Last night we binged. We watched the last four of the eight episodes of The Night of…For those who have seen the series on HBO, you will know why. For those who haven’t, here is why.
Last week, I visited my eldest son and his family in Princeton, New Jersey. He suggested a list of shows that we had not seen and was most enthusiastic about this one. The first reason to watch is that he has excellent taste and discernment. This 2016 HBO miniseries is a mixture of a detective, courtroom and prison drama tied together by a horrific murder committed in the first episode. Though based on an older 2008 British TV series called Criminal Justice, the eight episodes are set in Manhattan and Queens and unmistakably convey the ground level flavour of gritty New York.
The opening of the series, which ran to almost 80 minutes, set the stage for the following seven 60-minute episodes. It is grisly and horrifying; you know what is coming as it unfolds. We could only watch the first episode on the first evening. We were totally shaken up. The next evening, we got through three episodes. And by the third evening, the miniseries had clearly turned into a courtroom and prison drama so we watched 4 episodes in a row. It was a series in which you know how it will end up just as you know who did not do the horrific crime in the first episode. The suspense and the terror are in the journey. Further, the real terror is that series is about the underside of New York, more specifically, its injustice system that has at best a 50/50 chance of delivering justice.
Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed) is a Muslim college student living with his family in Queens. We see him at home and in a math class with a professor writing an incomprehensible math formula on the blackboard. We know he is bright and he comes from a working-class family. His father, Salim Khan (Payman Maadi) drives a cab; his mother, Safar Khan (Poorna Jagannathan) works in a store selling saris. Originally, I was told that this was a TV series about the competition between a New York detective, Dennis Box (Bill Camp) and a down-but-not-quite-out criminal lawyer, John Stone played magnificently by John Turturro. Both actors were nominated for Emmies. However, it was Riz Ahmed who won the Emmy in 2017. His portrayal of the transition from an average “good boy,” which, of course, he will not exactly be, into a seasoned prisoner at Riker’s Island is indeed a marvel to behold. It has perpetual consequences. Naz is just a regular kid who is dealt a series of blows by circumstances much more than his own wayward actions – stealing his father’s cab, taking ecstasy, running away instead of calling 911, turning left illegally, trying once again to run away from the cops when it is a clear impossibility. He is trapped. And the miniseries is about the larger prison of life and not just Riker’s Island.
The recommendation came from an impeccable source. The plotting is terrific. As is the cast. However, the writing (Richard Price and Steven Zaillian) and directing (Steven Zaillian and James Marsh) as well as the cinematography, a seamless result of three different artists, Frederick Elmes, Igor Martinovic and Robert Elswit, are all marvelous. So too is the large supporting cast, from prime roles such as Helen Weiss (Jeannie Berlin), the prosecuting attorney, and Amara Karan as Chandra Kapoor, the lead defence attorney, to small cameo roles, such as Hon Jen Two as Dr. Yee, a practitioner of Chinese alternative medicine, and Chip Zien as Dr. Katz, a formidable criminal pathologist. When these components come together, the result is a marvel to behold. Jeff Russo’s music heightened the anguish and pain as the series unfolded.
That is not to say that the mini-series was perfect. Far from it. There were enough holes in the plot to, as they say, drive a tractor trailer through it, such as, for example, failing to note that the alleged murderer of the girl stabbed twenty-two times was not spattered in blood. But the creativity is evident because you set aside all the shortcomings you notice along the way. Is it even plausible that the defence attorney would behave the way she did? I just didn’t care.
My early education in contemporary literature – as opposed to all the green diamond nineteenth century novels and science fiction I read in books I took out from the library – was rooted in Chicago and only graduated to the New York internalized realism with J.D. Salinger in university. Theodor Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, Willa Cather and Edna Ferber were my mentors. So were the plethora of dime store novelists I mostly read about crime gangs and mobsters who served as populist imitators. They caught me up, not so much in the gritty realism of New York, but the alternative underground reality that disdained the genteel realism of writers for whom I had no time. I used to dream of being a mob boss.
The city, the urban landscape, was not simply a place of progress onward and upward of the immigrant’s dream. It was also a nightmare of a disorienting and frightening reality whenever you left the safety of your home turf. But Chicago was not Toronto. Feeling and sensitivity had to be introduced through side vignettes and seemingly remote and disconnected artifacts, such as the life of a cat that John Stone adopted, or his eczema on his feet and neck. It is a world of walk-ups rather than steel skyscrapers.
We are also not among the steel skyscrapers that Chicago writers made an integral part of the cityscape. But in the world that Price and Zaillian create in New York. It is not the steel towers we experience. It is not the El raised above and the subterranean life below amidst these towers of wealth. In New York, we see, and, more importantly, experience the bridges and tunnels, the closing gates and grills with their broken locks or the thunderous multiple-locked gates of a prison. Manhattan and Queens become parts of a city in which people move sideways rather than vertically. Whether for a $500,000 house in Queens or a $10,000,000 brownstone in Manhattan, Price and Zaillian reveal an urban landscape united by loneliness, alienation, disparaging wit and caustic conversations.
New York fiction moves sideways. Chicago fiction moved up and down. T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was first published in the small Chicago magazine, Poetry. From Chicago, I read Philip Roth, Kurt Vonnegut and Saul Bellow. In contrast, from New York, we watch in an 8-part mini-series as a young college boy gets educated into the values and mores of prison life with its protectionist and drug rackets, its use of younger petrified boys as sexual tools who slit their wrists and prisoners who, when they get out of line, have their throats slit. Most of all, it is a city of disfigurement, from the tattoos on bodies to the skin rashes on people.
When I was in New York last week, I went with my granddaughter to see the J.D. Salinger exhibit at the New York Public Library. Holden Caulfield loved to punch holes in any phony idealization. Life was hypocritical and gritty. The New York subway was its exemplar. Where but in a New York exhibit to one of its greatest writers would you read a letter from Salinger to his publisher, not about quality, but about the design of the cover and the royalties which he wanted raised from 15% to 20% if the book sold over 40,000 copies and 25% if it sold over 100,000 copies. In China alone, 300,000 copies of Catcher in the Rye are sold every year.
But if Caulfield looked at the world askance, in the miniseries, Riz Ahmed looks at the world in disbelief as his life moves through one horror after another as he tries to preserve whatever core of identity he can construct. He is neither an opportunist nor a cynic, but a traveler through time and the dirty and broken landscape of New York that inevitably washes anyone in its grime.
Washington is different than either Chicago or New York. Tomorrow a miniseries opens in Congress, The Days of… This is real realism, not the realism where a young 22-year-old girl is savagely murdered or where a mixture of boiling water and baby oil are thrown at your face. It will not be a trial of disfigurement but of calculation and impressions. It will not be a court case to reveal the truth – that is already too well known. Rather it will be a trail of persuasion, not of someone who is presumed innocent but where all the evidence points to his guilt. It will be about someone who is indisputably guilty, but the evidence for that guilt has to be presented in such a way as to convince the public, and, through the public, the Senate, so that the Senate of the United States need not have its integrity go down in flames.
But we know it will. We have become cynical about Washington. We have become downcast about the state of the leader of the free world. For in Washington, the system is disfigured, not the body of an individual, but the body politic as a whole. In a criminal trial, the presumption is of the innocence of the accused. That is not at issue in Washington. The evidence is overwhelming about the guilt of the president. The object is not to find and mount the evidence to show that there is a reasonable doubt to find the accused is not guilty. For the president is not on trial. Congress is. The question will be whether the obfuscation and distractions, the lies and misdirection, can be used to turn the public attention away from the president and onto the accusers. In a court trial, the defence attorney and the prosecutor battle it out. In Congress, we will watch – at least, I will watch – a political rather than a legal process in which two political parties battle it out to see if one party or the other falls apart into squabbling factions or holds together to convince continuing support from a significant portion of the public.
Impeachment is a remnant of a monarchy in which the monarch and/or his minions can be driven from office rather than into jail. The United States is a democratic monarchy and its highest official is a president who cannot be removed by a vote of non-confidence in parliament. The barrier to removal is far higher. It is a two-step process. The first step in the transformation of the House of Representatives into a grand jury and the passage of an impeachment resolution. But the actual removal from office depends on the Senate once a majority in the House votes in favour of impeachment, that is, in favour of the equivalent of an indictment
What are the standards? The offence must be a high crime or misdemeanor. It can be a misdeed, such as holding up monies allocated by Congress for military aid to an ally for months. The cost may be many Ukrainian lives. But is a misdeed and not a criminal offence. It is a failure to carry out the duties of your office as expected. It can also be a criminal offence, but not necessarily a felony. Asking the president of an allied regime to look into the possible criminality of one’s possible opponent in an election would not normally be considered a felony. It is the equivalent of making a left turn when the sign says, “No left turn.” It is the equivalent of taking your father’s cab without his permission.
The act is only the equivalent of a felony if the president holds up transferring the funds authorized by Congress, not for any legitimate purpose, but as a means of making the regime carry out an action for the administrator’s personal or political benefit. What about the president delaying granting a hearing until signs are shown that the leader of the other country will mount the investigation requested? The issue is not whether the investigation is just, but that the investigation itself will discolour the seeming probity of one’s political opponent.
That may be just dirty politics. But it may be behaviour unexpected of a president. Whether or not it is criminal, it is misconduct given the oath of office and the Constitution that the President has sworn to uphold. However, in the end, the trial will not be about truth, but about whether the public can be persuaded that the truth reveals a pattern of behaviour so offensive to political norms that the holder of the highest office in the land can be removed from that office. The arguments, as in a criminal trial, will be about persuasion. We may know a person is innocent, but will the prosecuting attorney be able to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt? You may know a person is guilty from the get-go, but the objective of formulating the indictment is to try to ensure that the trial in the Senate is as fair as possible.
But we know in advance that it will not be. We know in advance that numerous senators are committed to ignoring evidence presented. Their minds are made up. They will not be member of a jury who follow instructions to keep an open mind. The very premise of a judicial hearing is then fractured. And the only way to salvage a patina of respectability is if the Senate hearing is fair. But it will not be. The jury has been rigged. Can the Democrats convince the public sufficiently that a misdeed and possibly high crime has been committed – in that the President withheld monies allocated by Congress for the security of an ally and that such an action amounts to a high crime?
Will they succeed? I very much doubt it. For this all may simply be a prolegomenon for the coming election. Trials at this level usually fail. For in the end, the only way to try an elected monarch is through the ballot box. The impeachment proceedings are just the prologue to that main event.
With the help of Alex Zisman