Monday, August 29, 2016

REVIEW: 'The Night Of' - Naz's Trial Comes to a Surprising Ending as Stone Takes Control in 'The Call of the Wild'

HBO's The Night Of - Episode 1.08 "The Call of the Wild"

A controversy surrounding the defense puts Stone in the spotlight.

There were many different endings that The Night Of could have produced in "The Call of the Wild." It was a show that embraced many different storytelling elements over its eight episode run. It was a murder mystery about who killed Andrea Cornish. It was a legal procedural as Naz stands trial for Andrea's murder. It was a deconstruction of the criminal justice system and how it affects and drains the people trapped within it over time. It was a character study of one man's search to break from societal expectations. The Night Of managed to juggle all of these story elements quite well over its run. Yes, there are a few problematic beats - largely the prison arc and Chandra's poor decision making in the end. But overall, this is a limited series that had a strong opening segment and kept the mystery and intrigue up throughout its run. How much resolution to all of these things does the audience need to be satisfied with this ending? The show decides to address all of these concerns instead of going for a more ambiguous ending. It creates a finale that is just as flawed as the series was as a whole. But once again, it's a rousing success because of just how detailed and nuanced the story beats and character performances are.

Naz doesn't know if he killed Andrea or not. He has maintained his innocence throughout this entire process because he doesn't believe it's something he could have done. But once he is on the stand testifying, Helen beats him down enough for him to confess that he just doesn't know. That moment in time is completely blacked out in his memory. He has changed so much as a character. He's done some truly despicable things in order to survive in prison. And yet, the night of Andrea's murder is still a mystery to him. It's one that doesn't have an easy solution. Not to Naz at least. He doesn't get some grand revelation. He doesn't suddenly remember what happened during that missing time. He doesn't get on the stand to make a shocking admission of guilt or pointing out the true killer. The show definitely sends Box and Helen in the direction of a new suspect. But that's not Naz's experience. The investigation certainly helps his case in the end. The defense has done enough to create reasonable doubt for the jury. Naz taking the stand could ruin all of that hard work. Chandra insists it should happen. It backfires tremendously. But that doesn't hinder the case by the end of the series.

In fact, the knowledge that there may be proof of another suspect is enough to cast a cloud over the entire court proceedings. Much like the defense, the show has presented a number of alternate suspects for the murder. If the finale revealed that Duane Reade or Don Taylor had killed Andrea, it would have been understandable. The audience has been conditioned to look at them with suspicion for awhile now. However, audiences have also been conditioned to treat everyone as a suspect nowadays. Season-long murder mysteries have become a hit genre in television over the past few years. So, people start speculating on the whodunnit the moment the mystery begins. Crowd-sourcing the mystery can take the viewer out of the experience of the show. But it's becoming more and more a common practice. It wouldn't be surprising at all if someone figured out that Paulo Costanzo's financial consultant Ray Halle was ultimately the killer. It makes sense given his recognizability despite a fairly minor role. But structurally, it is a major surprise here. Ray wasn't a suspect until Box started investigating the case again. He discovered that Ray was Andrea's boyfriend and they more than likely fought over money. That's the motivation that led to her murder. It's a simply solution. It leaves almost no ambiguity. But the show really didn't need to solve this murder in order to create a solid finale. It's a big part of the show. But mysteries go unsolved all the time. The season has been more about Naz standing accused of this crime and Stone doing his best to represent him in court.

However, it's a pretty chilling and very effective moment when Box comes to Helen with all of this new evidence and she decides to move forward with Naz's trial anyway. The evidence may be enough to cast doubt. But she still sees a conviction as likely in this case. She needs this case to end. Convicting Naz will give everyone the closure they need even if it may not be the truth. That's not always a good enough motivating factor in the legal system. It's an expensive process. Helen doesn't want to undo all of this just to retry the case all over again. She wants to see this through to the end. She's presented her case. She believes the right closing statement will convict Naz for this crime. An ending that would be satisfactory to her. She's proven herself to be a very capable attorney. She knows how to expertly get exactly what she wants from any witness. It really is an impressive closing argument. But Box walking out midway through is a powerful moment - especially in light of what Chandra told Naz's mother when she did the same thing. It's something the jury sees and knows has meaning. It knocks Helen off of her game. She shows much more hesitation afterwards. She still proceeds. It's just without as much confidence.

The attention to detail and willing to take things slow to make a point has really been effectively done all season long. Of course, eight episodes means that some things do need to accelerate in order to move the plot forward. Chandra wanting to put Naz on the stand makes sense given her inexperience and naivety in the courtroom. She has formed a close connection with him. She believes him. She believes he can get up there and convince an entire jury about his innocence. Stone is a jaded veteran. He's just been in a corner for the duration of the trial taking it all in while helping Naz behind-the-scenes. He's absolutely right in this instance. What happens when Naz takes the stand is enough to make Stone completely doubt any chance of an acquittal. That's a solid motivation for trying to get Chandra thrown off the case and declare a mistrial. But the motivation behind that action is incredibly murky. Chandra kissed Naz because she got caught up in the moment. It was a case of transference because she was all that he had in this world in terms of a personal connection. She knew it was wrong immediately and pulled away. That action now threatens to destroy her entire career. That feels justified. What's harder to understand is why she actually smuggles in drugs to feed Naz's growing addiction and Freddy's prison business? That moment largely just happened to build on that personal connection and compromise Chandra even further. But it mostly just sacrifices character for plot.

Everything that happens with Chandra though leads to Stone taking over the defense for Naz. He has to deliver the closing argument. The judge won't grant a mistrial. It's up to Stone to plead Naz's case to the jury. This may be the first time he has ever argued in front of a jury. If it's not, then it's been a long time since he's had to. He's just a small-time lawyer. A guy who promotes his services on the subway. A guy looked at with judgment every day of his life. He found some relief over the course of this trial. His eczema cleared up and he was working on the biggest case of his career. But now, his Chinese remedy is failing and his eczema has returned even more fiery than before. It's particularly damaging to his existence. But still he persists and pleads Naz's case. Despite the damage to his outward appearance, Stone still believes Naz is innocent and delivers one epic closing speech. It's a phenomenal moment because it's so personal. This is a case that means so much to Stone. He's been unable to escape it. He has constantly felt the pull to be near Naz and guide him through this process. He feels emotional invested. He needs to make sure that Naz is freed. He believes there is enough reasonable doubt for this jury to come back with a not guilty verdict. It's a speech that actually gives Naz that hope in the end. It's a speech that gets the jury to return gridlocked. Helen's own doubts means she refuses to bring in a new jury to render a verdict. That means Naz can actually be freed. Something that seemed unlikely at the start of this entire journey.

And yet, freedom is not all that it initially seems. It's a rousing victory that Naz is able to return to his old life. He is able to live his life in the real world however he decides to spend it. He will not be living the remainder of his days in a prison cell. He's a free man. But he has changed so much because of this whole experience. Naz carries himself differently than he did before. The jury may have been unable to reach a verdict but his mother will always have doubts about his innocence. Unless Helen and Box decide to move forward with another public trial for Andrea's murder, Naz's mom will always be concerned that her son is a monster. The family is outwardly excited to have him home. But their lives have been ruined by this trial. They face hatred by so many people. And now, they have to sell their home just to pay off all the bills. Naz will walk around this world with everyone staring at him and wondering if he is a killer who was sent free. Prison taught him how to stare and not stare at the same time. It's a skill he is able to use immediately upon his re-entry into society. Stone is able to coach him through so much because he too walks around with all eyes on him. But at the end of the day, Naz faces a lonely existence because of this whole experience. It has changed him. He returns to the spot under the George Washington Bridge where he was with Andrea. This time he's there all alone and succumbing even further to his drug habit he picked up in prison. There may be justice for this crime eventually. But Naz's freedom hardly feels anything like that.

However, the system keeps moving forward. There's nothing that can be changed about that. Box retires but homicides and other crimes still need to be solved. Naz is set free but this case still needs a resolution. Naz is released from prison just as a whole new group of people are coming in. There's nothing specific about Naz's journey that will change how anything in this system will be done. It's just something that he had to experience. It's something that will change him fundamentally for the rest of his life. It's a system that has made Helen and Box more jaded and pragmatic than righteous and passionate. They still ultimately decide to build a case against the true murderer. But there's no sense that a conviction will actually happen. Meanwhile, Stone goes back to riding the subway with people staring at his eczema like the plague. He's back to being a small-time lawyer defending people for $250. He got this big case and proved that he was capable of handling it. But in the end, he returned to the familiarity of representing people he knows are guilty of small crimes. It's what pays the bills. He got his chance in the spotlight. And now, the system continues moving forward. This is not the end. It's just the conclusion of a significant case and the people involved in it. And one man owning a cat who really shouldn't have a cat.

Some more thoughts:
  • "The Call of the Wild" was written by Richard Price & Steven Zaillian and directed by Steven Zaillian.
  • Stone isn't ultimately able to get his payback by getting to question Don on the stand. But he more than makes up for it by assaulting him while delivering the subpoena and then flipping him off while going through the courthouse's security.
  • There wasn't enough Glenne Headly overall as Alison Crowe. And yet, she does pop up here not to lecture Chandra about her behavior and likely disciplinary action but just to fucking fire her. Such a badass moment.
  • Enough prison dramas have gone wrong by showing a prisoner walking out towards freedom only to get killed as retribution for past actions. That was definitely a worry while Naz left. And yet, it didn't occur. Instead, it just showed the consequences of his time at Rikers and how it will affect him for the rest of his life.
  • John Turturro, Riz Ahmed, Bill Camp and Jeannie Berlin delivered some amazing performances throughout this entire season. They should all be remembered when it comes to awards season. Despite problems with their characters, Michael Kenneth Williams and Amara Karan were great as well.
  • The season has a very fitting conclusion by ending with "In Loving Memory of James Gandolfini." This was such a passion project for him. His efforts pushed it through the development process at HBO. It's so rewarding that it was able to move forward after his untimely passing. His influence is still felt and he is still so deeply missed.
  • The creators are mulling the idea of doing a second season of The Night Of. Nothing is official yet. This was always billed as a limited series. This episode was even promoted as a series finale. But again, the kind of buzz the show has gotten this summer could make it enticing to do more. If more is made, do you want it to follow the anthology model and focus on a new case with new characters? Or would you like John Turturro and some other characters to return as they work on a new case?