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