Not every show is planned through its final three minutes. Not every show is written the way the screenwriter books tell you: know your ending, then work backwards.
But HBO’s The Night Of, which was planned only for a single season (even if there are now rumors about more), is such a show. Let me explain.
It should go without saying that you should NOT read this until you’ve seen all of The Night Of, including last night’s finale.
You’ve basically seen two kinds of drama-show finales: the scene, and the montage. You saw scenes during the ends of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad. You’ve seen lots of montages, including the hundred-character one at the end of The Wire. It’s hard for the writers, right? They want to sum everything up and yet be true to the tone of the show; they want some kind of finality, but also to avoid conveying the impression that the characters’ lives won’t go on after this (uh, unless it’s Lost).
One recent show finale that brilliantly threaded the needle between scene and montage – not quite being either – was Mad Men. And now we have another with The Night Of.
The final episode of The Night Of began with a little meta-riff on how hard it is to write a show: onscreen barflies discussing how to write a cop show. Bear that in mind for later. But this post is about how the episode ended, with a scene of Stone listening to the #1 song of 1972, Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”
The scenes before, with Nazir resettling into life (now as a crack addict) and Weiss asking Box to pursue the real perp, had been a little montage-like. Actually, the whole episode had had more flashbacks than previous installments, particularly to the victim Andrea’s beautiful face. But when we see Stone (John Turturro) returned to his normal routine, in his apartment on his phone telling the latest lowlife he’ll need $250 in cash, Stone’s TV is playing a commercial for the ASPCA featuring the Roberta Flack song cut to faces of adorable pets. At first this feels like playful poking: we know that Stone already returned Andrea’s cat to the pound, and probably the show (and commercial within the show) is trying to make Stone feel guilty about that decision.
But Stone hangs up and the music continues far past any commercial. As Stone shallumps his way to exiting his own front door, we realize this music is the end of the show. We get that the show is Saying Something With It. After Stone walks out his door, the music continues. And then finally, Andrea’s cat crosses the screen, which felt to this media consumer like a slight rebuke to the cheesier, far more literal-minded ending of Martin Scorsese’s Best Picture-winning The Departed (2006).
The words “The first time ever I saw your face” are lyrical in more than one sense – you’d normally say “The first time I ever saw your face.” That tiny switch of “ever” and “I” puts the listener in a reverie, almost stopping time as it were, calling forth that feeling of seeing a face for the first time. The thrill of the endorphin rush, the wonderful and unadmittable feeling of snap judgment – you think you know who this person is, and maybe you’ll be proven wrong, but what a delight that you might be correct. Outside of possessions, could there be a greater validation that you know the world, that you’ve got life right?
By ending the show with too much time on “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” The Night Of forces us to reconsider the whole show from that perspective. Earlier in the episode, on the witness stand, Weiss asks Naz why he’d kicked the two men out of his car but not Andrea: “Because she was pretty?” He doesn’t say “Because two men are more dangerous.” Instead he replies, “I guess.” The first time ever he saw her face. At another point in the episode, a scene of Box viewing tapes makes it clear that Andrea was running scared that night. She needed someone she could trust. The first time ever she saw Naz’s face. Those two “first time”s were crucially fateful for Naz and Andrea, and for the show. From the kernel of romantic attraction comes something far less predictable, just like the feeling of the song itself.
Stone tells the jury, probably at too much length, about the first time he saw Naz’s face. He directly implies that Naz’s face projected innocence, something that 95% of his clients couldn’t project if they tried. Freddy, played by the redoubtable Michael Kenneth Williams (in a role that seemed to suggest what would have happened if The Wire’s Omar wound up in prison), pretty much confesses the same thing to Naz. Chandra throws away everything she ever worked for, to exonerate and kiss that face. Earlier in the season, Stone had oddly warned Naz against telling him his story. It’s as though all three are saying: don’t speak Naz, I can see you’re innocent, don’t ruin it for me. In this regard, Stone, Freddy, and Chandra serve as audience surrogates for most of us.
Of course, if Naz were a female of any age, the don’t-ruin-it-for-us tendency would be considered sexist: shut up and look pretty, honey, I got this. But let’s make it clear, Naz does not sport a mug like Jon-Benet Ramsey’s, a face that everyone thinks of as innocent. Certainly not Duane Reade. Not Helen Weiss. Not half the inmates at Ryker’s. Not all the students who bullied Naz in the months after 9/11. The first time ever they saw his face, they convicted him. And then there were those first officers that pulled him over, and all the ones who dismissed him for hours until they found the murder weapon on him: the first time ever they saw his face, they suspected nothing.
Only during the final episode does Weiss put Andrea’s smiling face on an easel for the jury. She’s counting on Andrea’s gorgeous Caucasian face to trump Naz’s Pakistani one. When the show started, I thought oh great, another Sexy Dead Girl trope to start the engine of the plot. What a cliché. Little did I know that the show was planning a certain deconstruction of that trope the whole time.
I don’t think it’s happenstance that the show hired Gordon from Sesame Street to deliver four lines as head juror: basically, we’re in a six-to-six deadlock. Half of us see one thing on his face, half of us see the other. And in America in 2016, that’s not changing, so deal with it.
“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” – originally written in 1957, which is the year John Turturro was born – finally explains Naz’s shaved head and tattoos, and the focus on Stone’s foot eczema. Both of our lead men are trying to change people’s first impressions of them. I’m not who you think I am. In a way, both have surrendered to people’s impressions by the finale. Stone apologizes to the jury that it has to look at his swollen, misbegotten face. Naz doesn’t ask for any tattoo-covering skin cream (like Angelina Jolie wears in most of her movies): here’s my neck tattoo. Stone points out that it faces the jury. Naz’s tattoos are rising to the face, just like Stone’s eczema. There’s a contrast, in that Stone is fending off decay and Naz is embracing his dark side, but both of them are settling in to being judged by their new face.
The show very carefully doesn’t reveal if Naz actually did it or not. Even Naz has to admit that he’s not sure, a moment that Stone concludes has reduced their defense chances to “zero.” (Stone doesn’t really believe this, or he wouldn’t work so hard on his closing argument.) Box toys seriously with the idea of presenting last-minute exculpatory evidence to the court, but refrains. If some characters are the audience, this episode has cast Box as the show’s writing staff, starting with that opening scene about how to write a cop show. Later, Stone shouts at Box, “who did it?Who killed her?” Box walks out, as he does a lot during this episode. It’s like the writers are pushing away all the predictable options. We, the faithful audience, are not getting off that easy. Like the jury, we’re stuck with something closer to our first-time impressions.
If the audience is watching the jury deadlock thinking, well, I’m with Naz, so I know I’m in the right half, the song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” makes us question many first impressions. Normally a show that dropped this many red herrings, without giving us the true perp until the end, would be annoying. But now we suddenly have to think back: why did we suspect Duane Reade? Why did we suspect the African-American limo driver at the gas station? Was it because they were black? Or: why were we sure that the stepfather did it? Was it because he was white and entitled, and we’re cynical media-savvy liberals?
In other words, a legal procedural that ends with “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is not just about Stone, Naz, Chandra, Freddy, Andrea, Weiss, and Box. It’s also about us. It’s about the groundbreaking work of Paul Ekman, which was the subject of a Tim Roth show called Lie to Me, which you never saw because it was on Showtime, not HBO. In fairness, that show probably erred by turning the Roth-Ekman character into something like a superhero-face-reader. The Night Of is more subtle, allowing the final three minutes to feel just enough like a twist, but also like the inevitable conclusion of all that’s come before.
The Night Of and its ending validates episodic, non-binged TV as a dramatic form: in a two-hour play or movie, your snap judgments based on faces wouldn’t have lingered for weeks on end, reducing your complicity.
In the end, The Night Of suggests that the criminal justice system, and by extension all of us, from Box to Trevor, are merely amateur face-readers, stumbling through life with little more than our first impressions of people, seeking evidence to bolster what we already thought. This could be considered terribly cynical. However, the final seconds suggest change isn’t impossible. As “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” finishes, Andrea’s cat skitters across Stone’s empty apartment. Just as Stone said he and Chandra’s odds were zero but went on to deliver a life-saving closing, Stone also let himself grow into an allergic cat-owner. A suitable glimmer of hope.
To the dark and the endless skies my love,
To the dark and the endless skies.