[Editor’s Note: Spoilers ahead for “The Night Of” season finale.]
A collective shriek of joy could be heard around the United States Sunday night, as our eight-week-long wait for the answer to one question was finally given: Yes, John Stone saved the cat.
Though there has been some debate over the metaphorical significance of the orange and white shorthair, it became clear early on in “The Night Of’s” season (series?) finale who, exactly, the furry feline represented: Naz (Riz Ahmed) — the former college kid on trial for murder who John Stone, “Attorney at Law,” was trying oh so desperately to save.
And he did! A mandatory staple of the legal drama, this case meant more to Stone than any of his others’, in part because — as said in a heartfelt closing argument — Stone believed Naz to be innocent. So, the second he thought his client had lost (after a misguided appearance on the stand, championed by the compromised Chandra), Stone returned the cat to the shelter where it would live, imprisoned, until the day it died. He had given up, not only on Naz and the cat, but on justice, hope and salvation.
Then, by an inexplicable miracle justified only by Stone’s last-ditch speech, the verdict was split; a 50/50 deadlock between guilty and not guilty. The hung jury resulted in a mistrial. Naz wasn’t retried because the prosecutor believed Box’s theory on another killer, and — per a literal last second reveal — Stone saved the cat!
It’s as happy an ending as fans could have hoped for, especially after a dark, intimidating season meant to stimulate conversation about how our justice system functions outside of the end result. In fact, the limited series’ improbably hopeful capper combined with its popularity should lead more than a few writers to compare the 2016 HBO hit with the network’s last breakout miniseries. (Only this time, here’s hoping they won’t screw up Season 2.) But where the “True Detective” finale found fitting meaning in the light, “The Night Of” will only make hangers-on happy for, well, the night of.
While the topics Steven Zaillian introduced remain clear upon reflection — mainly, that our legal system favors expediency over truth to the detriment of those on trial — such an ending lessens the series’ lasting impact. Think of it this way: How many happy endings did “The Night Of” actually have? Naz was set free. John Stone earned the pride of his peers. The real killer was caught (or, at least, taken care of). The cat was saved. In theory, the light in these endings would be balanced out by the darkness within Naz’s wretched future, but viewers would be hard-pressed to dwell on such things when we’re left with the image of a healthy cat roaming free.
It’s too easy for viewers to say, “Well, the system is rough, but it worked.” Naz looked as guilty as the prosecutor and Box believed him to be (until proven otherwise). So what will we say when we run out of praise for the performances and production (all of which deserve infinite admiration)? Will anyone be asking, “Well, what if Naz had been found guilty?” Should viewers be questioning the validity of a verdict only reached in approximately 6 percent of all trials, even if it fit the series’ figurative point?
Challenging the process rather than focusing on the end result is as ballsy an ambition as a worthy one. Yet by letting Naz go free, “The Night Of” loses much of its bite — yes, even if our last image of him conveyed the profound, isolating change he’s gone through. Zaillian’s more nuanced discussion needs passion to drive it, and the visceral, desirable satisfaction provided in the finale deadens the indignation we once felt for these characters.
But hey — at least they saved the cat.