Serial. The Jinx. Making a Murderer. Each of these massively popular documentary series ended inconclusively. Were the apparent killers truly guilty of their crimes? Or should we believe their professed innocence?
HBO’s summer hit The Night Of is different. Despite the narrative elements it shares with those series, this show is pure fiction. That means it is capable of giving viewers the type of satisfying conclusion real life never can. So the big question heading into Sunday’s 97-minute finale was not only “Did Naz do it?” but perhaps more importantly, “Are you satisfied?”
The answer to the first question depends on whom you ask. And the finale spoilers start here, so you’ve been warned.
According to the jury, Naz is neither guilty nor is he not guilty. After everything they—and by extension we—have seen, they are deadlocked. Normally, this would prompt a mistrial. But nothing about this case was normal. And as with the rest of the series, how things get to that point is more illuminating than the conclusion itself.
Episode Eight, titled “The Call of the Wild” after the book Michael K. Williams’s Freddy gives Naz as a parting gift from prison, opens with Detective Box, still sitting alone on a stool after his retirement party while two men have a meta conversation about cop show tropes on the other end of the bar.
Something’s bothering him about his final case, so he goes back to work in order to review the security footage of Andrea getting into Naz’s cab and notices a new detail: She’s looking over her shoulder as she walks down the street as if she’s afraid. Later, he finds footage of Andrea arguing with a man before getting in the cab from earlier that same night. But his back is to the camera and he never turns around, leaving Box in a tough spot.
Most of the finale, as was the case in the prior few episodes, takes place in the courtroom. Witness after witness takes the stand for the defense, but the prosecution declines to cross-examine any of them. As seasoned attorney John Stone explains to his co-counsel Chandra, the D.A. wants to make it seem like their testimony is irrelevant and not even worthy of her time.
We see J.D. Williams’ character Trevor on the stand, explaining why he didn’t tell the cops he was with a man named Duane Reade when he encountered Naz and Andrea. Then there is Duane Reade himself, now serving time for attempted robbery. We find out he has used knives on several victims in his past. Next is the creepy hearse driver. He too once used a knife to threaten his ex-wife. If Chandra’s goal is to introduce to the jury potential killers overlooked by the police, it’s working.
Chandra is much more polite when she questions Andrea’s stepfather Don, who last week appeared to be the most likely suspect, on the stand the next day. He admits that he and Andrea had a “difficult” relationship—“An addict’s net casts wide”—and she didn’t like that he got half of her mother’s assets according to her will. Don testifies that he makes $35,000 a year as a personal trainer, has recently filed for bankruptcy, “and no, I didn’t kill my stepdaughter.” But he was arrested twice for domestic battery, including once against Andrea’s mother. The kicker? Andrea didn’t change the locks after he moved out.
It’s a damning set of doubt-creating alternatives, but Chandra is not feeling confident. “I want to call Naz,” she tells Stone. “No you don’t,” he replies. If Naz “gets in that box” he will “lose his cloak of innocence.”
The next time we see Chandra and Naz together in his cell, sun is shining through the bars. She’s convincing him to testify. Naz says he’ll do it, but he “needs her help.” Her eyes and camera pan down to the tattoo of the word “SIN” on his right hand. The next thing we see is Chandra shopping for condoms. He’s asking her to smuggle drugs and, shockingly, she agrees. Like the uncharacteristic kiss they shared last week, the deal she does on a street corner is caught on surveillance tape.
But it is the sight of Chandra pulling a condom of heroin out from between her legs that is far more disturbing—and far less believable—than the makeout session that scandalized viewers the week before. If The Night Of, so subtle and nuanced in its first several episodes, had a jump the shark moment, this was it. It’s really that important to her that Naz gets on the stand?
Once he gets there, Naz is convincing when he tells the jury his true story of what happened that night. “Even if I was out of my mind, I could never do that,” he says of killing Andrea. Things seem to be going well enough for him until the cross-examination. The D.A., Helen Weiss, who has taken a pass on Chandra’s previous witnesses, doesn’t take a pass this time.
She makes him lay out each of the lies he told that night. She makes him describe the sex he had with Andrea with his parents staring him down. And we see another flash of anger from him when he asks her, “How would you like it?” She thinks he’s talking about the sex, but he means the humiliation.
“I knew how it looked,” Naz says eventually when asked to explain why on earth he took the murder weapon when he left the apartment.
“How did it look?” she asks.
“Like I killed her.”
Naz’s question to the cop from the backseat of the crusier—“Is she dead?”—also comes back to haunt him. Why didn’t he check her pulse? Call 911? Weiss finally makes him break down by quoting the Prophet Muhammad: “Hurry with all of the strength of your legs to the one who needs help?” She asks, “Is that what you did for Andrea?”
Her most direct question to him produces Naz’s longest and most dramatic pause—as well as his most honest statement to date.
“Did you kill her?” she asks.
He thinks. And thinks. “I don’t know,” he answers.
Chandra is openly weeping at the defense table. She can barely get out the words, “The defense rests, your honor.” According to Stone, their chances just went from 10 percent to zero. “You just convicted him,” he tells Chandra. Most devastating of all, this development leads Stone to return Andrea’s cat to the kill shelter.
The only person who now thinks Naz might not be guilty is Detective Box, who is hard at work using shadily obtained credit-card numbers and cellphone records to determine who Andrea was arguing with in the street. Even on the golf course, using his retirement-gift clubs, he’s on the case, tracking his prime suspect from the green to a casino.
The man in question is Ray, the financial adviser who previously helped give Stone the information about Andrea’s stepfather. Box lays out the entire crime as he sees it: Ray going to the apartment later that night, getting into an argument with Andrea that went too far and stabbing her to death before taking off, without ever seeing Naz. Financial records show he took $300,000 out of Andrea’s account a month before the murder. Ray all but admits he did it, but Box can’t arrest him. He’s not a cop anymore.
Instead, he must get the D.A. to pursue the new lead. Weiss’s response when presented with the evidence is perhaps the most disheartening moment of the entire series.
“We’ve got more on the kid,” she tells Box.
The truth doesn’t matter. Expediency does.
Meanwhile, the video of Chandra kissing Naz somehow makes it to Stone’s front door. He’s initially disappointed in her before he realizes this is exactly what they need. He brings the idea of using the tape to prompt a mistrial to Naz, a move that will most likely end in disbarment for Chandra. Naz doesn’t like the idea, but he goes for it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. Instead of a mistrial, the judge decides to make Chandra second chair and have Stone finish as the lead defense attorney. Chandra might still be a lawyer, but she doesn’t work for Alison Crowe anymore. “Finish the trial, and then clean out your fucking desk,” she tells her.
Stone finds Box, figuring he was the one who got the tape to him. “Who did it?” he asks. But Box won’t help him. Either he holds a grudge or, more likely, has become fully disillusioned with the process. But as he watches Weiss make her closing argument labeling Naz “the only killer of this beautiful young woman,” he can’t take it anymore and walks out of the courtroom.
It has now been more than an hour into this episode and Stone’s skin condition hasn’t come up once. But wait. As Stone rehearses his closing statement, he begins to itch all over. The eczema is back! And no amount of remedy, herbal or otherwise, can cure it. The stress-induced attack lands him in the emergency room. When he finally faces the jury, he’s covered in red blotches, wearing gloves and, hopefully for his sake, back in sandals.
Finally, it’s time to hear from the jury. This is the moment in the last two minutes of every Law & Order episode when we get our answer. But this isn’t Law & Order. They come back “deadlocked.” It’s six-to-six and, according to the foreman, it’s “not going to change.”
The judge has no choice but to dismiss the jury. And given the chance to hold another trial, Weiss declines. It’s her only way out, given that she now believes he’s probably innocent.
Naz is free to go. This would have been an unsatisfying but not unexpected way to end, the new Naz hugging his father outside the prison gates. As we can see from the look he gives his old friend who testified against him when they encounter each other in a deli on the outside, there is no going back for Naz. He is a changed man. And it’s not just the neck tattoo. A shot of him scoring drugs on a Queens street corner the night he is released hammers this point home. Naz then returns to the “beach” he visited with Andrea to get high by himself.
But this is not the final image of the show. First, showrunners Richard Price and Steve Zaillian give us the satisfaction of seeing Weiss and Box at least establishing their plan to take down Ray, the man we now believe to be the “real” killer.
And finally, it all comes back to John Stone: seated on his couch watching one of those weepy ads for the ASPCA about adopting pets. When he gets up to leave and grab his next client, the cat slyly walks across his apartment. He couldn’t give it up after all.
So, was this the satisfying ending you were craving?
Earlier this summer, when we spoke to Amara Karan, who plays Naz’s lawyer Chandra, she stressed that the series comes “full circle” at the end, teasing “bombshell after bombshell” in the final episode. That was certainly true for her character and in a sense for Naz.
After the first episode, we were pretty sure Naz didn’t do it. After the last, we feel more or less the same way. A jury of his peers were unable to convict him without reasonable doubt and, thanks to Detective Box’s expertise, we have a much better idea of who did it. But as Naz himself said on the stand, even he doesn’t know for sure whether he killed Andrea or not.
Like The Wire, which shares with this show not only writer Richard Price but also several key actors, The Night Of was never set up to deliver a tidy crime story with a concrete verdict, even if it does span just eight tight episodes compared to its predecessor's sprawling five seasons.
The miniseries was never about the outcome of the murder trial. We knew exactly what it was about the moment Naz shaved his head and decided to tattoo the words “SIN” and “BAD” on his knuckles. Though viewers—and even more so critics, who were given seven episodes in advance and then had to wait months for the finale—were dying to know who killed Andrea Cornish, it almost doesn’t matter. Whether Naz was ultimately guilty or innocent, the criminal justice system designed to answer that question instead effectively made him a criminal. In Riker’s, he had to become the thing everyone thought he was in order to simply survive.
John Stone said as much in his closing argument, summing up the series with his description of his client: “What I see is what happens when you put a kid in Riker’s and say, ‘OK, survive that while we try you for a crime you didn’t commit,’” he tells the jury. Fortunately for Naz’s sake, he was able to convince exactly half of them.