The principle famously known as “Chekhov’s gun” states, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off,” and The Night Of co-creators Richard Price and Steven Zaillian seem to be taking this concept quite seriously. As compelling as “The Beach” is, made all the more laudable by its deliberate approach to easily oversexed subject matter, writer Price ultimately sells the episode short by taking too much care to tie up loose-ends in the already over-stuffed hour-plus.
Most egregious of all is Naz’s asthma, initially introduced as a subtle and humanizing detail but later botched with a tidy reference. “Uh oh,” Naz says as he spends his initial moments at the mysterious Andrea’s house, and director Zaillian’s close-up on the knife she wields leads one to believe that it’s the source of his fear, before a cut to Andrea’s cat outside of the house and Naz’s brief explanation informs viewers that his allergy causes his worry. Andrea smiles at Naz as he puffs from his inhaler, and Price makes the exchange all the more meaningful by later revealing that Naz should have been more afraid of the knife all along.
The asthma works well in this scene, both as a character trait and a clever-enough foreshadowing of Naz’s fate, but Price’s reference to it later in the episode retrospectively weakens the earlier success. As Naz gets interrogated by Detective Dennis Box, his already flimsy self-defense gets further undermined when he tries to avoid answering questions by explaining that he can’t breathe, making him seem even more shifty and unreliable. By itself, the moment works, but it feels a bit obvious in conjunction with the earlier use of asthma as a red herring. At first, Price uses Naz’s asthma to paint him as naive, and the later reference points towards why Detective Box sees him as the opposite, but the two scenes together feel overly choreographed in a drama aspiring for gritty realism.
The same goes for the racism Naz experiences, which at first feels like a genuinely new addition to a story teetering on retread and comes across as a cheap plot device by the episode’s end. Passer-by Trevor (J.D. Williams of HBO’s The Wire) suggests that Naz is a terrorist as he prepares to enter Andrea’s home, a scene which, on its own, highlights the discrimination Naz undoubtedly experiences on a daily basis. But when the remark ends up making him all the more memorable to Trevor, the earlier scene plays, in retrospect, more like a way to propel the narrative than a genuine attempt at social commentary. These functions aren’t mutually exclusive, of course, but the racism’s overt function in the plot makes it seem more like a tool than an insight into Naz’s life. Price tries too hard to ensure that Chekhov’s guns are fired, and his overzealousness turns compelling details into overwrought plot mechanisms.
Then there’s the details that don’t play quite as well, regardless of framing. For all of The Night Of’s ostensible commitment to authenticity, Naz’s decision to steal his father’s cab rather than taking the subway to the party makes little sense beyond a way to set the plot in motion. And regardless of John Turturro’s considerable talents and efforts, Jack Stone comes off as little more than a bizarre crank whose sandal-wearing habits and propensity for taking on pro bono clients at will plays better for a few chuckles than it does as the foundation for a complex and fully realized character. Future episodes may prove otherwise (I’ve only seen the pilot), but Jack initially functions more as one-note comic relief than a living, breathing human being.
But in spite of all this, “The Beach” skates by as a satisfying introduction to a promising miniseries. The relationship between Naz and Andrea works particularly well, as the two characters’ flaws and insecurities complement each other and make the murder all the more devastating. Zaillian’s framing is at its strongest when the characters drive around New York, particularly as his close-ups in the car speak volumes about the couple and their respective feelings about the doomed affair. Actors Riz Ahmed and and Sofia Black-D’Elia are outstanding in these scenes, managing to reveal just enough about their characters’ histories and the quickly developing relationship between them in a short period of time.
References to socio-political context also buoy “The Beach,” even if some fall flat or are too on-the-nose, as previously discussed. Naz’s Pakistani-American identity adds to his characterization without defining him, particularly through the twin stresses of racial profiling and his parents’ resistance to U.S. culture. The fact that he gets discriminated against by Trevor, who in turn is profiled by Box for being black, highlights the intersection of racism which colors American life. Zaillian emphasizes The Night Of’s pertinency to contemporary events through shots of security cameras and footage of various kinds, specifically pointing to the bearing life in the modern police state has on the story. The heightened surveillance is still unable to cleanly reveal Andrea’s killer, questioning whether it serves much of a function at all.
Questions such as these propel “The Beach” past its early hiccups, all the while introducing the outstanding ensemble and the conflicts, themes and backgrounds framing their relationships. The episode stumbles by dogmatically adhering to Chekhov’s gun more than is necessary or beneficial, but the talents of Zaillian, Price and the cast still give The Night Of an excellent start.
Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.