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HBO premiers ‘Westworld’ with guns blazing 10.03.16 at 12:46 pm ET
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Westworld (HBO)

James Marsden and Evan Rachel Wood star in “Westworld.” (HBO)

My favorite video game of all time is “Red Dead Redemption,” a 2010 PS3 game overlaid “open world” gameplay onto a cowboy movie. When it came time to upgrade to a PS4, I held off for six months longer than I should have largely in part because PS4 can’t play PS3 games and I wasn’t ready to hang up my digital spurs yet.

As “Red Dead Redemption” was an open world concept, you could go anywhere and do anything. It featured hundreds of extra missions you could play based on the characters you interacted with. You couldn’t help but wonder what happened to the storylines you didn’t engage in or the missions you chose to skip. “Westworld” answered that question in its premiere and the answer is when “newcomers” (real people) don’t engage the “hosts” (robots/AI/characters at the theme park), they get woke.

Based on the 1970s movie written and directed by “Jurassic Park” author Michael Crichton, “Westworld” arrives on HBO just as the endgame has been announced for “Game of Thrones.” Whether “Westworld” is the successor to Westeros remains to be seen. If not, it won’t be for lack of trying. This world is HUGE. The possibilities extend as far as the eye can see, or at least as far as the meticulously crafted landscape have been designed to go.

Despite being a high-concept sci-fi show, “Westworld” opens — not surprisingly — like a western. The first 15 minutes of the show looks like an homage to John Ford’s technicolor classic “The Searchers” right down to the do-gooder audience proxy, Teddy (James Marsden) and wide-eyed, optimistic, dusty rose of the old West, Delores (Evan Rachel Wood). It’s obvious we’re watching a fantasy be played out in front of us in all of its classic Western trope gloriousness, but it isn’t until the end of the first act that we’re sure whose fantasy it is. What is set up to be a completely immersive experience for some guests is a chance for others to explore the darkest fantasies they can dream up. Regardless of which camp is occupying “Westworld,” our “hosts” deal with the consequences. It’s a real TV funhouse mirror type of realization once we meet the other half of the cast, lead by Jeffrey Wright and Anthony Hopkins, as we watch them reset all of their walking, talking set pieces for another day of making the dreams of “newcomers” come true.

“Westworld” feels more realized and cinematic than its HBO contemporaries, and maybe that’s because there is just so much history and recognizable stereotypes to pull from given the genres on display. The performances — specifically by Marsden and Wood — are so good, but given that we know we’re watching a play-within-a-play, they seem almost over the top. This is no mistake, either; it’s a genre-bending gift. It’s a very clear signal for the audience to look for glitches in the matrix and to start to wonder just how deep in trouble the creators and patrons of this park will be when the programs they have designed start to do their job too well.

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Solving ‘The Night Of': A finale for the ages 08.29.16 at 1:57 am ET
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Naz and John Stone on the finale of the show of the summer. (Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

Naz and John Stone on the finale of the show of the summer. (Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

That’s how you do it.  

That’s how you end a TV show.

I don’t know how many people watched “The Night Of” in real time, but it is a fraction of how many people will catch up on this show in the age of Streaming Entertainment.

Like its ancestors, “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” “The Night Of” is destined to be remembered as a complete piece of work — everything matters and everything is connected. Unlike its ancestors, it only got eight episodes to reach a satisfying conclusion. I would argue that any more time spent on this story would have lead to a split decision in its battle for a place in the modern television pantheon instead of the devastating knockout it delivered in the finale.

Over the last few years, the most popular show on television has been AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” and that’s not surprising because it is about zombies. Like the undead flesh monsters that haunt post-Apocalyptic Atlanta in “The Walking Dead,” we as TV watchers are stomping around the vast entertainment landscape scrounging for anything we can find and consuming as much of it as possible before we move on to the next feeding.

In that stomp-stomp-feed-stomp-stomp-feed approach to consuming content, we walked right into the trap Steve Zaillian, Richard Price, their brilliant cast and HBO set for us; they zigged when we assumed they’d be zagging and we tumbled right over a cliff while chasing the honking car of tropey cop drama television. The red herrings never stopped jumping and seemed to have sprouted wings during the finale.  

Try counting how many times you thought to yourself, “Well, this is what gets the jury to vote Naz guilty, and then he is going to die in prison.”  I clocked in at ninety-two — one for each minute until the greatest moment of the series. I won’t recount all of them, but here were the highlights:

RED HERRING #1: The Usual Suspects. In court, we got to see Trevor, Duane Reed, Mr. Day, and Don Taylor all take the witness stand to get grilled by the defense. While each was presented as a viable alternative to Naz being the person who killed Andrea, ultimately all were let go.  

GUT REACTION: With no viable options, Naz is the only person who could be found guilty.  

RED HERRING #2: What Are You Doing, Chandra?! The last time I audibly shouted “OH MY GOD” at the TV, Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson’s pass in Super Bowl XLIX. Chandra went from prosecuting attorney to drug mule in no time flat. I’ve been watching, analyzing, and discussing TV for a LONG time… I did not see a lawyer smuggling a bag of opiates to her client coming.  

GUT REACTION: Obviously they both get caught, the prosecution finds out, Naz is found guilty, and Chandra goes to jail. Everyone loses.  

RED HERRING #3: Naz gets put on the stand. After abstaining from cross-examining all of the defense’s suspects, D.A. Weiss winds up a balled fist and knocks Naz into the middle of next week. This scene was the prestige courtroom drama version of Ivan Drago beating Apollo Creed to death in front of Rocky with John Stone play the Duke role screaming, “THROW THE DAMN TOWEL!” This was Johnny Lawrence sweeping the leg of Daniel LaRusso. She put him in a bodybag. She boxed him into a corner where he doubted his own innocence in front of the jury.  

GUT REACTION: She got Naz to doubt himself, so obviously he’s going to jail for life where he will receive many more neck tattoos.  

RED HERRING #4: Naz looks like he’s going to get got. Back at Rikers, the prison guard on watch gets his hands on some surveillance camera footage and shows it to Freddy. Obviously, this is the footage of Chandra delivering the package of opiates to Naz, which he has obviously hidden from Freddy, and he is obviously going to heat up that razor blade and take Naz out before the verdict is rendered, not unlike he did to Victor in the previous episode. Freddy has already shown the audience what he does to people who step out of line in his organization. Even for his protege, the swift hands of The King of Queens are going to wrap around his neck because Naz stepped out of line.

GUT REACTION: Guilty or innocent, Naz doesn’t make it out of Rikers alive.  

Luckily, “The Night Of” is a much different show than any other crime/courtroom drama in which any of these resolutions would have sufficed.  I expected all of these things to happen because this is what we have seen before in every other TV show.  This was the zig for which we content zombies were secretly clamoring.  What we got was something so much better.  

GIFT #1: John Stone gets his one moment in the sun. John Turturro, in what needs to be an Emmy nominated performance, steps up to the plate and BLASTS a home run of a closing argument.  

GUT REACTION: This might be good enough to get Naz acquitted, but not necessarily prove his innocence to the viewer.  

GIFT #2. Box Comes Through Like We Knew He Would.  Det. Box, after weeks of questioning the facts, unearths a suspect we mentioned (previously he was mentioned as “guy-at-funeral”) but didn’t focus on, Ray Halle. I could watch a sequel series of Box following leads, Weiss attacking in the courtroom, and Dr. Katz collecting and explaining forensic evidence forever.  

GUT REACTION: We might actually get justice in the last 20 minutes.

GIFT #3: The Cat Theory Conclusion. I called it in my first recap, I mentioned it every week since, and I shouted it at my television in real time: THE CAT MEANS EVERYTHING. As if the ASPCA commercial on the TV in Stone’s apartment wasn’t enough to tug at our heartstrings, we learned that he saved the cat after all. Throughout the series, the connective tissue from theory to theory has been that the cat represents the truth and how close Stone has been to it all along. John Stone, for all the setbacks that have befallen him over the run of this limited series, is a character with a rich backstory worth exploring. He wasn’t always a psoriasis-riddled, quixotic attorney scrapping his way to $60k a year on plea deals. At one point, he wanted to become a lawyer because he believed people need defending. His unwavering belief in the legal system, despite the wheels of justice having ground him into a fine powder over the years, was the gas in the tank of this show. Pursuing the truth is dirty work and we see him doing all of it in both episodic and metaphorical instances — from scrounging up business at 4 a.m. in police stations to chasing suspects down alleys to emptying litter boxes, etc. The pursuit of justice has done nothing but hurt this guy but he knows it is worth it and even if it is going to make him uncomfortable. I’m now almost positive his surname is Stone, because, like the Greek mythological figure Sisyphus, he is going to push a boulder of the responsibility of truth and justice up a hill every day for eternity.    

GUT REACTION: I was right on the money from day one.  

Unlike the true beauty of a show like “The Night Of,” these are exactly what they are labeled as being: red herrings and gut reactions. They are the tropes and obvious turns that we can expect from a TV show. Even after marveling at what the show did and didn’t do, I was still looking for reasons to point at and detract. Zaillian and Price too met this head on. Even in introducing, explaining, and zeroing in on the real killer in the final episode — a move I promised myself I would hate if they did — fits perfectly. It answers the question I’ve been asking throughout the entire series: Is this a show about who killed Andrea Cornish or is this a show about what happens in the wake of a tragedy? “The Night Of” is most certainly the latter and by showing that life — while not pretty, resolved, or free from strife — will continue. The ripple effects of what happened on October 24th will reverberate in the lives of everyone involved. I’m not sure we’d get the same result if this show were simply about a murder, even if it were filmed as exquisitely or presented on premium cable.  

It took one night — three hours, really — for unthinkable events to take place. It took roughly eight weeks for Naz’s life to unravel. It took insurmountable adversity for the true nature of each character to reveal itself. Therein lies what the show really was; “The Night Of” was much more than a summer TV show — it was a promising glimpse of what TV could be.  

Solving ‘The Night Of': ‘Ordinary Death’ delivers a mountain of evidence and a bigger mountain of questions 08.22.16 at 1:35 am ET
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Detective Box is having second thoughts about just about everything. (Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

Detective Box is having second thoughts about just about everything. (Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

It took seven episodes, but we have finally reached our most procedural chapter in “The Night Of.” “Ordinary Death” gave us everything we’ve been clamoring for: examination of the evidence, revisiting our list of suspects, and a look at the true nature of our principal characters. Next week’s finale, “The Call of the Wild,” will be an extended episode that should give us plenty to chew on.  

“Ordinary Death” delivered big time by serving not only as a gripping hour of television furthering the penultimate-episode-is-the-best-episode trend, but as a great review of the important parts of the show we’ve been obsessing about this summer.

Heading into Episode 7:

  • Where does Det. Box stand on the case? Does he actually think Naz did it?
  • Is stepdad Don Taylor the prime suspect? If Stone and Chandra were the prosecution would they be going after him?
  • Is Naz going to continue to unravel in prison?  
  • Are we going to get some clues or what?

“Ordinary Death” dealt with the repercussions of the murder for all of our characters in “The Night Of” — one of the “real questions” posed in this limited series. How everyone other than Naz is processing the fallout from Andrea Cornish’s murder has been used only as scene painting until this point. As the focus of the penultimate episode, we learned — as suspected — it is not good. For anyone.

Understandably, Naz’s parents are feeling it the most. Naz’s father is being hamstrung by his former business partners into selling his share of the taxi medallion for a fraction of its worth, his mother is questioning if somehow she was to blame for raising Naz into someone who could have committed such a heinous crime, they both are being forced to sell anything of value to pay just to survive and the greater Muslim community of New York being victimized as the case gains more notoriety. As the case has drawn on and those closest to him have taken on more and more of the burden, Naz is becoming more and more myopic in his actions. Obviously, the case is having a profound effect on him, but it is almost as if he is sitting through court as a formality and waiting to get back to his life at Rikers. Is that kind of acceptance of the situation and realization of his true nature the whole point of the series?  

Since his transformation began, collectively we’ve been hoping and praying it was just a defense mechanism, but we’re starting to understand who Naz truly is and what exactly he is capable of.  The revelation that he sent not one but two kids to the hospital and was regularly selling Adderall to classmates was shocking.  Not the actions themselves — we’ve already seen and dissected how Naz deals with stress — but his reactions to these things being brought up in court in front of his defense team, his parents, and the jury. He sat in unflinching silence staring stone-faced at whomever was on the witness stand, not ashamed, not angry, not even surprised that these new details were being brought up. He looked at his former basketball coach, the medical examiner, and his friend/client, in the same way a predator looks at its prey. Who is this guy, and why am I still asking this question with only one episode left to go?  

Regardless of Naz’s actions being brought to light, both Chandra and Stone are still at it trying to drum up as much plausible deniability as possible. Presumably, their key witness, the hilariously named Dr. Katz (THE CAT THEORY LIVES) gave the audience what we’ve been waiting for for two months: explanations for every single piece of evidence we’ve seen. Through his testimony, we learned that the knife that killed Andrea is not necessarily the knife that they have in evidence. We learned that breaking into Andrea’s house on the night in question would have been easy to do — the lock on the gate is broken, the basement door was unlocked, and the scalable tree outside in front of her house lead directly to her open bedroom window. We also learned that if someone did break into her house through either the window or the basement door, they wouldn’t have necessarily seen Naz passed out in the kitchen or the kitchen itself. None of this testimony exonerates Naz, but it does — no pun intended — hold the door open for a shadow of a doubt to creep in.  

The final sequence of “Ordinary Death,” a chilling juxtaposition of both Naz’s and Det. Box’s acceptance of the next phase of their respective lives, put a bow on the gift that has been this show.  After finding out that Petey — the son of Freddy’s drug mule — has committed suicide, Naz comes clean to Freddy about what had been going on between him and Victor. Brilliantly edited against Det. Box’s retirement party, we see Freddy and Naz run a misdirection that allows Freddy to murder Victor in cold blood in plain view while at the same time Det. Box is reconsidering the events of the case and his retirement. Naz — really putting his myopic vision superpowers to good use — has now eliminated any buffer between himself and the most ruthless man in Rikers.  There is no one else for Freddy to lean on now, and I have a hard time believing that even if proven innocent, he will let Naz leave prison easily if at all. He’s in too deep. The same can be said for Det. Box; while we all assumed he was going to play a much bigger role in this series, the doubt he has about the events surrounding Andrea’s murder is casting a pretty big shadow of its own.  

The Notepad

The Red Herring Checklist – SUSPECTS

  • Duane Reed: In the wind and being joked about in court. If we do see him again, I doubt it’s in the back of a squad car.
  • Mr. Day: The looming specter of death is here, but he isn’t the culprit.
  • Stepdad Don Taylor: THE ONLY CHARACTER WITH MOTIVE IN THE ENTIRE SHOW.  WHY IS JOHN STONE THE ONLY GUY GOING AFTER HIM?
  • Scumbag waiter/dealer: Man this dude is twitchy, but it’s doubtful he did it.  

The Red Herring Checklist – EVIDENCE

  • Broken back gate: Theory confirmed; the gate was open.
  • Unlocked basement door: Theory confirmed; the door was open.
  • Multiple ways to get into the house: Naz doesn’t necessarily need to have done it because, in theory, he’s not the only person with access.
  • The murder weapon might not be the murder weapon: The knife in evidence isn’t necessarily the knife that was used; one of the set was missing, even though there are a million reasons why it is missing.  
  • Shout out to Dr. Katz, the best character on this show by far. “If The Night Of” turns from limited series to anthology series, I hope he is the through-line character. I could watch him discuss his crime scene analysis for at least eight hours.

THEORY HEAT CHECK

  • The Cat Theory: The cat as a stand in for the truth holds true. As John Stone has redeemed himself, he has become more and more accepting of the cat. At the beginning of the series, he didn’t care about the truth; he cared about what the defense could prove. This is no longer the case – Stone is now a cat owner and a truth seeker. Not as fun as the time traveling cat version of this theory, but it’s poetic as hell.
  • The Motive Theory: Don Taylor is the only person with motive for killing Andrea, but he is the least likely to have done it according to his M.O. He’s a bankruptcy claiming, white collar, grey lady chasing kind of creep; not a knife wielding psychopath kind of creep. Even though the motive makes sense, it is only in a “Law and Order: SVU” kind of way.
  • Occam’s Razor: To summarize, when there are many options, the simplest answer is the truth. At this point, Naz is still the person closest to the murder scene and the only known person to be in the house at the time of the murder. I doubt he did it, but who else could have?  What other options to the jury have to consider?  
  • The Padraic O’Connor TV Sleuther Theory: We are not going to see who actually killed Andrea Cornish. We may “see him/her” but they aren’t getting hauled in. This show isn’t about a murder; it’s about what happens after.
The Night Of deep dive: Swimming with the red herrings 08.20.16 at 1:46 pm ET
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Does the whodunnit of "The Night Of" matter? (Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

Does the whodunnit of “The Night Of” matter? (Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

“The Night Of” is not what I thought it was going to be.  After seeing the trailers for the series during the most recent season of “Game of Thrones” and doing some digging into the IMBD pages of show creators Steve Zaillian and Richard Price, I thought I had come up with a pretty decent composite sketch of what to expect: a tragic event and the solving of a mystery — pretty formulaic whodunnit procedural TV performed at the highest level because it’s not TV… It’s HBO.  

Over the weeks and episodes since “The Night Of” premiered, this show has evolved into something much more than I expected, or rather revealed itself to be something more than I expected. It’s a show about a murder, but not really; we have not revisited the murder since we discovered the body. It’s a show about proving the prime suspect is guilty of a crime, but not really; we haven’t watched any character discover new evidence or piece together the chain of events that would lead us to a conclusion. It’s a show about a character persevering against unbelievable odds, but not really; Naz is morphing from the caterpillar we hope doesn’t get squished to the sinister moth from “Silence of the Lambs.” 

With only two episodes left in this limited series, we may not get all the threads tied up into the bow we’ve come to expect from crime drama, and that just might be fine. We’ve known since the first episode what the show could have been; it was either going to be the Case Against Nasir Khan, the Redemption of John Stone, or the Murder of Andrea Cornish. We checked all of those boxes in first 75 minutes. What has happened since is something completely different, and in the 2016 TV landscape, that in itself is more refreshing than if somehow Detective Box cracked the case on his last day before retirement.  We’re venturing beyond troupe right now and I’m fine with it.  So sure — “The Night Of” both is and isn’t well-executed crime fiction drama. Ultimately there is a gift somewhere buried underneath the mountains of pretty, genre-pushing wrapping paper and the fun part of getting any type of present is in the unwrapping.  

I haven’t had as much fun dissecting lead from red herring since “LOST” hit its apex in 2006.  There were a lot of red herrings in “LOST” — arguably too many — and for all the sleight-of-hand TV tricks showrunners Damon Lindeloff and Carlton Cuse played on the audience, they ultimately answered the questions the audience should have been asking all along. In that way alone, “The Night Of” and “LOST” are on the same page. The answers we will get in the penultimate and super-sized final episode will be focusing their attentions solely on the question we should have been asking and why we should have been asking them.

In my first recap of this series, I posed the question, “Guaranteed all the clues we need to solve this mystery have already been shown to us. Did you see them?” The answer is, “yes, we did,” although we’re still sorting out what exactly we saw and their order of importance. In last few episodes, we’ve revisited two of the leading “suspects” and in both instances they’re produced way more smoke than fire — the quiet “friend” from the sidewalk — revealed to be the comically named Duane Reed (not the pharmacy), and the angel of death driving a hearse, Mr. Day. While both threads seem to still be dangling out there as possibilities, I think both have served their intended purposes; Duane Reed was the character we spent the least amount of time with and due to the lack of clues, seemed like he could be the missing piece to the puzzle. I’m just an amateur TV sleuth, but I am pretty sure that the reason we last saw him he was sprinting through a maze of alleys means he’s in the wind and that lead is literally not worth chasing.

Episode 5, “The Season of the Witch,” ended with John Stone chasing Duane Reed after assuring Chandra he wasn’t going to do anything stupid.  Episode 6, “Samson and Delilah,” began in the same fashion with Chandra tracking down Mr. Day, whom had encountered the couple at the gas station hours before the murder took place. For what these interactions lacked in establishing actual suspects in the crime, they added new layers to the prosecution team; both John and Chandra leveled up big time — John got his first taste in a long time of what it meant to really care about a case and Chandra ventured out beyond her high-priced firms day to day activities to try and get her hands dirty. These two specific leads were explored to show the heroic journey of the underdog lawyers, which arguably is just as important to the overall story as it would be to stumble into a confession when cornering a potential suspect.  

Mr. Day, on the other hand, provided a completely different advancement of the narrative which unfortunately for the legions of detectives looking to wrap this thing up before the finale, had nothing to do with the murder at the center of the limited series.  This dude… is not a good dude.  To paraphrase the Ringer’s Chris Ryan on his podcast “The Watch,” Chandra went to question potentially the last person to see Andrea alive and wound up confronting the Zodiac Killer. In addition to a million other creepy things that transpired between Day and Chandra, we got a pretty good view of Day’s look at humanity through his telling of — in his opinion — the only Bible verse we need to understand: Judges 16; the story of Samson and Delilah. While Day’s spewing of biblical literature about how women are put on earth to ruin men (all told while Day is painting the fingernails of a corpse), would certainly put a big red exclamation point over his head to signify that this guy is the person we should be looking at for the murder, this too is a giant, glaring red herring.  He’s a big boss level creep, but he is not the psychopath we are looking for.  

His bastardized retelling of Samson and Delilah is worth examining for very different reasons.  In case it’s been awhile since you sat through catechism, I’ll summarize. Samson, a hero of the Israelites and the most powerful man in all the land after receiving old testament super powers from God, gets seduced by a women in league with his enemies, Delilah. By confiding in her the source of his power — his hair — she is able to tell the opposing army — the Philistines — how to defeat him.  He is then bound, tortured, blinded, and defeated. Day tells this story in a way that would make his hatred of women seem like a motive for killing Andrea.

If this were “Law and Order,” Det. Benson would have had the cuffs on him already, but because it’s not 10PM on NBC (or any time day or night on basic cable — shouts to the longevity and watchability of any and all Dick Wolf productions), this story is not an admission of guilt — it’s another ghost for the audience to chase down an alley.  Its placement in “The Night Of” is more about the evils of seduction and the perils of allowing oneself to be seduced, which is the what Naz is facing in prison the longer he is there.

Many of the challenges Naz has faced in Rikers to date have been out of his control — he didn’t burn his own bed, he didn’t douse himself with scalding hot baby oil, and he didn’t slice his own arm standing in line to be re-admitted into prison. These challenges are what lead Naz into his partnership with Freddy. What has happened to Naz since have been his own choices, albeit heavily influenced by those around him.  Getting tattoos — “SIN” and “BAD” on his knuckles (a stylized choice of SINBAD — a middle eastern folk hero) a howling wolf on his upper arm (Naz answering the call of the wild) — getting high on his own supply, accepting a cell phone to start his own prison business, etc., are all examples of Naz allowing himself to be seduced by the spoils of prison life.  

This shift in behavior for Naz is coming from somewhere, and just like John Stone’s pre-visit to Dr. Yi feet, is the manifestation of guilt. Something is eating away at him although we don’t know exactly what. You would think it would take more than a month for Naz to go from the honor roll to prison tattoos and freebasing cocaine through a Bic pen, but something inside him is pushing him along.  I doubt it is the knowledge that he killed Andrea and is more likely the fear that he and those around him — his parents, his brother, his lawyers, and his city — think he is capable of such a crime.

That fear, that is as plain on his face as the ink on his knuckles, might as well be a target for his seducers. Freddy lays it out pretty easily for him by whispering in his ear, asking if he really liked his life on the outside and if he knows how to get everything he could need in his current environment. I would posit that Freddy could have been behind all of Naz’s troubles at Rikers in order to reel him into his boat. Like Samson to the Philistines, Naz is a trophy for Freddy, no different than the TV, books, news clippings, and magazine covers that he has displayed in his cell.

This is why the Samson and Delilah allegory makes sense in the greater dissection of “The Night Of.” Naz is allowing himself to be seduced by his new environment and unknowingly he’s binding himself to it for eternity. He’s blinded by what his life has become, not what he could get back if he is found innocent. This was never just a whodunnit and at this point, and I’m not sure who-actually-dunn-it is important. Answering the questions of how this affects those caught up in the riptide of this murder and what happens next is a much more compelling story to tell.  

Solving ‘The Night Of': Both Naz and the case are beginning to unravel 08.15.16 at 1:47 am ET
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The defense on the defensive. Credit Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

The defense on the defensive. Credit Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

With 75 percent of the show of Summer ‘16 in the books, “Samson and Delilah” delivered some of those sweet, sweet procedural goods that we’ve missed thus far in “The Night Of.”  With only two episodes left, both the audience of the show and the characters within the show are no closer to pinpointing exactly what happened on October 24th while red herrings continue to pop up all over the place.  

Heading into Episode 6:

  • Is Freddy actually helping or hurting Naz?
  • What happened after John chased Duane Reed down the alley?
  • Whose funeral did we see in the previews?
  • At what point will we see some holes poked into the murder scene evidence?
  • Does Det. Box actually believe Naz is guilty? How much is his retiring weighing on his approach to this case?

Even when removing the vastness of the Dick Wolf cannon, the courtroom procedural is the backbone of television. Lawyers defending and prosecuting good guys and bad guys in gorgeous, aesthetically pleasing, and well-lit courtrooms is right up there with “situational comedies” as a staple of television. What the creators of “The Night Of” did with this classic aspect of the procedural in “Samson and Delilah” was one of the most engaging aspects of this series.  It was the least sexy courtroom I have ever seen on TV. Drab, dreary, and dark with only a few streams of light coming through the windows to illuminate a courtroom that has seen better days was just as telling about what we’re dealing with in this case as actual plot developments.  

Ask any lawyer and they’ll tell you that legal work is not the sizzle you see on TV; it is a plodding stomp through the dirt to find a shred of evidence or doubt to lay at the feet of the judge and jury.  “The Night Of” is at its best when its characters are digging around in the dirt where only a few shards of light are allowed to poke through.

Everything about this week’s episode was designed to crank the audience’s anxiety level up to 11. The introduction of flashbacks to the first episode, the music, Chandra and John’s bedroom eyes at each other, etc. While no episode has yet to match the anxious feeling we got when watching Naz get first brought into the precinct, the sixth episode’s presentation of just how far each character has come is a very close second. The shock of the situation has completely worn off and reality is setting in as each character is dealing with accepting where exactly they are now. Life is not going back to normal, and most likely never will. While this trial will be wrapped up shortly, they’ll be living with the aftershocks of this case for the rest of their lives.  

Hanging on to the idea that Naz is innocent is getting harder and harder every week. He is changing before our eyes, and while all credit goes to Riz Ahmed’s star-making performance, it really shines a spotlight on the question, “what comes next for Naz?” At this point, the verdict doesn’t matter; the Naz that stole his father’s cab to go to a party in Manhattan is dead and buried even if he is found innocent. Naz may get out of Rikers, but he is never getting out of prison, and I think that is what the show is trying to tell us. It’s not about who killed Andrea Cornish; it’s about how a seemingly small series of events can dictate the rest of one’s life. There is no going back for this character no matter what the jury decides. The damage is real and has already been done. 

“The Night Of” has been big on drawing parallels between its characters and the steps they are taking in the aftermath of Andrea’s murder. Last week, we saw John go off on his own to chase down Duane Reed and tonight we saw Chandra track down Mr. Day, the driver of the hearse in episode one. In both instances, our characters wound up chasing ghosts.  This device — John and Chandra willing to explore every possible theory — does two things specifically:

  • It establishes that this is not a story about the solving of a murder, it’s a story of redemption.
  • It allows the audience to vicariously pursue every red herring swimming down the premium cable river.

As menacing, creepy and misogynistic as Mr. Day is, he’s not the guy that killed Andrea Cornish. As easy as it would have been to have the murderer be the most likely suspect from the first episode, it wasn’t Duane Reed either. That theory literally got up and ran off-screen before we could accuse it of a crime.  What “The Night Of” is doing with exploring these theories (in addition to giving the people what they want), is reinforcing that the answers we’ve been looking for the entire time are right in front of us, and we’re too busy chasing ghosts in order to see them.  

The only lead that came up in “Samson and Delilah” that looks like it might pan out is super creep step-dad Don Taylor may be the culprit after all, or at the very least be closely involved. In the preview for next week’s episode, we see Det. Box on the witness stand stating that he’ll take evidence over a confession any day. While the evidence is lacking as of right now, Don Taylor is the only character we’ve met with the motive to commit this crime. At this point in the series, motive counts for something. By next week I’m sure we’ll see evidence to back it up.  

Notepad

  • Stone finally found something that cured his ailing feet. He found it by chasing down every possible remedy for the problem and found success with least conventional means. What does say about the case? What non-traditional tactic is going to prove to be their best defense?
  • Naz’s two tattoos – “Sin” and “Bad” or “SINBAD” across his knuckles and a howling wolf on his arm; one tattoo about a protagonist of Middle Eastern origin that survives a number of trials and tribulations, and another of an animal answering the call of the wild. Two very appropriate tattoos for someone who is coming to grips with possibly being in prison for life.   
  • Det. Box is so focused on the evidence of the case, but no one has mentioned how Naz left the crime scene with no blood on him save for the cut on his hand.  How can that possibly be and why hasn’t anyone brought it up?
  • Where was Stone’s independent forensic scientist this week?
  • Is Don Taylor another red herring or is he actually a suspect in this murder case?  
  • My theory after six episodes is this: Naz is innocent, but winds up being convicted, or is guilty and winds up being found innocent. Either way, the final scenes of the series will be the audience finding out what truly happened.
The Night Of Deep Dive: What if Naz actually did it? 08.11.16 at 7:58 pm ET
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The premiere of “The Night Of” was arguably 2016’s best hour of television.  It so distinctly established itself as something different, I found myself amazed that:

A. HBO released it early on its on-demand platforms (a move reserved for shows that struggle to find an audience).

B. A bigger deal was not made of the fact it was available when it hit the internet. For all of the discussions this show is generating, it should be generating twice that amount. I’m both disappointed and ecstatic that as a collective TV-mystery-sleuthing-cultural-task-force, we are yet to crack the mystery of “Who Killed Andrea Cornish?” Disappointed because the best theories out there right now either that the step-dad or a guy named after New York’s version of CVS did it, and ecstatic because we have three more weeks of #PeakTV to roll around in.  

This is the type of show that any Golden Age of Television truther craves: a patient, aesthetically pleasing crime drama with the DNA of a Mount Rushmore of Modern Age Media discussion pumping through its veins — “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” “Serial,” and “True Detective.”  

Since its debut episode, many viewers have argued that the slow-burn pace of the show has overshadowed the actual plot. If that is your take, you’re correct. This is not “The Night Of: Special Victim’s Unit.” If that is deterring you from sticking with the show, then you’re making the completely wrong move. Simply put: if you like TV, then this type of show is good for you. There is a reason why HBO paired this show with “Ballers” and “Vice Principals” — you have to eat all your vegetables before we roll out the ice cream.  

Shows like “The Night Of” are very rare, even more so in the United States. “The Night Of” is a limited series; there are eight episodes and that is it. While anthology series are all the rage now on cable — “Fargo,” “American Horror Story,” “True Detective” — there is an inherent sense of “we’re gonna get a few cracks at this to get it right.” Even though each season is a standalone story, they are connected thematically and designed to share lots of similarities. Within that, the audience knows that there will be multiple attempts for these anthologies to make up for any lackluster seasons. I don’t know if anyone really loved “American Horror Story: Hotel” and I doubt it will dissuade people from watching whatever “AHS: 6″ winds up being.  

A show like “The Night Of” doesn’t have that luxury, not that it needs it. This eight-episode dissection is all we’re getting, and that is a good thing.  To put this in context, the three episode stretch of Naz acclimating to prison, John Stone’s gross feet, and the back and forth between legal teams representing our protagonist, was essentially season two of “The Wire.” While maybe the crisis at the docks isn’t your favorite part of that series, it’s all connected and a necessary part of the experience. Could you imagine bailing on McNulty, Bunk, and Kima because you didn’t like Ziggy and the Sobotkas?  You would have missed so much Omar!  

Part Five of “The Night Of,” “The Season of the Witch,” was the clear end to the second act of the show as each of our main characters met with some serious conflict all circling around the central question we’ve largely refused to ask ourselves: Who Is Nasir Khan? Seriously… who is he?  Throughout the show, we’ve assumed he is a good guy who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  He is the son of immigrant parents. He is the smart kid who is doing the best with the opportunity he has earned.  He is a math whiz. Every single fiber of our TV watching being has been trained to think that this guy didn’t do it. But what if he did?  

One theory I keep coming back to in every episode deconstruction is that in dealing with Naz we’re dealing with an unreliable narrator, which is defined as a first person character whose credibility has been seriously compromised.  While “The Night Of” isn’t told from a first person point of view in the same was as its contemporary prestige-y dramas like “The Affair” or “Mr. Robot” – two other shows that lean almost exclusively on this narrative device – the idea that Naz doesn’t quite have a handle on what happened on October 24th, 2014 is developing into the most pivotal plot point in the story.    

As highlighted in The Season of the Witch, Naz’s tox screen came back reading like a recipe for bad news: ecstasy, alcohol, ketamine, and amphetamine. When his legal team – John and Chandra – present him with this information, Naz is visibly shaken. Even taking into account the incredibly stressful situation Naz finds himself in during that moment – he is trying to complete a drug hand-off for Freddy – he is agitated by Stone poking holes in his “just a Kid from Queens” persona. It takes several direct accusations but Naz finally admits to using Adderall– the likely source of the amphetamine in his blood.  

Question: Is this the behavior of a character you can trust?  

As the waiting room hand-off unfolds, John launches into a laundry list of reasons why a college kid taking Adderall who is also on trial for murder is a bad thing:

“1. Without a prescription it’s illegal. 2. You weren’t up studying you were going to a party. 3. It counteracts the sedative effects of the K making your ‘I passed out story’ less believable. 4. You take enough of it, it makes you psychotic. 5. You lied to me.  So I’m going to ask you because your life depends on it: What else have lied about?”

As all of these accusations are being hurled his way, Naz is trying to time the distraction of a prison guard to the exact moment when his accomplice, Petey, will be walking by him with a hand full of eight balls that he must then dry swallow in front of his lawyer. Lots to process for both main character and audience. I had to re-watch the scene five times to catch Stone’s entire list of ‘drugs are bad’ bullet points.  

The audience is being manipulated purposefully into confusion to show that Naz can’t things straight when situations get stressful, even when those stressful situations are controlled and he knows what is coming.  

This point is driven home in the next scene when Naz has to deliver the product in front of Freddy and his team. After passing the three bags he swallowed, Naz insists there are four, a statement with which Petey instantly agrees. Petey’s reasons aside (stress, the knowledge that if he says there are only three the obvious implication is that he and Naz are trying to hide the fourth from Freddy, etc.), we know Naz is wrong. The audience has watched Naz swallow three eight balls, not four.  This is done to show us that no matter how stressful the situation, no matter how much danger or perceived danger he is in, Naz’s recollection of the situation is flawed. He is as unreliable a narrator as you can get.  

Question: How can this character, all things considered, be counted on to remember anything and what proof do we have that we should believe him?  

In trying to answer these questions, I did a little digging on Wikipedia, and I thought this example summed it perfectly:

Sometimes the narrator’s unreliability is made immediately evident. For instance, a story may open with the narrator making a plainly false or delusional claim or admitting to being severely mentally ill, or the story itself may have a frame in which the narrator appears as a character, with clues to the character’s unreliability. A more dramatic use of the device delays the revelation until near the story’s end. This twist ending forces readers to reconsider their point of view and experience of the story. In some cases the narrator’s unreliability is never fully revealed but only hinted at, leaving readers to wonder how much the narrator should be trusted and how the story should be interpreted.

So what else is Naz misremembering?  

Naz’s guilt or innocence hangs in the balance of what he both remembers and is willing to admit, and after “The Season of The Witch,” that is not an easy thing to pin down. Consciously, Naz believes he is innocent, but unconsciously he might know something different, with his physical transformation being the biggest hint. In addition to trying mirror Freddy physically – boxing, the tight space workouts, and big dogging Treach from Naughty By Nature after deciding the TV room will be watching Ellen – Naz decides to shave his head. In any visual storytelling medium, that is a sign of transformation and it rarely carries a positive connotation.  

Elsewhere in prestige cable land, a close-up scene of a primary character shaving his head is the manifestation of guilt. Walter White shaves his head and commits to becoming Heisenberg. He evolves from mild-mannered science teacher to Caucasian Scarface. It doesn’t happen immediately, but the ball is now rolling.  On the “Walking Dead,” Shane – a most reluctant villain – shaves his head after literally throwing someone in front of a horde of animated flesh monsters in order to save himself.  Instead of admitting to the other survivors what he did, he shaves his head and things get more evil from there.  His evolution into villainy is a bit faster — from people’s champion in post-apocalyptic Atlanta to zombie in no time flat.  

In both cases, the change comes from the character struggling to come to grips with their specific actions. It’s the easiest way to show the audience that there is something the character is struggling with. Very literally, they have a hard time looking themselves in the mirror and opt to make a drastic change.  

While Naz probably won’t become the Walter White of Rikers Island and I doubt the final twist of “The Night Of” is that the dead rise from their graves, there are real monsters at play here. More so than the evil step-dad, the random guy from the funeral, or the elusive Duane Reed, the evidence we have points to Naz having the most potential to evolve into the monster we’ve been hunting. He remembers more than he is letting on even if he isn’t ready to admit it.  

 

Solving The Night Of: The truth is coming into focus and it is hard to look at 08.08.16 at 2:02 am ET
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John Stone is working overtime. (Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

John Stone is working overtime. (Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

Quick note before we dive into tonight’s episode: Since its debut five weeks ago, “The Night Of” has become two very different shows — a prison drama and a legal drama. To that end, there are lots and lots of threads on which to pull in an attempt to unravel the two mysteries collectively we are trying to solve: Who is Nasir Khan and who killed Andrea Cornish?

So we’re breaking this into two pieces — a Monday Morning recap and a mid-week breakdown of the episode where I get to apply some AP English style hot TV takes.  The first piece is where we breakdown what we saw, and the follow up is where we get to peel off the Saran wrap of these Crisco-laden feet and get down to business.

Having said that, let’s get into it.

Episode 5 of “The Night Of” — entitled “The Season of the Witch” — shined a light on the question we’ve been avoiding all season: Who exactly is Nasir Khan? If last week’s episode, “The Call of the Wild” teased the idea that Naz was going to have to evolve in order to survive his time in prison, this week’s episode turned that thought on its head.  

What’s that saying about adversity and character? Adversity doesn’t build character; it reveals it.  

Maybe — just maybe — this nightmarish situation isn’t turning Naz into something he isn’t, but revealing the person he truly is. Maybe this is the Nas we’ve been looking at all along and have been refusing to acknowledge it.  

Questions Heading Into Episode 5:

  • Is Naz changing before our eyes, or is he playing right into Freddy’s hands? Can Naz actually trust anyone?  Who actually is in this to help him?
  • Why is John Stone so hellbent on helping Naz? What does Naz represent to him?
  • Does Box actually think Nas did it, or is he too just pursuing the easiest outcome to clear this case?
  • What does the crime scene tell us about the killer and the crime?

Theory Heat Check

  • The Cat: Andrea’s cat 100% represents the truth of the situation. Hands down. Over the last few episodes, John has been keeping tabs on the case and continuing his work despite not being Naz’s actual lawyer. In “The Season of the Witch,” John adopts the cat and simultaneously gets officially brought onto the defense team, where is job is to LITERALLY search for the truth.  
  • The Backdoor Theory: John and Chandra bring in their own specialist to get some fresh eyes on the crime scene. The specialist finds that the back door doesn’t lock (something noticed by many and yet to be addressed in the show), may have found some additional evidence in the garden, and may have introduced reasonable doubt to the defense’s case. It couldn’t have come at a better time as Naz’s “Good Kid” defense has flown out the window.  
  • Occam’s Razor: Occam’s Razor suggests that,””Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.” Lots of things could have happened on the night in question. One possibility is that Naz killed Andrea and just doesn’t remember it. Naz took a ridiculous amount of substances, the combination of which could produce some nasty side effects. At this point all we know for certain is that Naz was definitely in the house when Andrea was murdered.  Until new evidence is provided, the theory with the fewest assumptions is that Naz actually did it.

Another week, another circle of hell visited with our tour guide, John Stone. Week after week, I assume we’re seeing John Stone struggle with being John Stone and it being a device to show the audience the depths from which he must rise  There are only three episodes left; at what point does he start to burrow up to the surface?  

From an excruciating Bring-Your-Father-to-Work-Day presentation in front of his son’s class, to failing to perform when he visits his — **cough** — client/friend, to being ridiculed by both his doctor and pharmacist, to watching another “John” steal his girl and his drink, Stone had a pretty bad week. It would be easy to keep bashing John for this series of unfortunate events, and that is what every other character in the show does. It is also exactly what he expects them to do. While they are picking at his character in the same way he is jabbing at his feet with chopsticks, John is grinding away doing the necessarily work on the case. While everyone involved — both the characters in the show and the audience watching — is focused on his life events, which might as well be accompanied by a “Curb Your Enthusiasm” tuba sound effect, they look past and shrug off the two leads he uncovered:

  • Andrea’s drug dealing waiter friend. 
  • Previously unnamed side-eye slinging dude on the street, Duane Reed.  

This is the result of good work that no one else involved was willing to do.  John Stone might be rising up from the depths of hell to solve this case, but that means he is starting down in the muck and mire where the only work that can be done is the necessary dirty work. From his point of view, the work isn’t dirty. It’s a head start.

When we left Naz last week he was transitioning from servile puppy to running with the wolves at the front of the pack.  This week showed more of that journey as Naz is allowing himself to evolve into a different person while in Rikers. In a move I’m sure we could all see coming a mile away, Freddy isn’t extending olive branch after olive branch just because Naz is “a care package for his brain.” He’s doing it because he’s a puppet master and Naz is his newest dummy.

In exchange for protection, his new single cell, and for the gift of Freddy arranging for him to beat down Calvin — the man who burned him last week — Naz has to play the role of drug mule. What is most interesting about this is that you can see Naz’s sight shifting from long distance — proving his innocence — to short distance — playing his part in Freddy’s game of “How To Survive and Thrive in Prison.”

He’s allowing himself to be manipulated and he knows it; what’s worse is that John knows it, too. Even when John catches him red-handed moving Freddy’s newly smuggled in supply, he refuses to acknowledge it. What does this tell us about Naz as a character?  What else is he refusing to acknowledge?

After weeks of focusing on the who, we finally got some what and how in tonight’s episode as Det. Box, Stone and Chandra, and D.A. Weiss started sifting through mountains of evidence to assemble their cases. What I found most interesting was that all three parties were working from the same deck, and all three found different trump cards:

  • Det. Box — established the timeline, and uncovered a little bit of doubt.
  • D.A. Weiss — obtained a testimony from the medical examiner about the nature of the cut on Naz’s hand.
  • John Stone — found both a potential reasonable doubt (the back door, new blood sample), and a potential suspect, Duane Reed.

While the exact nature of how each hand will play out, the “silent friend” theory gained a TON of traction this week and gave birth to the most excitement we’ve had on the show in weeks — a Crisco smeared foot race through the alleys of New York.  

With Naz’s character defense all but destroyed and the trial set to begin next week, there should be a lot more evidence coming into play very soon. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we’ve already looked past the piece of evidence that either clears Naz’s name or seals his fate.  

Tonight’s episode got us back on track and reinforced that this show is about discovery. This is all about the hunt for the truth, no matter how ugly it is, and what you’re willing to do to uncover it.

The Notepad

You can check out the full “The Night Of” Notepad HERE.

Suspect List

  • Duane Reed
  • Don Taylor
  • Dude from the funeral

New Notes

  • So Det. Box is smoking now? This is new. Does this show that the stress of the case is getting to him?
  • We learned that Det. Box has filed his papers after 33 years on the job. Does this case now carry more weight for him as it could be his final one?
  • Det. Box pouring over all the video surveillance footage shows that Naz was telling the truth on 10/24/14.  What does this mean for where Box stands on the proceedings? Is there now a shadow of doubt in his mind?
  • Stone listing off all of the ways the cocktail of drugs Naz took could fry his brain was scary. This lends a lot of credence to the “unreliable narrator” theory from a few weeks back; essentially we’re going off of Naz’s recollection of the night. We’re seeing what Naz remembers, but not necessarily what happened.  
  • Have we established that the knife found on Naz is the actual murder weapon?
  • How could the amount of blood in the bedroom be all over the walls and the mattress, but NOT on Naz himself?  His clothes should have been drenched.  Will this be brought up in court?
  • Who is Duane Reed and why is Trevor afraid of him?  
  • Where is creepy Step-Dad Don Taylor this week?  
  • Who is the man at the funeral Don was arguing with?

 

Solving ‘The Night Of': Naz answers call of the wild 08.01.16 at 7:41 am ET
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Photo: Riz Ahmed (Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO).

Photo: Riz Ahmed (Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/HBO).

Sunday’s episode of “The Night Of,” entitled “The Call of the Wild,” marked the midway point of the show. Since the premiere episode — which right now is easily the best single episode of television you are going to see on any network — each week has slowed down further and further to focus on very specific details of the characters orbiting the murder of Andrea Cornish.

Episode 2 focused the man in charge with putting Naz behind bars, Detective Box, and the man who stumbled his way into defending him, John Stone. Episode 3 focused on the sharks circling Naz and his family — his new high-profile, Nancy Grace stand-in, Allison Crowe — and the resident kingpin of Rikers Island, “The King of Queens” Freddy Knight. Episode 4 was all about Naz navigating the waters in prison and his defense testing the waters too see if they were going to jump in and actually defend him or reach for the lowest hanging branch — a plea bargain good for a 15-year sentence — and get out of the river before they even get wet.

On the plus side, after this much time spent on character development the audience knows exactly with whom we are dealing. We should be able to guess moves our characters are going to make, which makes the subtle twists and turns the plot takes one of the more engaging hours on television. This show isn’t riding and dying with surprising the audience; it is cashing in on the richness of execution and anticipation.

On the minus side, we haven’t seen anything about with what we are dealing. We haven’t seen any evidence be analyzed, or the cops formulating theories outside of, “The dude with the knife in his pocket did it.” Our collective TV sleuth hats are sitting on the couch collecting dust. If this show were on NBC, Olivia Benson would have had this thing delivered to the D.A. with a bow on it and we’d be focused on a recap of “American Ninja Warrior” right now.

It would be easy to dismiss the last three episodes as being boring, but they weren’t. There is a big difference between “boring” TV and TV that “takes its time.” We’re dealing with the latter. If that’s not your bag, let me point you in the direction of the USA Network and their daytime block of procedural television; the new season of “Suits” looks LIT.

While Sunday night’s explorations of just how far beneath the earth’s crusts lay John Stone’s life prospects was fun and insanely dark, the episode was made by Naz and Freddy’s discussion of prison literature — specifically regarding “The Call of the Wild.” For those of you who haven’t had to bang out a book report on this junior high school summer reading list staple in a solid 20 years, this one is for you:

“The Call of the Wild” is the story of a dog named Buck who is stolen from his home and sold into service time and time again in the turn-of-the-century wilderness of Canada. Throughout the story, Buck becomes progressively more and more feral as his situation becomes more and more dire. The title, “The Call of the Wild,” refers to Buck’s necessity to abandon his behaviors learned as a domesticated dog and embrace his animal instincts to not only survive but become an alpha in the wild.

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Solving ‘The Night Of': Things go from bad to worse in ‘A Dark Crate’ 07.25.16 at 1:33 am ET
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Hello, Michael K. Williams. (Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

Hello, Michael K. Williams. (Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

OK … stay with me.

I say this for two reasons:

  1. After an all-time great premiere episode, the last two weeks of “The Night Of” have been slow for the type of show we assume we’ve been watching: a week-to-week procedural. It should be obvious by now that it is only a procedural in the sense that we’re dealing with crime and those who investigate it.  What gets wrapped up in 60 minutes of “Law & Order: SVU” or “Criminal Minds” is going to take eight weeks to solve on HBO.
  2. The fun part of watching and conversing about a show like “The Night Of” is exploring all of the ins and outs. Dissecting the influences is more than half the battle; you have to stick with it.

Last week, I drew some heavy comparisons to Season 1 of the This American Life podcast “Serial.”  After a slow-burn episode like “A Dark Crate,” there is an even more apt comparison to draw in how we are consuming this show.

I, like many other people in the Fall of 2014, discovered the “Serial” podcast in mid-October.  Patton Oswalt — a writer/comedian and cultural commenter/big deal on Twitter — was going Tweet happy about it, so I decided to check it out.  At that point, there were four episodes already released, so I was able to binge through nearly half the season in an afternoon. I was left more than enough time to get thoroughly hooked and re-listen several times before new episodes debuted.

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Solving ‘The Night Of': We Learn Who We’re Dealing with in ‘Subtle Beast’ 07.18.16 at 12:38 pm ET
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It's all in the details. (Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

It’s all in the details. (Craig Blankenhorn/HBO)

Over the Thanksgiving holiday in 2014, I — like just about every other person who measures time in new media sensations — discovered the “Serial” podcast.

“Serial” Season 1 focused on the murder of Hae Min Lee, an 18-year-old student at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore. Lee was last seen leaving school at 3PM on January 13, 1999.  Her body was discovered in a shallow grave in nearby Leakin Park two days later. The case was immediately treated as a homicide and eventually Lee’s ex-boyfriend, fellow student Adnan Syed, was arrested, charged, and eventually convicted of first-degree murder. For anyone reading a TV recap blog not familiar with this podcast, this probably seems like a huge spoiler, but it is not; these facts introduced to the listening audience almost immediately. The genius thing about “Serial” season 1 is that every episode was about the details surrounding the case, the “characters” involved, and questioning the “open-and-shutness” of a crime of passion.

The best episodes of “Serial” weren’t focused on forensics; the best episodes of “Serial” were focused on the personalities of those involved, the motivations for their actions in the turbulant aftermath of the murder and investigation and host Sarah Koenig’s constant questioning of the facts and her personal feelings to them. It sounds boring and was fascinating. “The Night Of” is the sequel to “Serial” we were all hoping Season 2 would be and wasn’t. Sorry, Sarah Koenig.

The reason I bring up “Serial” has less to do with the similarities between its main suspect, Adnan Syed, and the main suspect of “The Night Of”, Nasir Kahn, and more to do with the incredible detail being put into the character development of the main “players” in each story respectively. What we lacked in hardcore-network TV drama-style clue discovery goes above and beyond in the character development area, which reveals a ton about who we are dealing with in the wake of the murder of Andrea Cornish.

Questions Heading Into Episode 2:

  • What kind of kid is Naz?
  • What does John Stone see in Naz?  What drew him back to this kid?
  • Of all the detectives in NYC, why call Box?  What makes him so important?
  • What does the crime scene tell us about the killer and the crime?

Theory Heat Check

The Cat: The cat is more than likely a red herring.  The cat was a device to show:

  • Andrea left the back door open after she put the cat out.
  • Andrea putting out the cat was not shot from Andrea’s point of view; this could be a cinematic device showing that her putting out the cat and possibly leaving the door unlocked was seen by someone else/someone watching the house.
  • The cat showing up in Queens at Naz’s house is to show that the answer is closer than we think and that the answer is in what the cat saw. In other words, the truth will be revealed to the audience, not necessarily the characters.

You can check out the full notepad for both weeks HERE.  

Entitled “Subtle Beast,” the title of episode 2 beautifully describes the mutual admiration Jack Stone and Det. Dennis Box have for each other as they stalk patiently around Naz’s case just waiting for their moment to strike.  Jack admires the things Box has done in his career; Box admires what he seemingly knows Stone is capable of when properly motivated. Early on in the episode when speaking to his client, Stone reveals to Naz just who they are dealing with as Box’s reputation precedes himself:

“Box is the senior man here. He got that way by doing what he does well. He rolls up his sleeves, delegates nothing, takes all things personally. I’m not saying he’s a bad cop. On the contrary, he’s very good. And like all good cops, he does you over just inside the rules. He’s a talented oppressor. Subtle beast.”

We get to see how subtle Box is in virtually every single scene of this episode; it is genius-level procedural sleight of hand. Naz’s parents have no legal right to see him because he’s no longer a minor? That’s fine; Ol’ Box will just sneak your parents in to visit because they seem like nice people and casually get the conversation on video recording just in case Naz lets some details slip.

Can’t speak to the suspect without his lawyer present? It’s fine; Ol’ Box will just do some paperwork in the room the suspect, Naz, happens to be held.  

Can’t get Naz to spill any details about the night in question even though he literally handed him a lifeline in the form of an inhaler? That’s fine; let’s just ship you off to Riker’s Island in a Harvard tee-shirt; a nice subtle way to help a naive kid scared out of his mind stand out when all he wants to do is fade into the background.  

His actions aren’t vindictive, they’re just “Inception” level tactics of planting land mines that will eventually go off; they are ways to rattle the tree to see what falls out.  The dark eyes of the deer head in Andrea’s brownstone aren’t the only pair staring straight out in hopes of catching subtle details. This isn’t the first time Box has been in this situation.  

Standing across the ring from Box and pacing like a journeyman fighter who has made a career out of taking punches is Jack Stone.  While there is nothing subtle about his direct actions — verbally sparring with detectives in the bullpen, sitting beneath his own garish “NO FEE UNTIL YOU’RE FREE” signs on the subway, violently scratching his increasingly worsening eczema-ridden feet — he too is moving into the perfect position to strike. The audience is treated to a hint of just how sharp Stone is when crossing paths with Det. Box in the bullpen:

(via EW.com)

Box: I feel for him.

Stone: I’m sure you do.

Box: I do. I let him talk to his distraught parents.

Stone: Yeah? You tape it?

Box: This is a little out of your league, isn’t it, John?

Stone: [gesturing towards the vending machine] Bloomberg would have been appalled by the snacks here.

Box: You’re not gonna get rich off of it, if that’s what you’re thinking. It’s gonna be the shortest trial in history.

Stone: Yeah? Is that why you haven’t charged him? He doesn’t feel right for it, does he? Something in your gut isn’t liking him for this and you can’t bring yourself to pull the switch.

Granted, while you can expect David Price’s dialogue — which has made everything from movies like “Clockers” to television staples like “The Wire” to works of fiction like “Lush Life” explode off of their respective mediums — to pop like that, John Turturro’s delivery reminded me of a boxer just luring in his opponent so he can land some hurtin’ bombs right before the bell. Straight Rope-A-Dope style gamesmanship. Like his opponent, this isn’t Stone’s first match either.

Side Note: I want to see the backstories of both Jack Stone and Dennis Box and I want to see them now. I’m more interested in seeing their early tangles on the way up in the New York City justice department than I am seeing young Han Solo and young Boba Fett cross paths on various Kessel Runs.  

Ultimately, the most revealing parts of the episode had everything to do with the storytelling — not necessarily WHAT was said, but HOW it was said.  Every single character in tonight’s episode– with the exception of Naz and his family– approached the events of the worst night of this 23-year-old’s life as if they were as routine as getting a coffee on the way into the office.  

Det. Box has risen to his level of prestige because of his relentless pursuit of the truth;that pursuit takes time, patience, and repetition. Going through the motions of investigating this case is no different.  

Jack’s navigation of the legal system has been honed over years of battling in the courts on every case he can scare up — which by the looks of it are few and far between and not the most prestigious. He takes good news and bad news about his clients the same way: en route to another meeting trying to hustle for to be someone’s legal representation. That kind of numb perseverance takes a long time to craft.

We meet District Attorney Helen Weiss. She’s outside smoking a cigarette on the steps of a courthouse during jury deliberation, as she probably has every single day for her entire career. A person’s life hangs in the balance but it’s also hanging during my cigarette break — ho hum. Smoke ’em if you got ’em.  

We even learn the other men who are being transported to central booking before going to Riker’s Island — through ADR/off-screen dialogue — have all been there before. This overnight pitstop is just a part of the process.  

What is a journey through all pathways one can find themselves inside of a courtroom is presented as mundane: just your normal everyday inconvenience, except in this world the inconvenience is a first-degree murder charge.  

But not Naz. There has to be something to the fact that everything that happens to him is a surprise; absolutely nothing is routine for him here. He has spent zero time thinking about the future and all of his time trying to remember the past and what really happened the night of.  That has to mean something… right?

Suspect List

  • The friend who stared down Naz & Andrea just a second too long
  • This creep, Don Taylor:
Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 1.53.01 AM

Courtesy: HBO

The Notebook:

  • This week’s Could be something, could be nothing: Box’s paperwork project: 
Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 12.07.27 AM

Courtesy: HBO

  • The hazy, fuzzy sounding dialogue in the opening, that’s new information; we have not heard this part of the conversation between Andrea and Naz previously. He’s remembering things.  
  • There is blood on the deer head. How did it get there? It can’t be from from Naz sprinting out of the house; that blood is on the railing. Perhaps from the knife game? Perhaps from Andrea and Naz hooking up mid-walk up the stairs?  
  • The forensic scientist at the scene of the crime mentions the cat to Det. Box. I’m telling you, the cat is more than a red herring — it’s Chekhov’s cat.  
  • There is a tremendous amount of blood splatter on the walls of Andrea’s room. There is no way Naz could have killed her based on the the splatter alone. Naz wouldn’t be absolutely covered in blood when he came to in the kitchen.  
  • Don Taylor (the stepdad) is no good. He is almost certainly hiding something or at the very least, he is withholding crucial pieces of evidence. This is explicitly shown when called to ID the body. As next of kin, it is his word that can put the part of the case to rest and he withholds it until he would have to be confronted with seeing the body itself. Even if he isn’t the killer (BUT HE DID JUST SHOOT THE TOP OF MY SUSPECTS LIST), he is a character whose very presence on screen is screaming out that he feels underappreciated for a bevy of reasons that double as motive.  
  • Also he lives in Queens and COULD HAVE TRANSPORTED THE CAT FROM MANHATTAN BACK TO HIS NEIGHBORHOOD WHICH ALSO JUST HAPPENS TO BE WHERE NAZ AND HIS FAMILY ARE FROM.  
  • I’m not letting this cat thing go.