On Media

The Night Of and the nights after

On HBO's new series, a young Muslim is accused of murder. But whether he's guilty isn't the point.

In the first episode of HBO’s new series The Night Of, a young Pakistani-American man wakes up in bed next to a dead woman. Until this point, Nasir Khan (Riz Ahmed), called Naz by friends and family, was a good kid, a college student who worked hard and tried to do right by his immigrant family. But on the night in question, he sneaks out of the house and takes his dad’s taxi to go to a party in Manhattan. He never makes it there. Instead, he meets a young woman, indulges in drugs, and spends the night with her. The next morning she is covered with stab wounds. Naz can’t remember what happened and flees the scene. Soon the police pick him up and charge him with murder.

The first episode is a painful series of events. Naz is stupid but not evil, and the show effectively creates viewer sympathy for him. I found myself murmuring, “Please don’t steal your dad’s cab. . . . Don’t go off with the girl. . . . Don’t take the drugs.” After Naz runs away from the scene, his actions cascade into numerous other situations to avoid if you don’t want to be falsely convicted of murder.

The sympathy created for Naz presumes his innocence, but The Night Of is about moral ambiguity; we viewers aren’t allowed to settle into our desire for Naz’s absolution. The script provides plenty of other possible suspects, but it doesn’t close the door on Naz’s possible guilt, not even for himself.