The Night of: Virtue, Honour and that Darn Cat
I know I’m a few months late with regard to watching HBO’s excellent crime drama, The Night of. It is often pointed out that the TV drama has displaced film and the novel as the preeminent narrative art form of our time. This is true of classics such as The Wire and Breaking Bad. Others can be forgotten about as quickly as they were binge watched. The Night of lingers in the mind, not just because it struck the right tone of ambiguity, but because it had something to say about the nature or evil, innocence and virtue. If you haven’t yet watched it and want to avoid spoilers, stop reading now.
The Night of centres around business student Nas (Riz Ahmed). After being left without a ride to a party in downtown New York, Nas decides to borrow his father’s cab without permission. This turns out to be the first of a number of bad decisions. Unable to turn off the for hirelight, Nas ends up with a young woman climbing into his passenger seat. She tells him that she doesn’t want to spend the night alone. Their evening together culminates in rough, drug fuelled sex with added knife games. Hours later, Nas wakes from a ketamine induced doze to discover the woman’s mutilated body. Fleeing the scene, Nas breaks back in to retrieve his father’s car keys and the murder weapon. After being pulled over for being in charge of a vehicle while intoxicated, Nas’s fate is compounded after the knife is found on him moments before he is cut loose. A life sentence looms and Nas has few allies, those being his parents and John Stone, a low rent, plea bargain lawyer (John Turturro).
What follows is a drama that follows HBO classic The Wire in using a crime story to draw a picture of a fractured, disparate society held together by an unfair and unscrupulous legal system. The outcome, while satisfying in a narrative sense, still preserves enough ambiguity to retain a sense of realism. Events reach a fitting culmination but nothing is resolved.
It is this lack of resolution that I want to dwell on. Nas is freed after the jury fails to reach a verdict. He is not given the valediction of a Not Guilty moment. He is last seen smoking crack by the riverbank where he once sat with the murder victim. The crack habit, picked up while on remand at Riker’s Island, would not have been an issue if he was not falsely charged with murder. His father has lost his cab driver job and is forced, with Nas’s mother, into working menial tasks to pay off debts accrued by the trial. His brother looks set to miss out on an education after descending into deliquency.
Elsewhere, Nas’s lawyer, Chandra, ruins her fledgeling legal career after being filmed kissing her client in a cell. Nas’s prison protector, Freddy, looks set to descend into moral oblivion now that his one referent for innocence has been exonerated. And the eczema that once blighted Jon Stone’s feet now covers his entire body after he takes in the murder victim’s cat to save it from being euthanised. The only note of redemption is the renewed effort made by the retired detective and public prosecutor in bringing the actual perpetrator to justice.
If there is a moral to the story, it is that evil exists. It is within reach of any benign corner of our existence. The briefest of contacts with it will irreversibly corrupt us. This evil could be the knowing, pointed evil of the murderer or the victim’s psychopathic, con man stepfather. It is also the numb, senseless rot within the joints of the social order and justice system.
There has been a lot of commentary about the cat, its role in moments of comic relief as well as in the final shot of the series. Some have said that the cat’s only true purpose is to make us talk about what it signifies. I surely can’t be alone in thinking that the cat’s metaphorical significance is obvious?
Nietzsche once said that we suffer for our virtues. They exist in a constant state of entropy. It requires energy and sacrifice to keep our virtues intact. Nas learns quickly that, in prison, the price that virtue demands is often death. Knowing that Freddy’s offers of protection go hand in hand with future corruption, he initially tries to go it alone. He changes his mind after being confronted with an image of how at odds his innocence is with the establishment. He returns to his bed to find it burning in the middle of the communal dormitory. In return for Freddy’s protection, Nas smuggles drugs into prisonand turns a blind eye to the young man being used for sexual gratification by one of Freddy’s foot soldiers in the cell next door.
John Stone’s crowning moment isn’t the showstopping closing statement that fatefully divides the jury. It is when he finds a way of clearing up his eczema without compromising his (illusory) sexual prowess. He is not at his most hubristic after his legal victory (he quickly resumes the role of plea bargain lawyer shortly after) but when he sits at the centre of his eczema support group while finally being able to wear a pair of shoes. It is the culmination of the trial that comes as a real crisis to him. Suddenly aware that his importance will dwindle when the trial is over, Stone ends up using every one of his previously prescribed treatments to disastrous results. When we catch up with him after Nas’s homecoming, his face is still red and inflamed. In the face of grave, professional advice he has continued to keep the victim’s cat in his apartment.
He has thrown away the version of himself that gazes confidently from his subway adverts and business cards. He has tossed aside the vision of himself as a great seducer and lover. He has committed himself to a continued act of compassion. Like Nas’s parents and the other characters that become diminished in doing the right thing, he is willingly suffering for it.