Photo of Amara Karan as Chandra Kapoor, courtesy of HBO
SPOILER ALERT: ONLY READ THIS IF YOU HAVE SEEN ALL 8 EPISODES OF THE NIGHT OF.
Just for a second, let’s put aside The Night Of’s dead girl. Much has already been written about the wild, self-destructive dead girl (Sofia Black D’Elia), who lures our young hero Naz (Riz Ahmed) into her den of iniquity and exists on the show only so she can die. And just to be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with a dead girl being a show’s launching point, but between True Detective, The Killing, The Top of the Lake, Pretty Little Liars, et al, many of us have dead girl fatigue. (Also, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the fact that Naz is innocent, although the guy who just had sex with the dead girl usually is the one who made her dead, so it could be argued that shows like this send the wrong message. But I digress…)
Anyway, Andrea—the dead girl has a name, it’s Andrea—is just the first female character that The Night Of betrays. Allow me to count them down.
Let’s start with the character that the show betrays the most, and the impetus for this essay—Chandra Kapoor, played by Amara Karan. As an actress, Karan just has it—on top of being quite pretty, she projects intelligence, relatability, and warmth (TV decision-making-types—get on it!). Chandra is an assistant to celebrity lawyer Alison Crowe (more on her in a bit), who has glommed onto Naz’s sensational case to raise her own profile. Crowe plucks Chandra from her stable of young lawyers for the most cynical of reasons—to ease the concerns of Naz’s parents by presenting them with someone who looks more like they do (Naz is Pakistani; Chandra is Indian). But Chandra ends up becoming the lead lawyer on the case due to some spectacularly bad advice she gives Naz—the first of many such blunders.
Crowe has arranged for a plea bargain that would have Naz confessing to manslaughter and receiving 15 years in prison. Regardless of the trial’s ultimate outcome, that is actually a great deal for Naz, whose semen and blood was on Andrea and who was found with the murder weapon in his pocket. But Chandra, you see, believes in the system, and, what’s more, she believes in Naz, so she tells him that, if he didn’t do it, he should plead not guilty. I guess Chandra is meant to contrast all the jaded cops, civil servants, and lawyers who populate the series, but this is extremely shitty advice. Naz, however, listens to Chandra—because what innocent man doesn’t crave someone who believes him?—and pleads not guilty. As a result, Crowe withdraws her offer to defend Naz pro bono and the case falls into Chandra’s lap.
Then Chandra, being a girl—with all its attendant squooshy, girly, uncontrollable emotions, I suppose—can’t resist her handsome, doe-eyed client. She is so overcome with longing for him, or a need to soothe his restless soul (you pick it), she kisses him in a holding cell, despite the fact that a cop is a few feet away and she knows (or should know) there are surveillance cameras. Later, Naz, who has become addicted to crack cocaine, asks her to acquire drugs for him—and she does. So now she’s gone from being a shitty, irresponsible lawyer, to actually breaking the law for him.
Oh, and why was she getting crack for Naz? Because, among other reasons, he needs the drugs to function at a peak level when he testifies. Yes, Chandra wants Naz to testify at his trial, despite the fact that John Stone (John Turturro), Naz’s much more experienced co-lawyer (and the show’s other outsider hero), has explained how reckless and dangerous that is. Look, I get that Chandra is both an idealist (the truth shall set Naz free!) and headstrong (no man is going to tell me how to handle my client!), but anyone with a working television set knows that a murder suspect testifying on his own behalf is always a last resort. What’s more, you would think that once Naz told her he needed crack to testify she might have reconsidered. (Also, there’s the pesky fact that Naz isn’t 100-percent sure he didn’t do it. Details, details…) So yes. Naz testifies and things are actually going pretty great until, as Stone anticipated, the cross examination starts, at which point he breaks down and tearfully admits he’s not sure whether he did it or not. I’m no legal expert, but that seems bad.
The thing that’s so annoying about all of this—besides, well, all of it—is the fact that Chandra actually seemed like a pretty good lawyer when she wasn’t royally screwing up. Her interrogations of other suspects, including an undertaker and Andrea’s sketchy stepfather, were pretty effective. So why also make her a total moron? Well, here’s a theory: Just as Andrea was sacrificed so Naz could be falsely accused and The Night Of could exist, Chandra was sacrificed so that John Stone could have his moment of redemptive glory. (Chandra has been demoted to second chair after the judge sees the tape of her kissing Naz.) Again, there’s nothing wrong with Stone getting to give closing arguments. From a dramatic standpoint, it works. And Turturro absolutely delivers—it’ll undoubtedly be the scene he submits to Emmy voters (he even had a flare-up of eczema!). But it’s a bit dismaying that Chandra had to be weak-willed, ethically compromised, and legally derelict, so John Stone could shine.
Now we get to Naz’s mother, Safar Khan, played by Poorna Jagannathan. On its own, the fact that she has doubts about her son, and worries that she perhaps “raised a monster,” isn’t too problematic, but when you put it in the larger context of the show, it seems to be part of a pattern. It’s Naz’s father who never wavers in his support, who always believes in his son, who is the only one waiting for him when he gets out of Rikers, and Naz’s mother who allows herself to imagine the worst. Again, she’s being used as a plot device—if Naz’s own mother doubts him, shouldn’t we as well?—but she’s also an example of a disloyal woman, a mother who betrays her own son.
Here’s the funny thing about hotshot lawyer Alison Crowe (Glenn Headley). I think she’s supposed to be the worst, but I didn’t find her that horrible. Clearly she’s agreed to take on Naz’s case to raise her own profile and, as I mentioned, she exploits the fact that her assistant is Indian to get closer to Naz’s family, which is shady as hell. Yeah, she stole the case out from under Stone (who at least appeared to be in over his head) and yeah, she kind of left Naz in the lurch after he turned down the plea, but can you really blame her? It was a great offer. She had done her job. But the show clearly thinks she’s a bad person and, lest there be any doubt, she’s super bitchy to Chandra when she fires her.
On the face of it, Helen Weiss (Jeannie Berlin) is just one of The Night Of’s many world-weary, jaded bureacrats. But when you look closer, you see that she’s the worst of the worst. Our lead detective Dennis Box (Bill Camp) is actually haunted by the fact that he may’ve locked up the wrong guy, and even continues to doggedly pursue the case after he retires. John Stone may be a hack, but he cares deeply about his clients (and cats). It’s only Helen Weiss who seems willing to do anything to get her man, including coerce a forensics expert to fudge the truth on the witness stand. When she’s confronted with Box’s new suspect—and the preponderance of evidence linking him to the murder—she ignores it because it’ll be easier to convict Naz. Yes, she hesitates during her closing arguments—we see she’s having a crisis of conscience—and ultimately does the right thing when she agrees not to retry Naz, but only after she had already gone through with trying to convict him. Had the jury not been hung, Naz would be rotting away in a jail cell as we speak.
And that’s it. Those are all the major female characters in the show: a wild girl who leads a young man astray, a disloyal mother, a ruthless prosecutor, a headline-grabbing TV lawyer, and a young lawyer who compromises her ethics and professionalism for a crush. Look, The Night Of was gripping, well-executed TV, but turns out its dead girl trope wasn’t a mere fluke. It reflected the series’ willingness to sacrifice female characters for the sake of good drama and to prop up a male hero, over and over again.