The Night Of is a litmus test of our views on justice. The HBO limited series premiered on July 10, 2016, and ran for eight episodes. The story is relatively simple, hardly distinguishable from other police procedurals. The network describes the show as a “fictitious murder case in New York City … follow[ing] the police investigators and legal proceedings, all while examining the criminal justice system and purgatory of Riker's Island.”1 Yet the tense pacing, vivid character portrayals, and unresolved questions distinguish it from other crime dramas. Its ambiguity allows viewers to create their own narrative, largely filtered through their views on crime and justice.
In the first episode we meet Pakistani-American protagonist Nasir “Naz” Khan (played by Riz Ahmed, British actor and rapper). We watch as he attends calculus class, views basketball games, visits his parents, and helps other students with their studies. He appears quiet, thoughtful, and intelligent. Soon, he is arrested for the brutal murder of a young woman he had met the previous night: The Night Of, that is.
We have no sense of Nasir's interior monologue during or surrounding his arrest. He appears doe-eyed, frightened, and without recollection of a murder, despite finding the body upstairs. At this point, the viewer is confronted with the driving question of the series: did Nasir Khan do it?
After meeting the victim Andrea (Sofia Black-D'Elia), a passenger who randomly gets into his father's borrowed cab, Naz says of himself, “You do what everybody wants you to do … tonight is different … it feels different.” Is it? How different? Between the opening scenes and the murder, we watch seemingly obedient Nasir take the car to attend a party against his parents' wishes, drink and ingest drugs, and play a consensual knife game that results in the woman's hand being stabbed. We later learn of high school fights and amphetamine/dextroamphetamine sales, but we are left with the question of whether he committed the murder and the more fundamental question of who Nasir Khan really is.
Questions of morality simmer throughout the storyline. Is Naz truly good, a victim of circumstance, and ultimately the correctional system itself? Or is Naz corrupt at his core, a truth exposed over time? The show allows each of us to answer. Because the first episode begins the night of, we have little preceding narrative of Naz's story. Our awareness of his life begins near the murder, and so our initial preconceptions propel further judgments over the next seven episodes. Abraham Maslow's well-known saying is often paraphrased as: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” (Ref. 2, p 15). The detective investigates, the prosecutor prosecutes, and the defense attorney, well, he's doing what he can. The defense features a bottom-feeding denizen of the police station, John Stone (played by John Turturro), whose job nearly gets usurped by an opportunistic celebrity lawyer, Alison Crowe (Glenn Headley). She hands off the case to a novice, Chandra Kapoor (Amara Karan), who needs Stone's wiles and wisdom.
Murder aside, we know Nasir commits subsequent crimes, including a vicious assault while incarcerated. Is this evidence of his superego lacunae or going-along-to-get-along conformity in jail? Is his a narrative worthy of mitigation or aggravation? Does Naz elicit pity or anger, neither or both?
As forensic psychiatrists we aim to be objective in our evaluation of clients, to render opinions while being aware of potential prejudice.3 Viewing The Night Of allows us to look at our own biases. We absorb the show's information and assign it value, meaning, and judgment. At times, we see just how biased forensic testimony can be, particularly in an exchange between the medical examiner Harry (Frank Wood) and the prosecutor Helen (Jeannie Berlin, appeared in Café Society). Helen says of Nasir's hand injury, “You're stabbing somebody with a knife. Sometimes it goes so deep it hits the bone, which causes your hand to slip onto the blade. But it only slips once even though you stabbed her 22 times. How common would that be?” Harry answers with a wry smile, “How common would you like it to be?” Pushing aside other potential causes for the cut, they collaboratively rehearse his statement, “This cut was the result of his hand slipping from the handle of the knife onto the blade of the knife in the act of stabbing her” until the prosecutor is satisfied with his delivery.
Outside of the morgue, evidence points to Nasir: witnesses and weapons, blood and scratches. He has an explanation - the knife game. The police and prosecution think otherwise. But why might we have some lingering belief (is it a hope?) that Naz is innocent? In wanting him to be good, we hope that he may be redeemed. In seeing his later transgressions, we hope that they occur as a result of his time in Rikers and the influence of the other inmates. Hope is also lurking in the inner life of Detective Box, who continues to pore over evidence, thinking Naz does not fit as the killer. The stone-faced prosecutor, on the other hand, decides there's enough to convict him, sufficient to let her sleep at night.
But maybe we don't have doubts. Maybe from the very beginning we believe that he is lying about not remembering the murder or that he is amnesic to the event due to intoxication but nonetheless committed the crime. We might do this even given an alternative suspect and motive inherent in the victim's stepfather (Paul Sparks) seeking inheritance. Because we think wrongdoers are just bad people, and the victim deserves justice. By the time of the trial, we ache for a deus ex machina. Could it be the ketamine found in the defendant? We won't spoil it.
As viewers, we take sides with or against Naz and wait to see whether the jury will align. The Night Of leaves us with only a mirror held to our biases. Ultimately, this is a reflection of the criminal justice system itself, a behemoth of actions and pauses in which the real truth may never be uncovered. As defense attorney John Stone tells his client “You're the jury, run the truth by yourself. Who killed this girl? Someone else or the guy with blood on him, his fingerprints on everything, and the murder weapon in his pocket? The truth can go to hell, because it doesn't help you.”
Disclosures of financial or other potential conflicts of interest: None.
- © 2017 American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law