There’s nothing more indicative of the flaws in HBO’s The Night Of than Jack Stone’s eczema. Between the deliberate pacing and references to real-world issues (racial profiling, police brutality, etc.), Steven Zaillian and Richard Price appear to be aiming for a gritty realism more concerned with capturing essential truths about contemporary life in New York City than delivering the tight procedural the subject matter suggests. At the same time, the eczema functions for a few chuckles, but the over-emphasis on it ultimately detracts from the richness of Jack’s character by feeling too ancillary to serve as a defining trait while also being the most notable thing about him.
This rub continues in “A Dark Crate,” although the episode does manage to point towards a better direction for the series by at least suggesting why Jack’s feet deserve so much screen time. As he sits in a support group for other men “holding their own” with skin conditions, Zaillian and Price reveal the loneliness brought on by Stone’s disease, and they later buttress this revelation through the sad image of him acquiescing to his dermatologist’s suggestion to treat himself with Crisco and plastic wrap. But this insight still falls short by being the most obvious direction to take the eczema, and Jack’s fellow lawyers casually bringing it up doesn’t quite seem believable.
That being said, even the minimal justification for the emphasis on Jack’s eczema enriches his character, making “A Dark Crate” the strongest episode of The Night Of thus far. Zaillian and Price also flesh him out through his desperate bargaining with Naz’s parents, suggesting that Jack is hardly the civil rights martyr he initially appears. Nor is he particularly principled in other matters, as he quickly reneges on his promise not to help Naz until his parents pay by attempting a plea bargain with the prosecutor Helen, stopping by the crime scene and visiting Naz in prison. The viewer’s impression of Jack gets further undercut by attorney Abigail Crowe’s offer to represent Naz pro bono, a proposition which itself is undermined by her cynical use of the southeast Asian Chandra to woo his parents and the overall feeling that Abigail can’t just be acting out of the goodness of her heart.
The former boxer Freddy gives off a similar vibe through his offer to protect Naz in Rikers, though the character benefits from Michael K. Williams’ welcome return to HBO. Like much of the ensemble of The Night Of, Freddy’s doesn’t quite gel as a character in his opening introduction, rehashing “grizzled old prisoner” tropes, but Williams’ strengths and his intriguing contrast with Naz suggest the possibility of the character becoming more fleshed out in future episodes.
Most importantly, the various offers Naz receives from Jack, Freddy and Abigail (as well as the evils from which they protect him) keep The Night Of from denigrating into whodunit territory and instead concentrate on the complexities of Naz’s situation, regardless of who killed Andrea Cornish. AMC’s The Killing, for example, quickly fell apart by offering viewers little to care about other than figuring out the culprit of its titular murder, but Zaillian and Price save their series from such a fate by spending relatively little time discussing the possibility of Naz’s guilt. There’s a ton of physical evidence against him, he doesn’t at all seem capable of committing the crime, and The Night Of leaves his actual role in Andrea’s murder otherwise untouched. Even if the show bungles some of the material it uses to replace the twists and turns of traditional procedurals, such as the awkward discussions of race, Zaillian and Price’s willingness to let the plot unfold at a leisurely pace lays the groundwork for a more sophisticated drama than, say, The Killing.
And some moments even manage not to be bungled, such as Naz’s parents’ moving prison visit. Their forgiveness of their son and desire to help him, even as he shatters their image of him and hamstrings his father’s work in one go, deepens them beyond the shallow immigrant stereotypes they once threatened being. It’s shades of nuance such as these, more prevalent in “A Dark Crate” than in the preceding episodes, that suggest the possibility of The Night Of reaching its ostensibly high dramatic aspirations. Regardless of whether these details get Naz off the hook or show that he’s darker than he seems, they push the series beyond procedural trappings, even if a little eczema continues to threaten to get in the way.
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.