While there are many great shows out there, only a few of them have a perfect beginning—the kind that draws you in immediately and leaves you wanting more. In 25YL’s Perfect Pilots series, we will be looking at pilot episodes we think are flawless. This week, Bryan O’Donnell takes a look at the pilot episode of HBO’s The Night Of. Got a pilot you think should make the list? Let us know!
People take dumb chances all the time, often with no consequences. Driving drunk but making it home safely. Putting off replacing an outdated smoke detector in your house but with no fires occurring. But sometimes these chances can come back to bite us, even if it’s the first and only time of tempting fate. This is the general basis for HBO’s The Night Of, which aired in 2016. While I thought the eight-episode season fizzled a bit toward the end, The Night Of pilot episode was packed with tension and mystery.
At the center of the show is Nasir “Naz” Khan (Riz Ahmed), a Pakistani-American college student living in Queens. In the opening episode, Naz is invited to a party (at which there are promised to be “mad females”) by a basketball player Naz is tutoring in math.
When Naz’s ride to the party falls through, he takes his first chance of the evening: he decides to drive his father’s cab into Manhattan. The moment Naz grabs the cab keys, it brings about this sense of dread and certainty that something completely awful is about to happen to him.
Lost downtown, Naz pulls over to try and figure out how to turn on the cab’s off-duty light as people keep trying to flag him down for a ride. While pulled over, a mysterious woman named Andrea (Naz actually never learns her name) gets in despite Naz telling her he can’t drive her. “Are you gonna make me get out?” she asks him. Naz has put the party out of his mind; this woman now has his full attention. She seems sad and thoughtful, and Naz is intrigued by her.
She tells him she wants to go to “the beach,” and the only thing Naz can think of is to take her to a riverbank uptown. With a full moon shining above them, Naz and Andrea sit along the riverbank and have a conversation that sets up what is about to happen on this fateful night.
Naz tells Andrea, “A lot of time you just do what you gotta do, or you do what everybody wants you to do.” He has decided to not play by those rules tonight. Maybe on a normal night, Naz would have listened to his parents and just stayed home once his ride to the party bailed. But not this night. This night, he tells Andrea, “was different. Feels different.” He’s going to roll the dice and do some questionable things in the name of having some fun for once.
Then in a moment of flashing foreshadowing, she asks Naz, “Do you ever wish you could just transport yourself? Something bad happens here, and suddenly you’re over there?” I’m sure this is something Naz thinks about a lot throughout the remainder of this episode, and throughout the entire series.
Next, Naz makes his second very bad choice of the night. He takes a pill from a woman he just met an hour or so ago. He doesn’t even know her name. Based on what we have observed so far in this episode, I think it could be assumed this is the first time in his life that Naz has done drugs.
At this moment, we know that Naz is almost assuredly screwed.
They drive to Andrea’s apartment, and Naz struggles to gulp down the shots of tequila she gives him. The apartment bleeds with an ominous feeling. It’s dark, there’s a deer head mounted on a wall (which is shown multiple times in the episode), and it’s unclear why this woman has decided to trust a complete stranger for reasons other than not wanting to be alone.
Tension builds as Andrea stabs her coffee table with a knife, narrowly missing one of her fingers. She invites Naz to do the same, and he reluctantly agrees. “Am I really here?” Naz asks.
They do some coke and things start to get out of control. Andrea asks Naz to stab the table near her hand. Once again, Naz gives in and brings the knife down. But it doesn’t connect with the table; it stabs through her hand. Rather than freak out, the two take things to the bedroom, Andrea’s hand bleeding. They have sex, and the screen goes dark.
From this point on, The Night Of pilot episode transitions from a dream-like feeling to a straight-up nightmare for Naz.
He wakes at the kitchen table, confused, and heads back upstairs to get dressed. He tells Andrea that he needs to go home. As he turns on the light, Naz sees that she’s covered in stab wounds and drenched with blood. Naz panics and races out of the apartment, but when he reaches his father’s cab, he realizes he left his keys inside. He returns to the apartment door, which has locked behind him, and is forced to break a window to re-enter—attracting the attention of a neighbor across the street. Back inside, Naz quickly grabs his coat and keys, and then for reasons perhaps not fully thought through, he takes the knife that they used to stab the table.
This reaction represents a number of more bad decisions. Naz doesn’t call 911 to help Andrea. He takes the knife. While clearly flustered and surprised, he is also acting guilty.
After leaving the apartment, Naz’s plan is apparently to simply get home and hope that this whole disaster of a night would magically be put behind him. At least that’s what I’m guessing his plan was. Of course, things continue to go wrong.
Naz gets pulled over for making an illegal left turn, and this kicks off a series of instances in which he is so close to being let go and allowed to return home. One of the officers who pulls him over is suspicious of him while the other thinks they should just let him off with a warning because it’s late. But they receive a call to check on a crime scene, and instead of being let go, Naz is handcuffed and placed in the back of the cop car.
The crime scene happens to be the murder that Naz had just fled. It’s an interesting use of dramatic irony. Not only do we, the audience, know what happened in the apartment, but Naz is trapped in the back of a cop car, forced to watch the police entering the building, fully knowing what they’ll find. And nobody has connected him (yet) to this brutal murder.
To the police, Naz is merely an afterthought at this point. He is transferred to another car to take him to the station, with the officer thinking Naz was a witness. He isn’t even tipped off to any suspicion when Naz foolishly asks, “Is she dead?”
Once at the station, Naz sits solemnly, not handcuffed, awaiting someone to tell him what kind of trouble he is in. There are several moments in which it seems Naz is going to just walk out of the station. Nobody is really paying attention to him. He probably could have gotten away, but he never goes through with it. You just want to scream at him: “Just LEAVE!” But he chooses not to.
With hours passing from the time Naz was picked up, a breathalyzer at this point would be meaningless, so the officers prepare to process his release. They pat him down, and Naz’s fate is sealed as they find the knife in his coat—the exact murder weapon that Detective Box has pinned down for the murder. Naz definitely will not be released now, and this moment leads to his eventual arrest and time spent in prison throughout the remainder of the series. The Night Of pilot episode is the ultimate set-up episode.
What Makes This Episode So Great
You would think one reason for such a successful episode would be in part because of the show’s stars. But The Night Of‘s biggest name actor, John Turturro (who plays attorney John Stone), barely makes an appearance in the show’s first episode. I enjoyed his performance throughout the series—although I probably could have done without the whole bizarre foot condition storyline—but it’s interesting that he plays such a small part in the pilot. (Also as a side note, James Gandolfini was originally going to play this role before his death. I wonder how different The Night Of would have been starring Gandolfini.)
What The Night Of pilot episode does so well is build tension, creating this sense of dread that I haven’t experienced in many other shows. Each missed opportunity for Naz’s escape gives a small light of hope that maybe he would make it out OK. The police keep missing the blood on his hand, and Naz’s anxiety seeps right into me as a viewer.
Being arrested for something you didn’t do (or in this case being pretty sure you didn’t do) feels like a nightmare. I unfortunately actually have some experience in this as I was once arrested and thrown into Cook County jail in Chicago for what I was told was a “railroad violation.” To this day I still have no idea what the violation was for, and I will say that the experience of being arrested for something I never did was one of the worst experiences of my life. For this reason, I can definitely sympathize with what Naz goes through. Except for the murder part.
However, is Naz actually innocent of the crime? Another effective aspect of The Night Of pilot is how it creates uncertainty regarding Naz’s culpability. I think, on the surface, we want to root for Naz and believe he was set up somehow, perhaps being targeted because of his race or some other reason. The pilot episode introduces a couple of mysterious and suspicious characters, such as the hearse driver at the gas station and two men who bump into Naz and Andrea before they enter her apartment. One of those men is Trevor (J.D. Williams), who returns to the crime scene as it’s being investigated—something killers have been known to do, as I have learned from Mindhunter.
And then there’s the most questionable factor for me: if Naz brutally killed Andrea, why wasn’t he covered in blood? Aside from a little blood on his hand, he appears relatively clean.
But Naz sure doesn’t help his cause by acting extremely guilty at the scene of the crime. Understandably, in the heat of the moment, he likely felt that if he called the police from the murder scene, who would believe him? And he was probably still feeling the after-effects of the drugs, which probably clouded his vision.
But the fact that Naz has a black hole in his memory from when he slept with Andrea to when he woke up in the kitchen…it’s suspicious. As John Stone says to him, judges and juries don’t like it when you say “I can’t remember.” Naz seems like a nice person who would never hurt someone else, but we as the audience don’t know anything about his past or who he truly is.
This mystery created in the pilot sucked me in in a big way when I first watched The Night Of. Unfortunately, I don’t think the show was able to keep the momentum it built in the first episode. As the show is titled “The Night Of,” everything revolves around the events that take place on the night depicted in the first episode—and if Naz had simply made a few different decisions along the way, like go to the party instead of picking up Andrea. The rest of the series is simply the fallout from that crazy night.
Even though the series in its entirety may not be one of my favorites, I think The Night Of pilot is absolutely worth your time.