Beyond a Reasonable Doubt

I have no idea whether Nasir Khan murdered Andrea Cornish during the first episode of The Night Of.  With the series finale set to air on HBO this Sunday at 9 o’clock, I doubt there’s anyone in America who has totally made up their mind—including every other character in this show.

Naz’s parents certainly haven’t built a united front on his behalf.  While his father vigorously defends his son’s honor in public, his mother has grown overcome with anxiety and guilt, asking herself, “Did I raise an animal?”

His two lawyers have had their own crises of faith, stumbling upon gaping holes in Naz’s credibility and wondering—as they must—whether he has been lying to them from Day One.

The lead investigator is more conflicted than he lets on, inferring Naz’s guilt based on the evidence but still, somehow, harboring a kernel of doubt as to whether this mild-mannered young man is capable of committing murder against a woman he had just met, stabbing her 22 times during an evening of drugs, booze and passionate sex.

Then there’s Naz himself—the mystery of all mysteries.  Played with spellbinding restraint by Riz Ahmed, Naz has proved considerably more complicated—and more compelling—than the first two or three episodes led us to believe.  While we, the audience, have been conditioned from the beginning to sympathize with him and give him the benefit of the doubt, the effect of the last several installments has been to make that doubt progressively less tenable by making Naz progressively less innocent—first, by demonstrating his knack for withholding information, and second, by suggesting his capacity to commit physical violence.

I confess, I’ve spent the better part of this series taking Naz at his word, even as he’s given us one reason after another to regard him with suspicion and even fear.

At the beginning, I figured the central question of The Night Of would be, simply, “What happens when a man’s innocence is overwhelmed by evidence of his guilt?”  Today—having spent seven TV hours with this case—I realize another question has been staring us in the face this whole time:  “What happens when a man’s innocence exists entirely within his own mind?”

What if Naz committed the murder but has convinced himself that he didn’t?  What if he—like us, his parents and his attorneys—has sorted through the haze of that crazy, coked-out evening and concluded that he couldn’t be responsible for Andrea’s death—like his mother says, only an animal could’ve done that, and he’s nothing of the sort—and that, therefore, some other explanation is in order?

In fact, there is a long and storied history of Americans compartmentalizing themselves to without an inch of their lives, from Thomas Jefferson writing “all men are created equal” while owning 200 human beings to Donald Trump proclaiming—with total conviction—that he hasn’t a racist or sexist bone in his body, despite hundreds of public statements to the contrary.

Similarly, I don’t doubt that America’s prisons are dotted with convicts who are as guilty as the day is long but who haven’t quite reconciled the truth with their ideal selves.  Evidence be damned, they are unable to abide the possibility that a cancer has infected their souls, so instead they deny, deny, deny.  It’s an easy enough thing to do, particularly if heavy drug use is involved.

To that end, maybe Naz is exactly what he now looks like:  An essentially good person who—as Norman Bates immortally put it—can go a little mad sometimes.

The cheeky brilliance of The Night Of is to have shown us every last detail of the night in question, except for the one that actually matters, i.e., the murder itself.  In an ordinary show, there would be something irredeemably cheap and gimmicky about a trick like that—a way of pointlessly stringing us along about an event that could be explained in two seconds flat.

However, in this ambitious, thoughtful and quite extraordinary show, the unaccounted-for period during which Andrea is killed serves a higher and deeper purpose than mere suspense.  (Not that there’s anything wrong with suspense.)  Rather, it’s HBO’s version of the 18-minute gap in Richard Nixon’s Oval Office tapes.  It’s Naz’s “rosebud”—the missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle that might explain everything about him, or perhaps nothing at all.

If we learned anything from Citizen Kane (the source of the original “rosebud”), it’s that certain mysteries can’t be explained in a satisfactory way; their power lies in their mysteriousness.

In The Night Of, the story’s real driving force is doubt itself—the reminder that nothing in life is certain, including certainty.  While there may well be such a thing as absolute truth, good luck finding it when everyone present was stoned out of their goddamn minds.

From the beginning, Naz has been put at the most spectacular disadvantage in the eyes of the law, steadfastly proclaiming his innocence, yet buried under an avalanche of DNA and circumstantial evidence that suggests his guilt.  As his case is put to the jury—which will presumably render a verdict before the final fade-out this Sunday—it’s hard not to recall 12 Angry Men, the 1957 movie with which this series has an obvious kinship.

In Sidney Lumet’s film, a jury is saddled with a murder case in which all the pieces seem to fit:  The motive, the weapon, the eyewitness testimony and—perhaps most damning of all—the unreliable and ethnically suspect defendant.  Indeed, as the deliberations progress, there’s only one tiny thing that gives any of the jurors a moment’s pause:  The possibility that they might be wrong.

12 Angry Men shows us the jury room and nothing else—not the trial, not the investigation and certainly not the crime—leaving us to depend for our conclusions on the impressions of the men arguing about it.

By contrast, The Night Of has shown us nearly everything—meticulously, at length, and without a shred of manipulation—and yet we find ourselves in essentially the same place:  Torn between our better angels and the facts that are directly in front of our noses, forever reckoning with the meaning of the words “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Personally, I still want Naz to be innocent.  Why?  Because I like him.  I like his intelligence, his resourcefulness, his innate sense of honor and—perhaps most of all—his silence.  I don’t want to find out that he’s a killer any more than I want to find out that Woody Allen is a child molester or that Hillary Clinton is a pathological liar, and like most Americans, I’m prepared to stick with my happy fantasies until the last dog dies.

But then I find myself admiring nearly everyone in this series, which—like most great TV drama nowadays—contains no real heroes and no real villains.  I admire Detective Dennis Box, whose subtlety and cunning allow him to extract deadly evidence from you without you realizing he’s doing it.  I admire District Attorney Helen Weiss, who, like Box, can do her job with one hand tied behind her back, knows how to bend the rules without breaking them, and—with that quintessentially New York accent and demeanor—is fundamentally incorruptible.

And of course I adore Naz’s counsel, John Stone and Chandra Kapoor, both continually negotiating the boundary between professionalism and being completely in over their heads.  As the defense team, they may technically be the underdogs in this story, but they certainly don’t behave like victims.  For that reason alone, they deserve our respect.

Call me sentimental, but I appreciate TV characters who aren’t stupid, histrionic, incompetent or corrupt.  It’s easy enough to create a show centered on a bunch of idiots and crooks, and incredibly difficult to fashion a series like this, in which everyone behaves as human nature and basic morality dictate, so that even their foolish decisions can be justified and understood.

My head says Naz is guilty.  My heart says he’s not.  I don’t require a final answer.  If Naz doesn’t know what really happened that night, why should any of us?  Doubt was good enough for 12 Angry Men and it would be bloody good enough here.

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