‘The Night Of’: Why the Killer’s Identity Doesn’t Matter

     August 26, 2016

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On Sunday, The Night Of will come to its conclusion, and we might find out the identity of the killer. But even if we fail to learn who killed Andrea Cornish (Sofia Black D’Elia), that doesn’t really matter because although The Night Of may offer us a whodunit, that’s not the series’ primary concern. Through seven episodes, we’ve seen that creators Richard Price and Steven Zaillian are far more interested in the machinery of the criminal justice system than finding the identity of the person behind a fictional murder.

Price and Zaillian have shown that their focus isn’t in a fictional story, but in the non-fiction of our criminal justice system. The Night Of is a procedural that’s fascinated with procedure, and while other crime shows may feint at the drudgery of criminal investigation and prosecution, Price and Zaillian have put it at the forefront of their limited series. For the most part, The Night Of wants to show how the criminal justice system operates at its most common, and yet because most crime shows gloss over the gritty details, these common aspects become fascinating.

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Image via HBO


For example, let’s follow the arresting officers in the case. In most shows, they would be minor characters, and to an extent, they still are in The Night Of. However, for this show, they’re still important characters because of what they bring to the case against Naz (Riz Ahmed). In other series, they would make the arrest, maybe get a brief conversation with the lead detective, and that would be the end of it.

The Night Of goes much further. In episode three, we’re treated to a scene of Detective Box (Bill Camp) talking to the arresting detectives, and going over their statements. We see the importance of not clarifying the case, but rather making the officers into convincing witnesses so that the state can get a conviction. It’s not really about this particular case, but about how the system functions as a whole, and it’s that focus which makes The Night Of more compelling than a standard whodunit.

If The Night Of wanted to be a true “whodunit”, Price and Zaillian wouldn’t have shown us so much of the night in question. The show gives us pretty much everything except the murder. We see Naz get in his dad’s cab, we see him pick up Andrea, we see them go to a gas station, we see them interact with other people, we see them play the knife game, and we see them have consensual sex. We also see some of these events from the perspective of traffic cameras, which foreshadows how the case will be made to track Naz’s movements that night. The Night Of is giving us a surplus of objective information to show that Naz probably didn’t kill Andrea. If the show wanted to cast more doubt on Naz, they could have easily withheld plenty of information. Instead, it does the opposite.

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Image via HBO


So why make it a whodunit at all? Because at the end of the day, The Night Of is still a drama, and it needs a dramatic hook. But the hook of a show is not always the same as its premise. The hook is what draws the viewer in and keeps them watching, but the hook hasn’t been the focus of The Night Of. The show has spent more time on John Stone (John Turturro) trying to cure his eczema than it has on tracking down suspects.

But if the killer is unimportant, then why not just out them from the beginning and then focus entirely on the procedure? Again, the whodunit is a hook, and you don’t give away your hook. Price and Zaillian are good storytellers, and they understand that our basic interest to know the identity of the killer will string us along for eight episodes. However, if you look at the focus of the episodes, they’re not really interested in “solving” the case.

The focus of The Night Of is on procedure. The show takes us step-by-step of a case and the ripple effects of a mostly common homicide (I say “mostly” because the murder in The Night Of gets picked up by the media). Most shows would skip the detective tracing the movements of the suspect if we had already seen those movements in the first episode. But because The Night Of cares about procedure, it wants to show us Detective Box putting together the information that will later be presented in court. It’s not enough for us to know what happens; we need to know how that information gets processed through the criminal justice system.

We’re also shown how that information gets twisted and reframed. We’re shown that “the truth” is irrelevant to both sides. All that matters is proving their case. As John tells Naz, “The truth can go to hell because it doesn’t help you.” In an ideal world, we would assume that the prosecution would rely on evidence and facts to make their case, but as we see in the scene where prosecutor Helen Weiss (Jeannie Berlin) speaks to the coroner, she wants a specific answer from him on how Naz’s injury was caused. We know that Naz hurt his hand from playing the knife game with Andrea, but what we know—the truth—doesn’t matter. What matters is how the system works.


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Image via HBO

That’s also why we’ve spent so much time in prison with Naz. It’s not just to show that Naz has a dark side and to raise a hint of suspicion that he may have done it. It’s to show how jail can transform a normal person into a convict simply because being a convict is how to survive. If The Night Of were a standard whodunit, it wouldn’t waste time on showing how Naz is being consumed by the criminal justice system to the point where it’s transformed his body. The show wouldn’t care about showing prison life. It would leave Naz in a cell and focus on the mystery.

Yes, there are other suspects. Maybe it was Andrea’s stepfather Don (Paul Sparks). Maybe it was Duane Reade. Maybe it was Mr. Day, the hearse driver. Or maybe it was Naz, who, in a fit of drug-induced violence, killed Andrea Cornish, and yet woke up with absolutely no blood on him. It doesn’t really matter because that’s not the story that The Night Of is telling. The story of The Night Of is the story of the criminal justice system, not the story of justice.

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Image via HBO


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