The Night Of was a show of transformation.
It showed the American criminal justice system in all its ugliness, how the most supposedly impartial of institutions isn’t free of the human ills of prejudice and presumption, and how those tangled up in it must adapt to survive.
I suspect some might feel cheated by the introduction of the newest and most probable suspect: Andrea’s ex-boyfriend. I suspect some might even take issue with Box’s too-little-too-late detective work. After all, isn’t it the job of the police to look at every angle before charging a suspect? Well, yes. And that’s the point, and one it illustrated beautifully and effectively. The police had already made their judgement before they began their investigation.
The greatest irony of the whole show is how compelling it is. While it devolved into a courtroom drama in the last few episodes, it was excellent courtroom drama that kept me glued to the screen. I almost felt guilty at how eager I was to see the next installment each week. And that got me thinking about a couple of things.
What are the ethics of a show like this (if there are, indeed, ethics to be had), a show that aims to show its viewers firsthand the devastation of life through systematic injustices? At what point does a film, a play, a video game, or a TV show stop using its themes to make some form of social commentary and start using the social commentary as window dressing? Because, while its intentions seem noble, it’s also a care package put together for consumption (as is, to be cynical for a moment, all art).
In other words, was The Night Of a nine hour long piece of social commentary? Or was it merely using its social themes to amp up the drama for entertainment’s sake? And at what point does it become exploitative? If you ask any writer or director that question, each one will give you a different answer.
As for me, The Night Of lands somewhere in the middle of the two end of the spectrum. For my money, you can’t have it completely one way or the other — in order for the social relevance to shine through, there should be some levity and entertainment factor. After all, if it’s not gripping drama, then the humanity is lost in the artist’s dourness. Because what is drama but an examination of human interaction, and what is more compelling than humans interacting?
But I think the issue goes deeper than The Night Of. I think it’s an issue of voyeurism and schadenfreude. It’s why actual trials and reality television are so pervasively popular.
Most of the major do-gooders in the show (those actively fighting for Naz’s freedom) have to go outside the bounds of the law in order to find the truth (or the truth they want to find), illustrating the failure of the justice system for pretty much every character.
The complementary natures of Jack and Naz continued right up to the very end. They were both outsiders who had to adapt in order to survive in their environments. We saw Naz slowly transform into something resembling the stereotypical “prisoner” insider: bald, tattoos, muscular, and hard. Jack had to transform into the stereotypical “lawyer” insider: gussied-up, shiny shoes, and perfect skin. But neither of them belong in those environments, and their adaption, while necessary, leads to their continued exiles.
It’s possible that some may find the conclusion of The Night Of unsatisfying. After all, there’s no real resolution. The killer’s identity was not firmly established. The best we get are possibilities. It’s possibly Naz. But he was never found not guilty in a court of law — the jury was hung, which isn’t necessarily a proclamation of his innocence, but merely inconclusive. It’s possibly Andrea’s ex-boyfriend figure. Or, it could have been any number of people brought up to the stand to instill doubt in the jury. But we’ll never know. Nor, I suspect, will any of the characters the show portrays. But the lack of satisfaction and a tidy conclusion is part of what makes the show so effective and so powerful.
There’s not a single soul untouched by the events of The Night Of. Nobody comes out of it all right (or as all right as they were before). Rather, they come out worse off. If we as the viewers are unsatisfied it’s because the characters are as well. And for all its ups and downs (mostly ups), that is what makes The Night Of so powerful and, I dare say, brave.