Just over a week ago, Mayukh Sen published an astute and damning piece in Vulture on the racial ignorance of The Night Of. Sen rightly points out the series’ sole focus on black characters’ racism against Naz, Jack’s embodiment of white savior tropes and the reductiveness with which Rikers Island is depicted. These issues have plagued The Night Of from “The Beach” onwards, recurring to varying extents throughout the show’s run.
I bring up Sen’s article now because “The Call of the Wild” doubles down on The Night Of’s racist tendencies, and even adds a touch of disdain for due process and judicial standards for evidence gathering. The reactionary politics being articulated, along with an unsatisfying reveal of Andrea’s killer, make for a choppy conclusion to a wildly uneven miniseries that’s struggled with strained credulity, inconsistent pacing, and characters failing to congeal.
The racism begins with the opening cross-examinations, in which the men testifying embody black caricatures even more flagrant than Naz’s adoption of a shaved head and double negatives in his speech. There’s Trevor’s confusion over the function of the Fifth Amendment, which the judge quells as if he’s a high school principal disciplining a rowdy teen. Trevor is followed by his pal Duane, whose history of violence, in spite of its dubious connection to Andrea’s murder, gets laid bare in the courtroom for viewers and jurors alike to mock. Hearse driver Mr. Day, in spite of the scriptural knowledge he shows off to Chandra, appears not to know the difference between “hearsay” and “heresy,” ending the parade of red herrings on a particularly ugly note. Steven Zaillian and Richard Price never follow any of these characters long enough for them to be convincing as suspects, and their laughable presences on the stand bring their arcs to weak conclusions.
In addition to the latent racism of “The Call of the Wild,” the episode is plagued by a flagrant dismissal of the legal system that smacks more of Dirty Harry than The Wire (on which Price was also a writer). Jack suddenly overcomes his nebbishy characterization to violently serve Don Taylor with a subpoena, slamming him against a wall when a more pacifistic delivery would have done just fine. The revelations of Don’s sleaziness over the past few episodes only makes the scene more disturbing, as if Price and Zaillian are suggesting that he deserves to gets attacked for his iniquities.
Even more discomforting (and instrumental to the episode) than Jack’s behavior is Box’s extrajudicial pursuit of Andrea’s real killer. He’s determined to find the guilty party — retirement and civil liberties be damned — even if he has to knock down a restaurant’s Department of Health grade in the process. Given the amount of time The Night Of has spent building sympathy for Naz, and suggesting that he probably didn’t kill Andrea, Box’s actions are a disturbing endorsement of Patriot Act-esque neglect for citizens’ rights not to be hounded by the government at will.
And if only the result Box dug up were satisfying. When “The Call of the Wild” isn’t failing on an moral level, it’s collapsing narratively, as each previously introduced red herring gets absolved in favor of Raymond Halle, Andrea’s gambling addicted financial advisor. Aside from Naz, none of the suggested suspects have been given enough screen time to be satisfactory culprits, but settling on a character that’s barely seen at all is hardly a suitable solution. Of course, Price and Zaillian seem to want viewers to focus on the effects on the characters they have spent the most time with (Naz, Jack, and Chandra), but each of their arcs continues to sputter in the manner they have all season.
Of the three, Naz’s ending works most effectively, though even his character, like the episode as a whole, fails to avoid moral and dramatic pitfalls. From the moment The Night Of introduced Freddy, the question of what exactly the boxer sees in Naz has loomed over their relationship, and “The Call of the Wild” provides an answer as troubling as it is inadequate. Freddy suggests that Naz is the only truly innocent man he’s met in Rikers, a bizarre endorsement of the criminal justice system competing with the indictment of due process established through Box’s actions. True, Freddy’s vicious brutality and use of Naz as a drug mule makes him hardly the most sympathetic character, but the final Jack London gift (giving the episode its title) seems poised to leave viewers with a positive view of Freddy and the relationship as a whole. As a result, Price appears to endorse Freddy’s view that most prisoners in Rikers deserve to be there, while also suggesting that the restrictions of the legal system allow killers such as Raymond to roam free.
Jack at least has the benefit of his closing statement, (aided by what continues to be an outstanding performance from John Turturro in a mostly thankless role), but he’s let down by the return of the Little Eczema Subplot That Could. The eczema has been a glaring weakness in The Night Of, even when the show has been at its best, and its reappearance isn’t any more welcome than it’s been throughout the series. Jack’s stricken face makes him even more of an overt underdog, sure, but it’s an unnecessary touch for a speech that would’ve worked just fine delivered by a man without a visible skin condition.
Weakest of all, though, and most in danger of tearing “The Call of the Wild” apart at the seams, is Chandra. After showing little understanding of how drugs, sex or the responsibilities of being a lawyer work in previous weeks, she’s suddenly willing to buy drugs (from — you guessed it — a black man!) and smuggle them to Naz in her vagina. When Alison finally fires her, she seems to be making the right decision, as Chandra hardly seems fit to work with future clients if she considers her actions to be responsible or appropriate attorney behavior.
Thus, The Night Of undermines its three main heroes, leaving “The Call of the Wild” without anyone to sympathize with or root for. On the one hand, Price and Zaillian have appeared to be going for this sort of moral ambiguity throughout the series, but they’ve countered this with a deep-seated interest in and compassion for Naz’s living hell. The unwillingness to commit either way is further sabotaged by a fuzzy sense of right and wrong that endorses Box’s extrajudicial snooping, praises the legal system for supposedly only putting guilty men in Rikers and caricatures black men as angry, loud and violent. For supposed “prestige TV,” The Night Of is simply lazy.
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.