When the System Fails

One of Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite pastimes in his movies was to get his protagonist into as much trouble as possible, then watch with sadistic glee as he tries to explain himself to the authorities.

In Strangers on a Train, for instance, you had Farley Granger becoming complicit in the killing of his wife, thanks to a murder-swapping plot that he never quite agreed to in the first place.

In I Confess, Montgomery Clift played a priest who comes upon evidence of extreme wrongdoing but can’t cooperate with police because he obtained his information in the sanctity of the confessional.

Most spectacularly, of course, was North by Northwest, with Cary Grant as an ad executive who finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and is compelled to flee 2,000 miles across the United States, proclaiming his innocence for a murder that he appeared to commit in broad daylight, in plain view of dozens of eyewitnesses.

For those who watched North by Northwest and thought, “This is great, but I wish there were even more obstacles preventing Cary Grant from clearing his name,” boy do I have a TV show for you.

It’s a limited-run miniseries called The Night Of, airing Sundays at 9pm on HBO.  Critics who have seen the whole thing have characterized it as a minutely detailed, David Simon-esque examination of America’s criminal justice system, with all its flaws and prejudices on full display.

As a mere mortal with access only to last Sunday’s series premiere, I would characterize The Night Of as the sort of project Alfred Hitchcock might’ve burst out of his grave to direct—a suspense thriller that, in certain ways, manages to out-Hitchcock Hitchcock.  While Hitch never involved himself in anything quite this weighty or ambitious while he was alive—he considered himself an entertainer more than a social commentator—the sly, brooding style of this new series would make The Master very envious, indeed.

(Warning:  Massive spoilers ahead.)

To describe the plot of the first episode of The Night Of is to observe how deliciously the show’s creators have stacked the deck against their hero.  When we first meet Naz (Riz Ahmed)—a mild-mannered Pakistani-American college student from Queens—he is “borrowing” his Dad’s taxi to a party across the river that he never quite crashes.  Instead, he picks up a female passenger, Andrea, who is at once impossibly alluring and dangerously unhinged.  They go uptown to her place, indulge in every Schedule 1 narcotic at their disposal, make torrential love to each other and eventually pass out.

Cut to the next morning, when Naz wakes up mysteriously in the kitchen, ascends the stairs to retrieve his possessions, and finds his mysterious femme fatale lying in a river of her own blood, stab wounds stretching from one end of her body to the other.

And that, as they say, is where things start to get out of control.

Strictly speaking, we don’t yet know what the hell happened that night and the degree to which Naz is complicit in Andrea’s death.  However, we, the audience, are clearly meant to view Naz with sympathy—as a good-natured kid whose curiosity allowed him to unwittingly blunder his way into a cataclysm—and, indeed, the tenderness of Riz Ahmed’s performance makes it almost impossible not to take him at face value.

As such, we are presented with the quintessentially Hitchcockian motif of an innocent man falsely accused of a capital crime—a dynamic made even more unbearable by the guilt this man feels for having committed other, lesser offenses—leading to an inevitable clash with a legal system that might not be able to differentiate one transgression from another and will have no compunction about locking him up and throwing away the key.

Herein lies the series’ central tragedy:  That a mountain of circumstantial evidence—damning in every respect—could lead an utterly reasonable jury to find an innocent man guilty of murder.

The genius of The Night Of in these early sequences is to show—purely through action—the ways in which Naz is neither fully innocent nor fully guilty.  By following his every step, we are able to intuit—even empathize with—exactly what he’s thinking at all times, while also realizing—nay, dreading—how damaging each new decision will look in the impartial universe of a courtroom.

For a solid hour or two after discovering Andrea’s body, Naz manages to do absolutely everything wrong—making a run for it, not calling the cops, lying to them when they finally show up—and although behaving suspiciously is not proof of one’s guilt, behaving suspiciously with your DNA all over a dead girl and the murder weapon sitting in your pocket—well, that’s pretty darned close to a confession.

With seven episodes still to come, no doubt the deeper implications of Naz’s incriminating conduct will reveal themselves in due course—as will all the institutional biases that have enabled the American ideal of racial and economic justice to remain elusive for those who are not rich and/or not white.  (Naz is neither.)

However, even setting all of those inequalities aside, The Night Of has already unsettled us with an equally disturbing prospect:  What happens when a miscarriage of justice occurs that can’t simply be blamed on institutional racism?  What happens when the system works exactly as it’s supposed to work and still produces the wrong result?  What happens when a jury infers guilt beyond a reasonable doubt when, in fact, the defendant is not guilty at all?  What happens—as may happen here—when the evidence is more persuasive than the truth?

That’s the essence of great drama:  When nothing can be easily resolved or explained.  When decent people behave rationally but are swept up by forces beyond their control, which then lead them to behave foolishly, ironically, tragically.  When innocence turns into guilt and our heroes find themselves digging graves that were never meant for them in the first place.

Hitchcock understood the tremendous dramatic potential in placing his leading men and ladies into impossible situations—particularly when it involved the cops, of whom Hitchcock nursed a lifelong fear.  In our own time—when trust in our authority figures and the system they work within is at record lows and justice itself is seen as a highly selective phenomenon—The Night Of presents itself as the perfect show at the perfect moment:  Compelling as social commentary, magnificent as drama.

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