Critic's Notebook: Was 'The Night Of' Finale the Cat's Pajamas?

HBO's summer miniseries ends with few answers, but lots of screentime for one key kitten.
The finale of 'The Night Of.'

[This post contains major spoilers for the Sunday, Aug. 28, finale of The Night Of.]

Coming into the finale of The Night Of, as the internet regurgitated seemingly obligatory "Here Are Our Major Suspects" prediction pieces, I had really only one major hope: That a show I never viewed for a second as being a whodunnit didn't suddenly become a whodunnit in its closing episode, that it stayed true to its core values of being a critique of a broken system and a broken process and several broken people.

Although the finale was full of frustrations, both because of an absurd 100-minute running time and despite it, I came away feeling that the episode honored what the show was about.

If, however, you desperately needed to know who killed poor, unhappy Andrea Cornish, I can see why you might be pissed off by the way the finale resolved, or didn't resolve. To that I say that they're only cliffhangers if you think "Who killed Andrea Cornish?" was the mystery of The Night Of.

I figured there were two thematic approaches for the way the miniseries could end.

The killer could turn out to be somebody other than Riz Ahmed's Naz, which would serve as an underlining of all of the false assumptions about guilt and innocence made by everybody from the cops to the D.A.'s office to the correctional system.

Or the killer could turn out to be Naz, which would re-enforce a critique of our own viewership, of our own assumptions and how we were lured into trusting or sympathizing with Naz initially and the reasons we felt he was being unduly prosecuted and prejudged.

Naturally, creators Richard Price and Steven Zaillian went a third way, and managed to combine those two perspectives.

As it stands, we don't really know who killed Andrea Cornish.

Halfway through the episode, retired detective Dennis Box (the marvelous Bill Camp), became convinced that it was Paulo Costanzo's Ray, who worked as Andrea's CPA, but who also was her boyfriend and maybe stole $300,000 from her for his gambling addiction and happened to have a fight with Andrea that very night and did mighty shady things leaving the city. All of the circumstantial evidence in the episode suddenly swung in Ray's direction, and as the finale ended D.A. Weiss and Box were making an alliance to bring Ray down, but we don't actually know anything. We just assume.

We could just as easily assume that it was plenty suspicious that the hilariously named Duane Reade had a history of both B&Es and also assaults featuring steak knives he took from the crime scene. Or we could think it was suspicious that Andrea's sniveling stepfather Don (Paul Sparks) stood to inherit property worth $10 million after Andrea's death, had a history of domestic battery and bankruptcy and filed to get his hands on Andrea's trust fund before her body was in the ground. And that funeral home guy was still damn creepy, though "creepy" and "homicidal" are still a long way apart.

And guess what? It could still have been Naz. He may not have seemed like a killer when he entered Riker's Island, but the Naz who got sprung from jail is capable of anything. He's alienated from his parents, from his friends and from his community. He's also got an unpleasant love for freebasing cocaine and some ugly prison tats that are going to make it very hard for Naz to distance himself from what was really only a few weeks or, maximum, months in prison. The reason Naz's arc was plausible, despite a collapsed window of time, is singular: Riz Ahmed was really good. Ahmed was almost as good at playing Naz as Naz was at being a prisoner. By the time he left, he was co-running a drug empire, interrogating fresh fish and strutting around like he owned the place. Naz was so indispensable to Freddy's (Michael K. Williams) operation that Freddy couldn't bring himself to say good-bye and just left Naz with a copy of Call of the Wild as a parting gift, as he hit the heavy bag in misery.

"You smell like innocence," Freddy told Naz, but that's not necessarily confirmation that Naz didn't kill Andrea. Either the system turned him into a dead-eyed criminal or the system just brought to the surface what was always inside him. Remember all that stuff about Naz being violent? How did Weiss not bring that up in cross? I guess she didn't need to.

But if you believe that Naz was innocent, did the system ultimately work for him? Kinda? He's free. Literally free. Spiritually he's in bondage still, but that's just a technicality. Naz wasn't acquitted. The jury was deadlocked at six apiece and refused to continue deliberations and, given the opportunity to pick a new jury and have a new trial, Weiss declined, either because she was convinced that Box had come up with a new suspect in Ray, or because she knew that there was no way she could try Naz again because there's no way he'd have counsel as inept as Chandra (Amara Karan). So John Turturro's John Stone properly drove home reasonable doubt in his closing, despite a panic and allergy attack of body-spanning proportions, but he was only making the closing statement because Chandra got forcibly booted from the case for being inept and unethical and the judge wouldn't grant a mistrial to save his own hide. So the system didn't work so much as it was so broken that it ended up circling back around to justice. If you believe Naz was innocent.

Let's return to Chandra, because that character ended up being the harshest indictment of audience expectations. We've seen dozens of movies and TV shows in which a seemingly innocent client can't get the hotshot representation they seem to deserve, but instead they get a zealous and inexperienced advocate who turns out to be dogged and brilliant. John Grisham has made a career around that kind of attorney and Price and Zaillian made us believe, or made us want to believe, that because Chandra had superficial similarities to Naz and because she believed in him with great sincerity, that she would be able to come through. But what if that zealous defender has no lack of passion but happens to be really, really, really bad at their job? What if the reason Chandra was being used as a prop by Alison Crowe was because she hadn't shown previous aptitude?

Now, did Chandra need to be as cartoonishly awful as she was? Probably not. When I initially reviewed the series, based on seven of the eight episodes, I expressed reservations about developments in later episodes and a lot of those reservations came from clunky maneuvering in the courtroom and hackneyed investigative work from both Chandra and Stone, who kept going and having intrusive conversations with murder suspects in the darkest and most solitary of places without any back-up. And the Chandra-Naz kiss last week? That was a mess, too, though not nearly as much of a mess as Chandra smuggling Naz drugs, hidden in her nether-regions, as a way of convincing him to testify. But wanting Naz to testify was bad lawyering and smuggling him drugs was bad lawyering and kissing him was bad lawyering and not assuming there might be cameras in the room in which she was kissing him and smuggling drugs to him was bad lawyering. Maybe Chandra deserved better, but maybe she was just a bad lawyer.

Chandra was finally as inexperienced and misdirected in trying to free Naz as Naz was in doing everything wrong to get himself thrown in jail in the first place. They were perfect for each other, but not in a desirable way. 

The good lawyer, as we always suspected, was John Stone, he of the subway ads and eczema. The eczema receded as Chandra's role in the case expanded and as Stone became a silent and ignored second chair, but when Chandra ruined everything and John had step up and do the closing, the eczema returned. We mocked the prevalence of eczema, but it was John Stone's blotchy, itchy, throat-closing superpower, the source of the empathy that he wielded against the jury with the same alacrity he wielded a chopstick against his sore-covered foot. So don't judge that man scratching himself inappropriately on the subway. His true inflammation might be his desire for justice.

The saddest part of the finale wasn't when things looked bad for Naz or when Chandra kept going down ignorant roads. It was when Stone returned the cat, Andrea's cat, to the kill shelter. It showed his surrender to the idea that he wasn't worthy of companionship. But Stone's outbreak wasn't connected to the cat and came after he cleared out all traces and after is semi-triumph in his closing, we saw him sitting at home, seemingly alone. He got a call for another of his $250 clients, another case he surely will try to settle, and a commercial for the ASPCA played on TV and even the kittens in cages didn't make him weep. Had Stone closed off his heart? No, as he left to go meet his new client, the cat walked through the living room. Naz might be alone getting high by the river. Chandra might be fired. Box might be a powerless NYU security guard. Freddy might not have his unicorn anymore. But Stone and his cat are together forever, no matter the allergies that ensue.

Turturro and Ahmed and Camp were all surely Emmy-worthy — that closing statement for Turturro should have him well positioned for ample recognition, ditto with Ahmed's "I don't know" under cross — but I don't need a second season of The Night Of. Or I don't need a second season related to these characters. I don't need to be told explicitly who did it, especially if I have to follow Box skulking and Weiss vaping just to get answers. I don't need to see Naz descend further into addiction and self-loathing until he becomes the man the justice system thought he was. I don't need to see Stone and his cat return to a life of comfortable settlements and ambulance chasing only to accidentally hook another big fish, plunging him into another case of his life.

The Night Of had a great pilot and even if certain parts of its procedural engine were faulty, it had big things on its mind and sometimes articulated those things boldly. It wasn't perfect, but it was a novelistic work of substance to help carry us through the summer months and I appreciated that.

A few other quick thoughts on the finale and the season:

• I assume there were contractual reasons why the finale had to be 100 minutes, rather than getting split into two parts and making The Night Of into a nine-episode miniseries instead of eight. This was a long episode, it felt long and it didn't feel like it needed to be told all in one bite. The pilot was super-sized and didn't feel long to me. This did.

• You have 100 minutes and you can't make more time for the tremendous Peyman Moaadi and Poorna Jagannathan as Naz's parents? Naz and Safar had that one damning scene where he confronted her with believing he did it, but Salim had such a direct tie to what happened, with the cab and all, that it seemed like he deserved more than just telling Naz to go have fun on his first night out.

• Lots of people made jokes about how crucial the cat seemed to be to the murder and that wasn't followed up at all. Instead, the cat became a therapy animal for Stone and was central in that respect, but we never got the exact details on where the cat was when everything went down. I was more disappointed that we never got additional details on the stag's head in Andrea's living room. I wanted there to be a camera in its shiny eyes. Alas, it was just judging, lifeless.

• He didn't play a big role in the finale, but J.D. "Bode" Williams' scene lamenting the life of a man named "Duane Reade" added welcome humor.

• Why did Naz need to get so fully committed to his new prison lifestyle? Would Freddy not have thought he smelled as innocent if he'd just shaved his head, but hadn't gotten any tattoos? Or if he'd just gotten the "Sin" and "Bad" tattoos, but hadn't gotten the crown on the jury side of his neck? Save something for for your second month in the hoosegow, Naz!

• Was the Naz-Chandra kiss orchestrated by Freddy to try getting a mistrial? The chain of custody of that jailhouse video was perplexing, especially since Freddy benefited more from Naz staying than his leaving, though Naz was probably never going to be in Rikers if he was convicted and now he can maybe steer drugs to Freddy from the outside? Or something?

• How nice that Oscar winner Fisher Stevens got to have one last cameo, even if we didn't see his face.