If you aren’t watching HBO’s limited series The Night Of, you should do two things. 1) stop reading this because spoilers will be everywhere, and 2) go watch The Night Of immediately.
In the void created by no third season of True Detective, HBO has delivered a pitch-perfect procedural thriller about a young Muslim man, Nasir (Riz Ahmed), accused of murder. It’s clinical in its dissection of the justice system – a detailed examination of local government and due process that would make David Simon proud – loaded with tremendous performances from Ahmed to John Turturro and on down the line, and with each passing episode the layers of our lead have been peeled back with brilliant subtlety.
The entire setup for the story has been anchored by Nasir, Nas, and the way the brutal murder of which he is accused doesn’t fit with his mild-mannered, amazingly naive young college kid. How could he stab this woman so many times? He doesn’t even look like he has the arm strength to stab someone once, let alone the rage it takes for such a heinous act. That’s what initially drew Turturro’s attorney, Jack Stone (and his horrific feet), to the case.
For the first four episodes, as Nas is arrested, convicted, and the legal system swirls around him, Nas is held at Riker’s Island. Upon his arrival at Riker’s he looks like bloody chum being thrown into shark-infested waters. His wide eyes and slumped shoulders make him ripe for harassment and rape and any other atrocities that seem to be commonplace in the prison system. That is, until he makes an alliance with Michael K. Williams’ Freddy, a lifer who has the cell block under his thumb. It frees Nas from threats, and it allows him to exist in this system.
However, in episode five, and last night’s episode six, “Samson and Delilah,” something has changed, not only in Nas’s situation behind bars; something has changed inside Nas. His wide eyes have narrowed, he’s gotten tattoos on his knuckles (S-I-N), and he has grown fond of freebasing in Freddy’s cell. Nas has a new edge, certainly through his new life in prison, but the complete 180 has come a little faster and a little more intensely than anyone could have expected.
Has Nas fooled us all along?
Let’s back up to the first few episodes. Back then, the entire narrative focused on this gentle little honors student, the son of two hard-working immigrant parents, who we can’t imagine has ever had a date let alone a steady girlfriend. Nas is a scared little puppy, there’s no way he could have committed this crime. But what do we really know about Nas? Aside from some periphery expositions, mostly after the arrest, we have no idea what’s inside Nas in the days before he decides to steal his dad’s cab and try and find a party. We basically start this story, well, The Night Of the murder, and from that moment any characterization of Nas outside of the immediate has been scant (until the most recent episode, when we learn he pushed a student down the stairs in school and was transferred across town).
When Nas wakes up in the girl’s home, in the kitchen, and discovers the body, he flees the scene while making about a thousand mistakes. If he would have murdered this girl, surely he wouldn’t have made so many stupid mistakes. Or would he?
And that is where I’m at with Nas after “Samson and Delilah.” Doubt has crept in, or should I say it’s shoved its way through the open door. In a monologue to Freddy, Nas mentions 9/11, that he was in fifth grade when the towers fell, and the harassment seemingly built up years of rage he’s never been able to release. Perhaps he was drunk and high that night, and that rage exposed itself. This meek little boy has become a broad-chested man, with a shaved head, and a growing inventory of demons hiding behind that doe-eyed gaze. He might have had us fooled this entire time; or, more aptly, creators Steven Zaillian and Richard Price have brilliantly pulled the wool over our eyes.