If the first episode of "The Night Of" spent most of its time setting up the shy, frightened Nasir "Naz" Khan (Riz Ahmed) and the nightmare he was about to live, the second episode gives us more information about the slow, grinding, unforgiving nature of the criminal justice system and the two men trying to control Naz's future: lead investigator Dennis Box (Bill Camp) and attorney John Stone (John Turturro). Stone was presented last week as an opportunist who was, as he says this week, at "the right place at the right time," Box as the fundamentally good-natured man given the task of taking down a kid who may or may not have been at the wrong place at the wrong time. But Box is still trying to manipulate things his way, and Naz learns quickly not to trust him too much. When his parents visit, one of them remarks that he "seems like a nice man." Naz's response gives the episode its title: "he's a subtle beast."
He's not wrong, but Box is looking at some pretty beastly dealings. Director Steven Zaillian gives "A Subtle Beast" a thrillingly abstracted opening, in which the final conversation and sexual encounter between Naz and Andrea is turned into an echoing background while the camera focuses on the deer head's watchful eye, the stairs with the bloody handprint, and finally Andrea's body. The only real witnesses to the murder (that we know of) are dead or inanimate, the visuals hazy and out of focus. The opening starts as an obscured bit of voyeurism and turns into an echo, one that the detectives are all trying like hell to hear. Naz has his side, but Stone isn't interested, telling him that they need to wait for the prosecution's story to come up with theirs, unconcerned with what actually happened according to Naz. It's not that he's unsympathetic — it's that he knows it's not going to help.
But first, everyone has other business: Stone has to make his way across the city to another trial, where his client is furious that he's getting three years while a white collar criminal is getting 18 months — a dismissive judge tells his black client that "if you want Jew time, do a Jew crime," illustrating a racial and class divide that's almost certainly going to figure into Naz's trial. Meanwhile, Naz's parents, Salim and Safar (Peyman Moaadi and Poorna Jagannathan), make their way to Naz...only to hit the wrong station ("You're in the 1-2, you need to go to the 2-1") and initially be denied a chance to see their son, who at 23 is five years over the minor age. When Box allows them a chance to speak with him, he still can only give so much. One of my favorite details of the episode is that Safar brings her son a dish, not knowing that the police won't actually let her give it to him. They're wholly unequipped for this, though they're trying to be there for their son. Dad's taking his son's hand, leaning in, telling him they'll get through this. Mom later looks through his room for possible evidence of his guilt, finding condoms in his backpack (Box later opens the flap while searching his room and sees it as less damning). They'll go to his bail hearing, but they're mostly powerless.
Also powerless: Naz, who's at least starting to recognize how little agency he has over his own fate right now. He knows that Box has manipulated him into doing more than he should've without a lawyer, and now he's second-guessing every allowance he's given, speaking in his parents' native language (Urdu, I think?) to keep from Box hearing them on the surveillance camera. In the episode's best scene, Box sits next to him, explaining to Naz that he's looking out for him while Stone and the other police are "breaking each other's balls."
There's an incredible shot that uses the jail cell to bifurcate the frame, boxing Naz in by placing the camera slightly to the right of the cell while giving more space to Box, illustrating that he can move out of the frame at any point while Naz can't (he technically could, but his space is limited). Box admits that there's something he's not getting about the case (Stone has gone so far to suggest he knows in his gut that Naz didn't do it) and that he's trying to figure out what went wrong. "You didn't mean to do this. Things happen...If I'm off, please tell me how I'm off." Camp doesn't overplay his kindness: he means it, to some degree, but it's also a tactic to get a confession for an open-and-shut seeming case. He leans in, gives Naz back his inhaler, lets his exhausted face do the talking and his voice soften slightly, telling Naz that a confession will give him an "immense sense of relief...like finding God." Naz refuses, and Box sighs, perhaps out of frustration that the case has to go further, perhaps because his own uncertainty is being undermined. Either way, he has to charge Naz with the homicide, and now it's on the station's big whiteboard.
Naz, then, is off to wait for a bail hearing, and he's waiting with some scary people. While Box drives home to his beloved opera and Stone goes home to soft Spanish music, Naz is left hearing hip hop from outside the van transporting him to jail, hearing only faint sounds of freedom. When he's in jail, he's surrounded by more hardened criminals, including a guy who smuggles a box-cutter in his rectum (the cop who takes it out gives Naz a nasty "what are you looking at?") and a big guy who beats the living daylights out of another prisoner when he won't stop crying about being sick. Naz doesn't address anyone. He doesn't belong there, and he's not safe there.
And then there's Stone, an opportunist for sure, but also someone with a certain rumpled decency, one who helps the transgender client we saw last week out of a jam and tries to smooth things over when another client has an outburst in court. He's kind to Naz's parents and tries to let them know that he's there for their son. Between the eczema on his feet and the sense that he's signed onto something bigger than he can handle, he's dealing with a lot, and as his ex-wife picks up their son, she makes a not of it. "That's...you know, big." She regrets pointing it out, and he's aware she didn't mean anything by it, but he knows the odds are stacked against them. And though he'll be able to go to his nice apartment late at night, Naz doesn't have that luxury. We end the episode with a long shot of a bus driving Naz and other prisoners over a bridge, from New York City to Riker's Island. As they walk inside the prison and the door closes behind them, we hear the sound of bars moving and doors closing over the credits with a rumbling sound and ringing for a score. Naz has entered hell, and it's going to take moving heaven and earth, not just the will of "nice men," to get him out.
-I didn't mention it last week, but "The Night Of" reminds me of what I wished ABC's "American Crime" was: more varied and less self-consciously ascetic in its direction, less prone to stating themes aloud, and better at walking the line between naturalism and heightened, flavorful dialogue and direction. It's in line with both David Simon's masterful HBO series "The Wire" and with writer/executive producer Richard Price's other work. Credit also goes to Zaillian, whose own gifts as a writer ("Schindler's List," "Moneyball") and a director ("A Civil Action" and let's just ignore that terrible remake of "All the King's Men") lie in depiction of process.
-We meet Andrea's removed, kind of creepy stepfather, who initially says the photos of her aren't her, only to change his mind when he's told he'll have to take a look at the body. He also notes that Andrea's mother died last year, her father when she was young. I think we'll see more of this guy, though I'm currently liking the weird limo driver from last week as the culprit.
-Dry, dark humor of "The Night Of" Part I: When the litany of horrible charges against Naz are read in court, one of the criminals can't help but say to himself, "...f--- me..."
-Part II: Stone introduces himself to Naz's parents while his hand is buried in a bag of Cheetos. Later, when he's late for a case and has to empty his pockets for the metal detector, he throws most stuff in but is a bit more gentle with his lunch, a hard-boiled egg wrapped in a napkin. Even in the middle of a terrible day, guy's gotta eat.
-Slightly less dark humor: Stone's son, who is black, has decided he's not doing his school report on Thurgood Marshall anymore because he's "boring." He's instead doing Jamie Foxx, which annoys Stone slightly. "Couldn't you at least do Denzel?" (He's taken). I mean, they're both Oscar-winners, but I guess Foxx's stock has dipped a bit since he won for "Ray," having appeared in a few good movies ("Miami Vice," "Django Unchained," the gloriously stupid "White House Down") and a lot of garbage ("Annie," "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," "Valentine's Day," "The Soloist"). Either way, I laughed.
-The great Jeannie Berlin (see "Margaret" and the original "The Heartbreak Kid" if you haven't) shows up briefly as the prosecutor, and already she has a key moment with Box, who shows some hesitancy when asked if he's sure Naz is the guy. "You blinked." "I did not blink." "Dennis, honey, you did." I can't wait to see more of her.