Editor's note: The following article contains spoilers.
It can happen to you.
That’s the chilling premise behind HBO’s latest edge-of-your-seat limited series The Night Of, which wraps up this Sunday. Based on the BBC series Criminal Justice, the show is a dark, deliberate exploration of what it’s like to unwittingly end up the suspect in a crime.
Created and written for HBO by acclaimed crime writer Richard Price (Clockers, The Wire) and starring the up-and-coming Riz Ahmed beside vets John Turturro and Michael K. Williams, The Night Of is about a seemingly naive college student who wakes up from a night of hard partying to find himself the suspect in a brutal murder.
The first episode, filled with a dark foreboding, shows Ahmed’s character, Naz Khan, making a lot of dumb mistakes that a lot of young people make every night—sneaking out to a party, hooking up with a stranger who is reckless and intriguing all at once, and finding himself doing things he knows (and we watching him know) have the potential to end really badly. And it does end badly—really, really badly.
While we know the justice system has deeply ingrained racial disparities (the war on drugs, stop-and-frisk policing and racial profiling, jury biases and longer sentences, etc.) that result in the mass incarceration of African Americans, The Night Of illuminates the issue of class.
This fictional thriller brings to mind two real-life murder cases that were recently spotlighted in the media: the case of Adnan Syed, featured on the podcast Serial, about a popular Muslim high school student arrested on charges he killed his ex-girlfriend; and Netflix’s Making a Murderer, about two poor, white, societal outcasts and intellectually challenged defendants, Steven Avery and Brendan Dassey. These cases, like in The Night Of, involved working-class people unfamiliar with their own rights within the system, without the money or status to fight the prosecution or sway public opinion. There were also, in both cases, no witnesses, no motive and no solid explanation for the crimes.
In The Night Of protagonist’s case, Naz Khan is an honor student, tutors kids on the basketball team and is a good son to his Pakistani parents. Even with circumstantial evidence and opportunity, he steadily asserts his innocence, and we believe him—because how could a nice kid do such a horrible thing? And there are just some things about the case that don’t add up. (For example: What was the motive? How come he and his clothes weren’t soaked in blood? Why is he just as surprised and horrified as we?)
But at the same time, we see Naz change as he awaits trial in New York City's Rikers Island jail, learning how to survive among real criminals. He does things we would never expect him to do, and we begin to wonder: "If he can beat a dude senseless, maybe he could do the horrible thing he’s accused of." “You’ve got some secrets in you, don’t you? And some rage,” his newfound jailhouse mentor, Freddy, in a smoldering performance by Michael K. Williams, tells him.
Through the mesmerizing acting by Ahmed, Turturro and Williams and a purposefully languid pace, the show portrays the justice system as a David-vs.-Goliath-like labyrinth of bureaucracy, hierarchy and myopia. In one of the many depressing scenes, Naz’s parents learn that a good defense can cost upward of $50,000 “or easily 10 times that” and realize that all they have is their house and $8,000 in savings. There’s a helplessness we feel on behalf of Naz and his parents and all the real-life folks who find themselves thrown into this particular ring of hell.
For the accused, the idea of presumed innocence is lost, especially in the media. Prosecutors and police are there to get convictions, and so, to do that, they steadfastly push forward theories that may have nothing to do with the real crime. (It’s discovered that Naz was once in a fight and sent a kid to the hospital. No matter that it was the result of his being bullied for being Muslim—the prosecutors pounce.)
We see that the justice system isn’t really about truth; it is about developing and pushing a story that 12 people will believe. And the scariest part in Naz’s case is how easy it can be to fall into the system—a few bad mistakes, too much to drink, and boom. While fans of the show eagerly await the resolution to the whodunit Sunday, over the course of the last seven episodes, it feels less important whether Naz is guilty than the fact that the entire system is rigged.
Andréa Duncan-Mao is a Cali-bred, New York-based writer and producer who has written about entertainment, culture, beauty and race for Vibe, the Hollywood Reporter, TimeOut New York and XXL, and has written and produced specials for MTV and VH1. Follow her on Twitter.