Though "The Night Of's" first episode takes its time setting up the crime that the whole show will pivot on in excruciating detail, much of what dooms college student Nasir "Naz" Khan (Riz Ahmed) happens in the quickest-moving, most concentrated section of the episode. Naz has spent the night with a girl, Andrea (Sofia Black D'Elia), and wakes up in her kitchen. He has to get home — he borrowed his father's cab without permission. He makes his way to her room, pulls on his pants and shirt, the camera behind him as he doesn't pay much mind to the girl, explaining that he has to leave without looking at her. When there's no response, he turns the light on. There's blood on the lampshade. He turns out the light, freezes, and turns the light back on. In a panic, he races down the stairs and outside...only to realize he left his jacket and keys inside. He has to break a pane of glass on the door to get back in. The camera moves with the same uncertainty and frenetic terror as Naz as he grabs his keys and a bloody knife on her coffee table. He runs out. Across the street, a neighbor sees him.
It's a stark contrast to the unnerving patience of everything that precedes and follows the crime of "The Beach," one of the most engrossing and nerve-wracking episodes of television in recent memory. We see a full day in Naz's life before he heads out to that fateful quasi-date: his attentive look while studying Stokes' Theory in class, his failed attempt to tutor a basketball player after he sits in on a practice (though it does get him an invite to a party!), his help at his family's shop in Jackson Heights, and a dinner with his parents (Peyman Moaadi and Poorna Jagannathan) and brother (Syam Lafi), who laughs with him when his parents fall just short of objecting to his going to the party later that night ("Like black? Like a black party?" he asks of her qualms. "I didn't say that..."). He's a good student, a good son, an overall good kid, so it's particularly distressing to see him make the first in a series of very bad decisions when his ride cancels on him and he decides to borrow his dad's cab. The camera stalks him as he considers his options, follows him to the door, and moves to a clearer window as he drives off. It's October 24, 2014, and he's driving straight into hell.
Well, with a stop downtown first. Hip hop starts blaring on the soundtrack as he drives the cab, but any feeling of riding high is quickly undercut as he realizes he doesn't know where he's going and he doesn't know how to turn on the "Off Duty" light on the cab. After a brief encounter with some jerks who get in the back and a pair of cops who help him out while marveling that a cab driver doesn't know where he's going, a girl gets in the back. It's Andrea, though it's some time before he asks her name. He's too transfixed by a sad beauty in her, a smoky voice and slightly dazed demeanor. "Where do you want me to take you?" "The beach...yeah the beach," though she eventually settles for the river. He stops for drinks at a convenience store, where we see him caught on camera and a testy limo driver watching him and Andrea intently. "What's with him?" "Who cares,' she answers.
They start to let each other in: he admits that it's his dad's cab and that he's missing a party. She's intrigued, asks him questions about himself, points out how gorgeous the river looks under the bridge. She give shim a pill, which he takes reluctantly. "Do you ever wish you could just transport yourself? Something bad happens here and suddenly, you're over there? I can't be alone tonight." We don't know yet that Naz is a virgin (he later says she's the only girl he's ever been with), but his nervousness communicates his lack of experience. He's empathetic, and, by the time they make their way to her Brownstone, high. A couple of dudes pass them by and make a comment, adn when he asks them to repeat ("Did you leave your bombs at home, Mustafa," one says), he can only laugh and follow her up the stairs.
In the apartment, items like Andrea's necklace, the deer head hanging on her wall and the limes she cuts for their tequila are given an almost totemic quality, life and death colliding as they flirt ("Do you have a girlfriend?" "No...do you?" "Would that turn you on?"). They're both wasted, but she's the far more reckless drunk, slamming the knife down on the table in between her fingers. "Now you." He's reluctant, but with a little liquid courage, he gives it a try and plays five finger fillet without hurting himself. She gives him coke and dares him to try it again, but on her. "That I will not do," he says quietly, repeating himself, but she insists. The camera lingers on their faces as he brings the knife down, her non-reaction implying that all is well...cut to the knife in the middle of her hand. Mazzy Star's "Into Dust" plays in the background, giving the scene a quality that's equally sensitive and deathly. "Two strangers, turning into dust," as she ignores her injury and the two go up the stairs, her bloody hand briefly touching the railing. The camera moves with them as they have sex, her necklace on his chest. It'd be a lovely moment if we didn't sense something terrible was about to happen.
That deliberately-paced set-up makes Naz's mad rush out the door hit harder, contrasting the slow, dreamlike movement of the episode's first section with a rapid descent into a nightmare, only for the show to pump the breaks again as Naz is pulled over for an illegal left turn and put in the back of a cop car for drunk driving as the two exhausted officers make their way to another call...back at the Brownstone. If it was painful to watch him make mistakes early on, it's positively agonizing to sit with him in the back of the cop car, powerlessly watching as a neighbor maybe recognizes him, as the cops exit the apartment gagging at what they've seen, and as he's put in another car and brought to a station by a pair of cops who have no idea who he is. "Is she dead?" he asks. "I think it's safe to say," the cop says offhandedly, not immediately realizing the meaning behind that question.
Director Steven Zaillian and writer Richard Price perfectly delineate the difference between how Naz perceives what's happening around him and how the police see it. For Naz, this is the most terrifying moment of his life. He knows what happened before and after the murder but has no memory of the act itself, knowing only that he couldn't have possibly done it. Zaillian shoots him at a remove from everything around him, separated in different visual planes from the more hardened suspects at the station (who argue about LeBron James in jail) and the night shift cops going about their business. The two who initially arrested him are exhausted workaday types who are overtime and ready to leave. He's an afterthought to everyone else, who all see this stuff every day, and the lead investigator, Detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp) moves through everything with a mix of exhaustion, world weariness and deadpan when he encounters the man who insulted Naz on the way in ("You know, Arab dude." "No, I don't") and decides to bring him in after the guy nearly leaves ("If I turn you upside down, how much weed is gonna fall out?").
Naz is nearly home free (indeed, everyone so thoroughly forgets about him that he nearly leaves on his own before Box walks in right as he's about to walk out) when the officer who arrested him realizes the proximity of his taxi to a crime that the witness said ended with someone driving off "in his taxi." We watch the realization on her face as she knows she has the suspect, pulling the knife out of his jacket just as Box starts to describe the missing murder weapon. Box tries to be understanding when he questions him (in what's partially an act and partially a recognition that this is a terrified kid, not a hardened criminal), sympathizing when Naz brings up that he can't breathe because of his asthma, telling him straight that "I don't remember" isn't going to play well with the jury. He's so fatherly that he's able to convince Naz to let him continue questioning him, take photos of his body (including scars on his back) and take swabs of his mouth, his penis and the blood on his hands. He has not asked for a lawyer, and even when he does, the cops are able to make him forget it temporarily by telling him "it wouldn't look good."
Enter Jack Stone (John Turturro), a lawyer who's introduced in a wide shot through a window, the back and side of his head shown as he meets with another client, then notices "the big-eyed kid" looking sad in a cell. "He cut a girl on 87th St.," a cop answers him. We see him make a decision to help this poor kid who probably made a mistake, asks more detailed questions of Naz ("how do you feel about America?" "You're a Muslim boy who lives with his parents?") and advises him not to talk to anyone anymore, not about the case or if they ask him innocuous questions like "How are you doing?" The timing of Stone's entrance is a bit too convenient, but I'm willing to roll with it both because of the offhand details (he wears sandals because he has eczema on his feet, something that doesn't seem to matter much but makes him feel more lived-in and specific) and because of Turturro's prickly performance, which sees him being simultaneously dismissive and empathetic toward his clients (watch as he corrects himself about a transgender client he meets with before Naz: "Paul. PAULINE, I'm sorry").
The whole episode plays with both what's seen and unseen by the parties involved: what Naz knows he didn't do and what he can't quite place, what he saw in the girl he spent the night with (a pretty girl) and what he seemed to ignore (something that was just a bit off), what the detectives know about the scene and what they can't believe about Naz's story, what they see about the parties involved (the races of both Naz and Trevor, the black guy who insulted him) and what they don't see about their motivations, and what Stone sees when he takes the case before learning that he didn't just "cut" a girl, but that he might have killed her. The episode moves back and forth between dreams and nightmares, surreal and natural with remarkable deftness, giving us enough detail to map out exactly what we know while leaving out important things that leave us unmoored. When Naz finally gets a phone call, he tells them, terrified, "They think I did something." But there's a limit to how much they can help him, and how much he can help himself. The last shot, of Naz's father rushing outside to meet Naz at the station, only to realize the cab is gone. He doesn't know what his son has or hasn't done, but he knows, in that instant, that the whole family is in deep trouble.
-I have not seen "Criminal Justice," the British series that "The Night Of" is based on, but I'd have trouble imagining writer Peter Moffat managing the same feat of making the dialogue simultaneously flavorful and naturalistic the way Richard Price can. Those knocked out by "The Night Of": check out his novel "Lush Life," or if you're short on time, Spike Lee's strong adaptation of "Clockers."
-This is a one-in-a-million cast: Riz Ahmed dominates most of it, his wide eyes and nervous demeanor expanding on the promise he showed in 2014's "Nightcrawler" and rooting us firmly in Naz's fear. But I'm equally impressed by D'Elia's unearthly demeanor as Andrea, by Camp and Saycon Sengbloh as the primary officers in the episode, and by J.D. Williams (best known as Bodie on "The Wire") as Trevor, who seems to turn everything into a joke even as it becomes clear that something terrible has happened.
-I'm looking forward to seeing more of Peyman Moaadi, who gave one of the best performances of the past several years in Asghar Farhadi's masterpiece "A Separation" in 2011.
-Turturro's filling big shoes/sandals: that role was originally planned for James Gandolfini, who signed onto the role days before his death. He's still listed as an executive producer.
-One more qualm: I strongly dislike the opening credits and wish HBO and other channels would cut out making every detective show open like "True Detective" (the worst example: "The Jinx").