‘The Night Of’ zooms out to make its murder even more unsettling

Image: HBO

While the first episode of HBO’s The Night Of had us squirming in its dead-quiet suspense, the second episode panned out so we could get a real grasp on all the characters in this grisly drama.

In this episode, titled “Subtle Beast,” we spend some time with who the real players are in this game. After Nasir’s eponymous “night of” in which he awoke to find his new friend stabbed to death in her bed where they had so recently had relations, we now get a sense of the forces massing both for and against him.

It was a settling house of an episode. It was slow, yet fascinating, watching the pieces come together as Nasir begins to comprehend his fate and get to know those around him.

John Turturro’s Jake Stone character is far more than just a gnarly pair of eczema-ridden feet, it turns out. Not only does he seem to be a loving father and a passionate lawyer, but his taking on of Nasir’s case seems to be a boon to him. While Nasir looks to his lawyer to put the pieces of his life back together, Stone’s ulterior motives suggest that he might not be the life raft the young suspect expects.

Speaking of Nasir, this episode did not do a whole lot to fill us in on who this young man is. While we were certainly put in his uncomfortable shoes as he made his way from the holding cell to jail to his arraignment to Riker’s Island, his shocked open eyes and insistence on innocence leave many questions unanswered.

The show seems to want the audience to accept Nasir’s innocence at face value

The show seems to want the audience to accept Nasir’s innocence at face value. Many characters repeatedly tell us that he’s a “nice kid” from a “good working class family” and they let his asthma and boyishness do the rest. And he probably is innocent. But who murdered Andrea Cornish? I expected this episode to provide at least a tiny hint of the truth behind the crime, but it might just as easily come later in the season. Still, we’d be wrong to so quickly write off the main culprit behind this crime so soon.

That brings us to Detective Dennis Box. Mentioned twice in the script, he is the titular “subtle beast” of the episode. Hes a “talented oppressor,” Stone says, “a subtle beast.” We were given a lot more of his life and the way he works in the precinct. But, many questions also remain about him. You can tell that he is very good at trying to work Nasir for a confession and trying to get more information by videotaping the suspect’s meeting with his parents. But the myth does not yet quite equal up to the man. He still largely acts how a police detective should act.

That’s not to say that we have totally figured him out. He must have character weaknesses or flaws that bring out the worst in him. He cannot just be a very capable detective and that’s where it ends. In many ways, the mystery of Box is almost as compelling as the mystery of the murder itself.

We also meet a number of secondary characters, to give some background of the crime and some hints at what’s to come.

We meet Don Taylor, Andrea Cornish’s stepfather, played by a comatose Paul Sparks. You many recognize Sparks from his recent role in House of Cards, where he plays the First Lady’s fling. I did not care for his performance in that role, and I should say that he was the low point of this episode. His acting method seems to revolve around taking a Xanax, watch two hours of C-SPAN and bringing that energy to the screen. All the same, it helped us to begin to understand who Andrea is. It’s an important aspect of the story and I’m at least glad it was not overlooked.

We also met the district attorney, whose pushing of Box will most certainly come into play in the weeks to come.

The second episode made it even clearer that this show wants to say something about race. But it’s unclear exactly what that is at this point. With Nasir being an American-born, Pakistani Muslim, the show goes out of its way to show characters responding to race in a negative or reductive way toward him and others. If the show wants to highlight the racial disparities that minorities face in the criminal justice system, good on them. But the method employed in this particular episode seemed very heavy-handed.

All that said, it was still a very good episode of television. The Night Of, with its solemn, contemplative moments, is in such stark contrast to the fast talking, minutiae-focused dramas like The Wire. There is room for both styles, it seems. And the creaking floorboards, the dripping faucets, the clinking chandelier add such a weight to an already grim story.

Random thoughts I had while watching:

  • Just as I thought, the stuffed deer head wearing a bow tie, which showed up so regularly in the first episode, made a triumphant return.

  • Jack Stone scratching his feet with a chopstick. I will have trouble sleeping because of this.

  • Of all the things that could have happened, I did not expect to see someone have a cell phone removed from their butt.

  • I had to pause the show briefly when Paul Sparks was acting and I legitimately couldn’t tell if I had successfully unpaused it or not.

  • “Some muslim freak carved up a girl last night,” said right in front of Nasir’s parents. Oof.

  • Between Nasir’s asthma and Stone’s eczema, what is Box’s bodily weakness?

  • Please, please no more eczema feet. We get it. It’s gross.

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