When the Truth Is Inconvenient

Note:  The following contains major plot details about HBO’s The Night Of.

“We have more on the kid.”

Those were the words spoken by District Attorney Helen Weiss late into the final episode of The Night Of on HBO.  If that sentence isn’t the single most tragic and infuriating reflection of American injustice in this whole series, it’s certainly the most succinct.

In its proper context, the line isn’t a statement of fact so much as a desperate act of defiance.  Having spent months preparing an airtight case against Nasir Khan for the horrific murder of Andrea Cornish, Weiss is confronted—at the last possible moment—with brand new, compelling and altogether persuasive evidence identifying The Real Killer, thereby exonerating Naz.  (It’s typical of the series that this information comes from Detective Dennis Box, the man who all but single-handedly pinned the murder on Naz in the first place.)

For Weiss—having presented everything to the jury except her closing statement—this revelation is her moment of truth and a test of character, and she knows it.  Discovering, at long last, that she’s probably got the wrong man and her entire case is built on a lie, she has exactly one morally correct option:  Abandon the case and set Naz free.

Indeed, had The Night Of been directed by Frank Capra and taken place in a universe whose moral arc always bends toward justice—think Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, where a corrupt senator finally (and dramatically) sees the error of his ways—that’s exactly what would have happened, thereby bringing the series to a swift and happy conclusion.

However, since The Night Of is, instead, the creation of Richard Price and Steven Zaillian—co-writers of The Wire and Schindler’s List, respectively—Weiss reacts precisely as the most cynical among us would expect:  By disregarding inconvenient truths for the sake of winning her case and preserving her sterling reputation.  By saying, in effect, “I don’t care about the facts; I only care about what I can make a jury believe.”

In short, she fails the test, proving herself capable of willfully denying justice to an innocent defendant—the very thing her vocation (and several amendments to the U.S. Constitution) abhors above all else and, in theory, makes every effort to prevent.

Saying, “We have more on the kid”—i.e., it would be much easier to convince 12 jurors that Naz is the killer than to start this whole thing over again from scratch—she manages to more or less sum up the ethos of her entire profession, thereby exposing a massive, horrifying ethical blind spot that, deep down, all of us pretty much already knew about.  In the end—as a certain presidential candidate is fond of saying—nothing matters more than winning.

The natural counterargument to this lamentation is that, when you get right down to it, there’s really no other way this process could function.  Since every civil and criminal court case in history has involved a dispute over the truth of a situation, we simply accept that at least one side is either lying or mistaken, and that the entire job of a judge or jury is to figure out which side (if any) is telling the truth.  If a prosecutor can present a set of facts that makes the defendant appear guilty—and if the defense team cannot rebut those charges sufficiently—then the prosecutor has done his or her job and has nothing to be ashamed of.

That’s why The Night Of is a tragedy instead of a farce:  The characters themselves might not be corrupt, but they are working within a corrupt system—a system that condones dishonesty so long as you can get away with it and has no fidelity to objective truth except when it happens to help the state’s case.

The tragedy, then, is that the problem of prosecutorial zeal can never be completely solved, just as a problem like runaway capitalism can never be completely solved:  For most people in America, there isn’t anything problematic about it.  It’s simply how the world works, and why bother fixing something that isn’t broken in the first place?

The strength of this series has been to take fundamentally decent people and situate them in a milieu that brings out their worst instincts.

Yes, Naz becomes a gangster and a drug smuggler while in prison.  But how would you behave in his shoes?  If self-preservation is an instinct you possess (to paraphrase Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction), wouldn’t you tailor your actions to whatever might save your life, regardless of what ordinary morality would dictate under normal circumstances?

Similarly, if you happen to be an attorney with a reputation to maintain in a high-profile case, of course you would do everything you could to prevail, because anything less would be humiliating.  District attorney is a job like any other:  You are rewarded for doing well, but not necessarily for doing good.

In the end, The Night Of allows Helen Weiss to have her cake and eat it, too—namely, by dismissing Detective Box’s 11th hour discoveries when there is no use for them, only to reconsider when circumstances provide her with a trap door through which she can save face and save her soul at the same time.

And so the show ended as maddeningly as it began:  By exposing all the unfairness, racism and hypocrisy of the American criminal justice system, while offering only a faint, distant glimmer of hope.  If the final moments of The Night Of were frustrating—having things both ways, lacking any real sense of closure—we can lay the blame squarely on the real-life frustrations this series was critiquing.  To end this show cleanly would’ve been a betrayal and a cop-out—a cheap way of telling us that everything’s gonna be alright when the whole purpose of this project was to remind us that, most of the time, it’s not.

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