‘The Night Of’ Cast and Creators Break Down Episode 5: Making a Murderer?

Stars Riz Ahmed and Michael K. Williams and creators Steven Zaillian and Richard Price on Naz’s shocking transformation and the show’s surprising importance. [Warning: Spoilers]

Craig Blankenhorn/HBO

Is Naz breaking bad?

That’s the harrowing thought that comes from watching Sunday night’s episode of The Night Of, “Season of the Witch,” which finds our central character changing before our eyes as he becomes even closer to Michael K. Williams’ prison power broker, Freddy.

To garner favor and, with it, protection from Freddy, Naz (played by Riz Ahmed) begins doing some of his bidding—smuggling drugs, challenging other inmates, shaving his head, and smoking. In one scene, he beats an inmate that previously attacked him so brutally Freddy’s henchman have to stop Naz before he kills him.

Exhibiting a rage and capacity for darkness that, previously watching this scared and nervous Bambi, we wouldn’t have believed Naz had in him, we’re now forced to wonder: has this capacity been in him all along? At this halfway point in The Night Of, more doubt than ever into Naz’s innocence is introduced when this upstanding citizen who seemed wholly incapable of such brutal violence is seen not just tiptoeing into, but embracing dark and violent tendencies.

More, we find out that Naz had been keeping an incriminating secret: he had been on amphetamines the night of the murder he’s been accused of. What else has he been hiding?

With The Night Of basking in critical accolades and reaching a turning point in its exalted HBO run, we gathered Ahmed, Williams, and series creators Steven Zaillian and Richard Price to discuss the significance of Naz’s transformation, what that does to our impression of his guilt, and the surprising cultural resonance that has grown out of this gritty crime drama.

Episode 5 has been called the episode when Naz breaks bad. What is it about where he is at this point in his jail stay that causes that drastic change?

Riz Ahmed: Obviously there’s a carefully mapped trajectory that these guys have already crafted in the script. And I guess my interpretation is this classic American Dream. Naz is the child of immigrants. An aspirational character. Working a job. Going to college. He’s a caterpillar but wants to be the butterfly. There’s this thing, something in the water in America that is so intoxicating as well, that’s like your dreams can come true. You can have it all. You can be the master of your destiny. There’s this thing it encourages—this illusion of your significance. And the way I saw it is that Naz ultimately empowers himself by accepting his insignificance; by accepting that he’s a cog in the machine.

So the transformation is born out of a resignation, of sorts? A giving in?

Ahmed: It’s a weird idea. This Zen idea or something of when you kill your ego, that’s when things flow through you. That’s how you empower yourself, by letting go. So in a way I think that’s how Naz gets through—letting go of some of his dreams, letting go of himself, accepting his environment, that guy who you meet in episode one, where is he now? We’re all defined by our context. His context is dead. In this new context he needs to empower himself and embrace his new reality.

Steven Zaillian: The other thing, too, is that everyone you meet, just in life, you have an impression of who they are. Who you meet in episode one, in terms of Naz, it’s part of him but it’s not all of him. And a lot of times these other parts of him aren’t allowed to come out unless the circumstances are a certain way.

Ahmed: It’s a really good point, actually. You don’t know what’s in that cocoon. Is it gonna be a butterfly? Or what is going to come out? So it’s this idea that there are different sides to us. And in different contexts, a different side to us is what flourishes and goes. I think that’s the deep truth about us. A lot of people are saying, “Naz is so naive, why isn’t he calling the police?” [in reaction to Naz’s arrest] I think as a person of color, Muslim, post-9/11 in the justice system you have reason to be suspicious of law enforcement—and maybe be a little bit cagey. Do the things that people are screaming at the TV screen, “Why are you doing this? Why are you doing that?” I think you come in with scars. I think you come in with baggage. Just growing up as a person of color with that baggage, I think there’s a part of you that is a survivor; that knows how to get shit done in order to survive. You don’t make it even that far unless you have that in you.

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And then in terms, too, of the audience experience of whether he did it, or could’ve done it, deeing these darker, more violent and vicious parts of Naz’s personality coming “out of the cocoon” obviously gives anyone who thought of him as this Bambi who didn’t do it some intense pause. Why is this happening so suddenly in the narrative?

Zaillian: It was carefully crafted from moment to moment. Again, what I was saying is that everyone has different sides—not only one other side, but many different sides to who they are. Not just Naz. Freddy. The police. The lawyers. They all have these other things as you begin to learn with real people as you get to know them, and this idea that you feel at the very beginning that there’s no way he could’ve done this and as you get to know him…

Ahmed: You see what people are capable of.

Zaillian: And you begin to question what people are capable of.

Richard Price: You wonder was he always like this and not just showing it? This was all very carefully considered.

Zaillian: Obviously you’re still questioning in your mind?

Michael K. Williams: What this lawyer says, what John says, it doesn’t fucking matter. It doesn’t even matter. Innocence is irrelevant.

Zaillian: I guess what I’m trying to say is that these other parts of people’s characters make up their character. That’s what I’m interested in. I’m not into a character that has one idea to them or one reason to being there, and it’s to service a plot in some way.

Let’s talk about the reception that the show’s been getting. When you’re putting on a show like this where people siphon out greater cultural meaning outside of the simple crime narrative, is that something you plan for? Was that intended?

Zaillian: For me personally, it never really came into my thinking when we were making it. This thing we were making was, to me, a real living, breathing story. It was a story we were trying to tell as well as we could tell it. And it was real. I really wasn’t thinking, honestly, beyond the next day of shooting—or the next day’s editing, or the next day’s writing when we were at the beginning. I don’t think any of us were thinking, “OK when it comes out and people are going to say this, what are we going to think of that?” I never thought about that. And I think that is the best way. We weren’t making something with anticipation of what someone might say about it. I never thought about that. We were just making something that was the best it could be.

The show has been in the works for the better part of a decade. In terms of the conversations surrounding a post-9/11 America and Trump’s Muslim ban that have arisen from the decision to make the central character, it gives the show an immediacy. Also the discussions about Black Lives Matter and the failure of the prison and judicial system gives the show an immediacy now that it maybe wouldn’t have had in its original planned transmission date. Is part of why the show is resonating so viscerally because of the things that we’re talking about in this particular moment as a society?

Price: It’s—do you want to call it lucky or unlucky? Shit happens. Shit always happens. And nothing that’s in the air now has not been in the air for decades. If something happens and if you start this thing seven years before Trump, you start this seven years before ISIS, it’s the world you’re thinking about and then things happen in that world that happen just to double down on what you might have been thinking about at the time. It’s almost like, “I knew Trump was going to get this far seven years ago.” Or that Black Lives Matter was going to be a movement. So here’s what I’m gonna do, because I knew Eric Garner. I knew he was gonna get… You don’t know these things. But Eric Garner has been in the air for hundreds of years. The evolution from the Cold War with Russia to this Islamic extremist terrorism, it’s been around. 1993 is when the first bombing at the World Trade Center was. It’s not like opportune. It just is. And if you wait another year, you’re going to see more stuff that will make us look like geniuses.

Zaillian: When Richard first said that he should be a Pakistani immigrant, he didn’t follow it with “because then we can get into this whole thing.” It was because it was real. That’s what it would be. Certainly a lot of the things we were writing about that went on in Rikers, everything that went on in Rikers, came through conversations with people who had been there. And then this stuff started coming out in the press. A year or so before we finished, all this stuff came out. We’re like, we’re not geniuses. We just listen.

Ahmed: I guess, yeah, as writers you’re just trying to tell a realistic story and have your finger on the pulse. So it’s your job to just listen a little more closely to what’s already in the air. It’s only when it turns into a hurricane that the rest of us sit up and go ‘oh shit, look what’s in the air.’ And we’ll go oh yeah, we’ve been out there with our microscope and our gloves to the wall. We could see those things were brewing. You just pick up on them because they were there. You don’t have special intention to focus on issues.

Price: There’s no Nostradamus.

Williams: I listened to a talk, an interview, with the late Nina Simone. And she was talking about her definition of an artist—her take on it was that it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times that they find themselves in. I took that to heart and I looked at myself and I was, like, wow I’m a part of this cast of The Night Of. I was like, I guess by Nina Simone’s definition I’m an artist. Or at least I surround myself with people who—I’ve been surrounded myself with...I say that but I don’t pick my jobs. My jobs pick me. But I’ve been around people like Richard, like Steven, who care about these kinds of stories. They could’ve easily been making Meet the Fockers, you know what I mean?

Price: Meet the Mother Fockers

Williams: Haha, exactly! But they care about it. So in Nina Simone’s definition, Richard and Steven they’re artists. They see the times. They are the documenting the times in which they see themselves in. And when you come from that truth you can’t help but get magic. There’s a truth there: I’m gonna write about what feels real. Again, Richard’s reason for making Naz Pakistani is that if you live in New York City, it can’t replace a truth. The time that Richard finds himself living in his existence, you can’t help but find that truth. And then you get all these gifts, these jewels that tell the times of the story. It plays out in real life because they’re tuned in and trapped into that truth. It comes out.

I think part of the reason these truths, these issues, resonate so strongly right now for viewers is that it’s impossible to watch it and not personally amplify those issues with your own experiences. Michael, you were talking this morning about your nephews and the family members you thought about while shooting this. I can speak from the audience experience of having to reckon with yourself—your own biases and opinions—from watching something like this. What was it like for all of you to have that reckoning while filming?

Williams: It was heartbreaking. It was liberating and heartbreaking at the same time. They had no idea that all this was playing in my head because by the time I landed on set I was already in character. The mere drive to work for me was the route that you take to go to prison, when you go Upstate, up north. You go on the FDR, the Major Deegan, Manhattan, the Bronx, Yonkers, hit Upstate. That was the route. We were in Upstate filming. Just the ride to work was the time I got to set I was wearing some of Freddy’s heaviness. His layers.

Zaillian: I thought you slept there.

Williams: Basically (laughs). We were there long enough. There were times on a cot I would just sleep there, I swear. By the time I came to set I was prepped for that world. It gave me insight—just a voyeuristic look at what people go through in prison on a daily basis. My cousin, he did 20-some-odd years, he’s home now. My nephew, he did 20-some-odd years. He’s still there. You go to visit him, I never once went to visit my nephew when he wasn’t like, “Uncle Mike!” A big ole smile and nothing but love, happy to see me. Never fails. I never leave there doing anything but crying. You have to. The prisoner has to go back first before you can leave. There was never a fucking time when I wasn’t like, alright [mimes crying]. I’m like how the fuck do you go back in there with this smile on your face and this light? I’m broken.

Zaillian: How do you know that there was a smile on his face?

Williams: I don’t. I really don’t. It’s a long time to spend in a place like that. It’s a hellhole. I couldn’t do it.

Zaillian: Rikers, I don’t know what the numbers are, but the large proportion of the population there—because it’s not a jail, it’s a prison—may not have done the crime. They were just accused of a crime.

Exactly. It’s whether you are guilty or not, you are being sent to a place you don’t just live and wait in, but that you have to survive.

Zaillian: You have to survive that. And not everybody does. It’s rough. The amount of time you have to wait there does seem to be cruel and unusual.

Price: What you have to do is go visit someone. It starts with waiting for a bus somewhere in a borough.

Williams: The Rikers bus it picks up in Long Island City. Or the Bronx.

Price: After a while you feel like this (slams head), what you go through.

Zaillian: I think it’s this: you have to wait. You have to go to the building.

Williams: And the women, they have to have their bras flipped inside out. They have to be checked for a wire. So degrading.

Zaillian: It’s a very long process. We know the tragedies and horror stories. But the idea that everyone goes there if they can’t afford bail, even if it’s a case that’s going to be dismissed 18 months from now—what’s happened to you? We’re seeing some of that with Naz.