault, among others— stuns even the hardest of criminals. His Pakistani roots prompt the assistant district attorney to argue for his status as a flight risk. His religion and race are sure to be contested further during the trial. Despite Stone’s impressive attempts to counter the circumstantial charges, the judge rules in the district attorney’s favor and Naz is bused to Rikers island. Transported with even badder looking bad guys than before, the impending danger that he will face creates an immense sense of dread. The rooms get darker and the paths grow narrower as he enters the next phase of his captive experience – incarceration.
There are a lot of moving parts on the The Night Of and its greatest challenge will be in how it balances it all. The creators have done a great job so far of introducing the various characters and their relationships while portraying the harsh realities of their situations in greater detail than most procedurals. The prison system looks to become a large part of Naz’ experience from here on out and we will probably see more probing into his race and religious beliefs both in prison politics and in the courtroom. The future looks bleak for Naz as the doors to the free world shut behind him, even though he’s just one of countless others trapped in the same unchanging system.