Heroes and Villains: The Night Of ‘The Art of War’ (Recap)


On HBO’s The Night Of, Naz is both incredibly lucky and liable to have his luck run out at any minute. The gorgeous and mysterious Andrea comes onto him in spite of his timidity, but the violent consequences get him in enough shit to cover at least eight hours of TV. Jack sees Naz at the “right place, right time” and takes an interest in his case, but the questionable attorney’s eczema turns out to be more serious than his legal qualifications. Freddy’s help is particularly welcome given how out of place Naz is at Rikers Island, but he’s understandably conflicted about the possible consequences of accepting the boxer’s assistance.

Naz’s penchant for dualistic luck continues in “The Art of War” through two characters: Calvin and Alison. Both provide him with offers that seem to be more than he could possibly expect from either, and both also turn on him just as easily, suggesting a cynical edge to their initial motivations.

Most difficult to understand, and therefore most obviously bound to turn against Naz sooner or later, is Calvin. In spite of the many coincidences working both for and against Naz, a wizened prisoner deciding to provide him with advice after seeing him get cheated out of money may be the most unexpected. Even before Calvin reveals that revenge for his niece’s murder landed him in jail, his desire to help Naz feels incongruous, to the point where the relationship seems as unlikely and coincidental as any other of his unfortunate twists of fate.

That incongruity can’t help taking a large portion of the sting out of the reveal of Calvin’s true intentions, which comes as he burns Naz with the painful baby oil and scalding water combination warned about earlier in the episode. I critiqued Richard Price’s slavish adherence to the “Chekhov’s Gun” principle in my review of “The Beach,” and the overt circularity around which Price constructs the Calvin-Naz relationship makes it feel more stylized than believable or cathartic. It’s hard to understand why Calvin would take an interest in Naz in the first place, making the betrayal all the less shocking or meaningful.

Ditto for Alison, whose pro bono offer, combined with her use of Chandra to assuage the Khan parents, never quite makes sense as anything other than a self-serving ploy. The ease with which she lies to Naz about the possibility of a plea bargain frames her as even more self-serving than she comes across in previous episodes, but it’s been clear all along that she’s wanted something other than good karma out of Naz’s case. By the end of “The Art of War,” particularly in contrast with her client’s (now ex-client’s) determination not to lie to get himself a shorter sentence, Alison plays as a cardboard villain in a series ostensibly aiming to probe people’s moral ambiguities and contradictions.

But in spite of the traitorous treatment Naz receives from Alison and Calvin, he finds the opposite behavior from the two characters “The Art of War” makes increasingly clear will be his ultimate legal allies: Chandra and Jack. Although Naz’s guilt remains a distinct possibility, particularly in light of Jack’s conversation with a murder suspect who claims not to remember the incident in question, The Night Of has portrayed Naz from the beginning as sympathetic (if naive), and the two lawyers fighting for him are as clearly on the side of good as Calvin and Alison are reprehensible.

Jack, for one, outflanks the pro bono offer by continuing to investigate Naz’s case although he’s been fired, even paying hundreds of dollars to get Andrea’s file from a sleazy worker at the rehab facility at which she was once a patient. Jack also takes a video of her suspicious stepfather barking orders after her funeral, suggesting yet another alternative suspect. Although he advocates for the plea bargain, helping Alison’s case, his advocation comes more from the realization that deal is relatively good, all things considered, than from her cynical motivation.

Jack’s tribulations on Naz’s behalf are all the more laudable given his eczema, which, though still not fully convincing as a defining character trait, becomes more overtly significant as The Night Of explores it in greater depth. The eczema continues to feel more like a punchline than a meaningful characteristic, but the dermatologist’s description of the disease turning people suicidal, for example, highlights the extent to which Jack suffers. Such highlighting feels a bit like too little too late, but Price nonetheless moves towards portraying Jack as something more than a crank with a skin condition.

Chandra, by contrast, is less burdened by eccentric characterization, even if Price goes in the opposite direction thus far by only showing that she’s southeast Asian and that she’s too honest to let Naz lie in court. The thinness of her character makes her decision to take on his case hard to care too much about, but having someone other than Jack and the Khan parents believe in Naz’s innocence makes for a stirring moment nonetheless.

Then there’s Freddy, whose interest in Naz continues to be as unexplainable as Alison’s or Calvin’s prior to their betrayals. The boxer likes Naz’s experience in higher education, and that he’s read Jack London, but Price still doesn’t quite explain the value Freddy places in learning beyond the pride he takes in his degree and the (borderline stereotypical) copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X on his nightstand. “I need your help,” Naz tells Freddy at the end of the episode, regardless of how unconvincing his motivation for offering it may be. After an hour filled with betrayals from powerful figures and support from people with less social capital to offer, it’s hard to disagree.

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.


1 reply »

  1. Nice read. With plenty of insight.

    I never believed that Alison Crowe took on Naz’s case for any thing other than self-serving motives. Alison being a high profile lawyer (read news hound and publicity-seeking opportunist), her motive would be only front page coverage of the New York Papers.

    All along , Alison being a card-carrying member of the clubby New York Justice System – knew that she wouldn’t besmirch her record with a trial loss because she would be ab;e to get Naz into accepting a deal.

    Freddy’s motives remain a mystery and I expect they will be revealed sooner rather than later.

    I personally believe in Naz’s innocence, and I expect that Detective Box and Prosecutor Helen Weiss will also come to that belief.

    Why? Because of the clues Price and Zaillian keep putting before us – One concerns that darn cat which is really about the (likely) unlocked gate (and door) beneath the stairs at the W 87th Street building.

    The second is the introduction of a new third party that Andrea’s Step Dad was spotted arguing with at the funeral. Let’s also not forget that the Step-Dad had a possible motive – he could inherit the building on w 87th if Andrea dies. I see that as a factor that Price is still withholding from us. Step Dad is the second party possible suspect.

    And there’s that other guy that Naz and Andrea met when they confronted the younger black guy on the street outside her building.

    I have other questions – who arranged the green/gray prison jump suit that was given to Naz by the Correction Officer. The orange jumpsuit was a clarion call ID’ing Naz as a violent criminal. The grey/green had no such allusion.

    Finally – is Calvin real? We’ve only seen him in the most current episode (4) and we’ve never seen Calvin interacting with any other prisoner, gang, or faction within the cell-block. Plus his sad story (I’m in here while the real killer walks free) exactly replicates Naz’s circumstance. Maybe Calvin is a fabrication or dream by Naz.

    Then again, if Calvin isn’t real, who napalmed Naz?

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