The second chapter in the murder mystery surrounding Naz Khan (Riz Ahmed) is altogether quieter and less eventful than the premiere. That’s just fine, since the opener perhaps could only be faulted for having to establish a movie’s worth of plot in just 75 minutes. And yes, the opener admittedly stretched basic credibility a bit with Naz borrowing his dad’s cab and having no idea how to drive it — thereby leaving the light on for passengers to hop in, setting the narrative in motion. But characters in this show are cumulatively so much smarter than characters on most other shows, so I’d forgive Naz’s naiveté as a necessary function of setting up a scrupulously complex story and just move along.
This episode (directed by Steven Zaillian and written by Richard Price) is like the television equivalent of a deep breath, allowing the show to go further into its themes and characters without any plot bombshells. We begin in Naz’s mind as he struggles to remember details of the previous evening; we end with a long, ominous van ride to the notoriously dangerous Rikers Island Correctional Facility, where Naz has been sent to await trial for murder.
The episode could just as well be called “The Day After,” but creators Price and Zaillian went with the much more unnerving “Subtle Beast.” Those words, repeated several times during the episode, come from the description Jack Stone (John Turturro) assigns to lead detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp) and describes to Naz:
“Box is the senior man here. He got that way by doing what he does well. He rolls up his sleeves, delegates nothing, takes all things personally. I’m not saying he’s a bad cop. On the contrary, he’s very good. And like all good cops, he does you over just inside the rules. He’s a talented oppressor. Subtle beast.”
Stone is so fascinating because he’s a disheveled, broken-down mess of a man who nonetheless is highly analytical and observant. When he tells Naz that Box is a “subtle beast,” it’s both a warning and a revelation. Is Stone also slipping Naz a description of himself? Or, even deeper, is Stone thinking aloud about his client?
Naz, however, is a passive figure in this episode. He doesn’t even know how to answer properly when the arraignment judge asks for his plea. The drama really focuses on that title character, Box, who we realize — thanks to Stone calling him out — is dragging his tired feet in deciding to charge Naz with murder:
Box: I feel for him.
Stone: I’m sure you do.
Box: I do. I let him talk to his distraught parents.
Stone: Yeah? You tape it?
Box: This is a little out of your league, isn’t it, John?
Stone: [gesturing towards the vending machine] Bloomberg would have been appalled by the snacks here.
Box: You’re not gonna get rich off of it, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s gonna be the shortest trial in history.
Stone: Yeah? Is that why you haven’t charged him? He doesn’t feel right for it, does he? Something in your gut isn’t liking him for this and you can’t bring yourself to pull the switch.
The Bloomberg line is a Richard Price-ism if there ever was one. You can picture the writer of Clockers and Lush Life looking pretty smiley when he wrote it. And again, with Stone accusing Box of self-doubt, we wonder if Stone is also expressing a bit of his own. But in any case, Box is having trouble fully convincing himself of what to think about Naz. Zaillian does a remarkable job of visually portraying Box’s misgivings, using several amazing shots from Naz’s perspective in which it looks like Box is the one behind bars. (Credit also goes to cinematographer Igor Martinovic, best known for House of Cards, for the murky light and thoughtful framing in this episode.)
Not much is known about Box’s personal life, but when he entered Naz’s house with a search warrant, did you hear him tell Naz’s parents he was also a father? Perhaps that paternal instinct is what compelled him to offer Naz an asthma inhaler, which we can assume Box did not pick up around the corner at Duane Reade, given what he’s looking at when he surveys the murder scene in the light of day at the episode’s start.
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Also in that scene, when Box is trying to coerce Naz into confessing, we catch a very quick glimpse of the paperwork Box is doing. It looks like he takes this page out of a binder labeled NYPD and places it into a folder. Could mean nothing; could mean something.
NEXT: Stone pushes for Denzel, and two new crucial characters enter the fray
With John Stone, we do get an insight into his personal life — and it makes for perhaps Price and Zaillian’s most perfect, lighthearted moment in an otherwise heavy, serious episode. Stone is in his apartment putting on a neck tie (for the first time in a long time, we learn) and speaking to a young man seated at the dining-room table. Through minimal dialogue, we gleam that this boy (who happens to be black) is Stone’s son, and the discussion is about a school report on important black Americans.
Stone is disappointed when his son says he’s not doing his report on Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall — and even more disgruntled when the replacement is Oscar-winning actor Jamie Foxx. “Couldn’t you have at least done Denzel?” Stone says. (Turturro, interestingly, has costarred with Denzel Washington in three movies; with Foxx, zero.)
Two new characters are introduced in this episode, both of whom we only see briefly. But they’re worth keeping your eyes on:
First is Helen Weiss (played by Jeannie Berlin), the district attorney who gives the okay to press charges against Naz. Note how she’s presented to us, smoking by herself outside the New York City courthouse where she’s probably lived and breathed for decades. If she is a lifer, she likely has a long history with both Box and Stone. Watch the scene where Box sits in her office and explains the case for charging Naz with murder. She’s known him so long she can catch that little tiny glimpse of doubt in his eyes, no matter how hard he tries to hide it. “You blinked,” she tells him. “Dennis, honey, you did.”
Berlin is an actress with strange rhythms and idiosyncrasy to spare, with a halting vocal delivery that shades Helen with just the right amount of nuts. Her career is something of a fascination in Hollywood. The daughter of actress and comedian Elaine May, Berlin received an Oscar nomination 45 years ago for her role in The Heartbreak Kid (directed by her mother), but gradually disappeared from movies and TV. Director Kenneth Lonnergan gave Berlin her first role in decades in 2011’s Margaret, and The Night Of is her first recurring role on TV. (Elaine May, meanwhile, stars in Woody Allen’s new Amazon show.)
Paul Sparks is an actor from House of Cards and Boardwalk Empire — and anyone who’s seen him in those shows knows he’s adept at portraying men with dark pasts. Here he plays Don Taylor, Andrea’s stepfather, and I think it’s fair to say he was not very Mike Brady about his responsibilities towards the young woman. He helps Box, though, and us, by filling in some backstory from Andrea’s past. The apartment belonged to her deceased mother, for example.
In an EW poll after the premiere episode, 78 percent of readers believe Naz is innocent of murdering Andrea. The introduction of a non-grieving, taciturn character like Don Taylor will probably tick that number up a few points. And we haven’t talked about this dude, who was driving a hearse — a hearse! — and stubbed out a cigarette on Andrea’s car window at the gas station in episode 1.
Two final points about Ahmed and Turturro — and the familiar terrain in which they find themselves on The Night Of:
- The episode concludes with that long journey across the East River to Rikers Island. For Ahmed, a classically trained British actor, it’s actually not his first trip to the famous prison. As a student at Oxford, he starred as a prisoner in a production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’ Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, a play set entirely inside Rikers.
- For Turturro, this isn’t his first rodeo as a so-called “ambulance chaser.” He’s called that by a sneering desk cop in this episode, to which Stone responds with a reference to the choke hold — another Price-ism, especially considering this week’s two-year anniversary of Eric Garner’s death. But 24 years ago, Turturro played a much more buffoonish version of a lawyer named Roland T. Flackfizer, a character inspired by Groucho Marx in the comedy Brain Donors — where he’s seen literally chasing an ambulance: