The Night Of: The Art of War Review

Naz learns the Art of War and is ready for Freddy.

The Night Of episode 4 “The Art of War” opens in the aftermath of the burnt cot that Naz (Riz Ahmed) had just almost gotten used to calling home. His little piece of the cellblock is a charred mess. The mattress can be replaced, but the new inmate’s sense of security will never recover. He’s been abandoned by his cell-block corner roomie and is on his own. Easy pickings.

Naz’s mother, played by Poorna Jagannathan, is in a lethargic funk. Huddled inside the “Murder suspect’s home” in Queens, as the NY1, report says, the Khan family are hostages of the dark side of fame. Already labeled “Muslim” in a non-committal, but still damning way, they are under as much scrutiny as their son, who still doesn’t look or act like a murderer. The media attention arouses parental concern and the school Naz’s honor roll brother goes to takes a hard line.

Naz comes across like a soft touch, but his new caretaker promises he can make a proper convict of him yet. He objects to the young collegiate not standing his ground and giving up his cash to anyone a shade taller. The young college motherfucker gets a surrogate teacher Calvin Hart (Ashley Thomas) who instructs the possibly wrongly accused man don’t look at anybody, but don’t look away, and never look anyone in the eye. Convicts are just looking for respect, something in short supply at Rikers.

The ancient book of battle The Art Of War and Sidney Sheldon’s racy page turner The Other Side Of Midnight are the two most popular books in prison, for obvious reasons. But if you really want to learn about human existence, there is no more informative book than Jack London’s St. Bernard and husky dog story, Call of the Wild. The dogs know it’s all about alliances. Freddy is still courting Naz. He gets him a green non-violent-felon jump-suit for his court date. Prouder of his high school diploma than even his kids, Freddy just wants some intelligent conversation or a big man to spar with, but still has to hear the words.

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It’s very sad to see how the principled convict holds on to a picture of his dead niece, who we learn was named Charlene, something he can’t even bring himself to say, to remind him of her. She never made it old enough to even have a high school photo. That is just stone cold sad.

Don Taylor (Paul Starks) seems to be missing the sadness gene. The creepy stepfather is looking very suspicious. He is being bawled out right after the funeral by someone asking what he’s doing there. Why would this be called into question? There has to be some kind of hidden hurt in that family even if he’s not killer. But there he is stabbing his finger at one of the girl’s friends and calling him a prick, in a graveyard.

“250 bucks, no personal checks and don’t talk to anybody,” offers lawyer John Stone (John Turturro). Stone’s latest violent felon went instinctual on some dude’s ass. He didn’t even know he stabbed the barber until the police pulled the scissors out of his hand. This isn’t quite the same defense that Naz is offering up, and you can see that register in Stone’s eyes. The musky mouthpiece gave up a Paul Newman-in-The Verdict-caliber redemption case for a bunch of kids who don’t even know if they’re even who they are half the time.

Stone is an ambulance chaser, but he’s not a shyster, He actually turns out to be not too bad a detective as he investigates the dead girl’s background and foreground. Stone is very ingenious. He finds a street address by tracing a photo that murder victim Andrea Cornish took of herself back to the street address where it was shot. A rehab facility called Invictus House, which is below 14th.

We get a mini-The Sopranos reunion with John Torturro’s cousin Aida Torturro, playing Lynn, protecting the recovering addicts from prying private eyes, and former Benny Max Casella slipping Stone insider documents. HBO always seems to find room for Casella, who was also on Boardwalk Empire and Vinyl and very often give him the best lines because his delivery is so natural.

The high point of the episode, as far as humor, was the character’s cool appraisal of Stone as a potential reporter: “Print maybe, on camera? No.” The line itself may not be that great, but the face Casella makes after he delivers it is its own punch line. I also liked how the hooker who paid Stone’s billable hours in bed got so freaked after she saw the ointments and creams in his bedroom.

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Investigator Dennis Box (Bill Camp) tries to paint the man with the syrupy feet as some kind of ghoul. He fits the part so easily sitting apart at the funeral or behind the crowd at the press conference. A vulture, that he is, but not a shyster. You can’t really blame Stone for adding a fifteen percent surcharge on the files from the rehab place. He’s got overhead. He gives cops a 10% finder’s fee for every collar they forward him. Box wants the case to go to trial. Maybe because he has doubts about the kid’s guilt, maybe because he thinks the case is a slam dunk.

Stone may be a cut-rate ambulance chaser, but at least he’s not a bait and switch con artist like the high-price attorney Alison Crow (Glenne Headly). She stole Stone’s clients by denigrating the practice of cutting a deal and then she does the exact same thing. And she doesn’t do it with any kind of personal attachment. Once again, it looks like Chandra (Amara Karan) may change sides. The young legal mind who spoke almost the right language is in the midst of a major education. She sees the world Stone deals in and still has to admit, with her eyes anyway, some grudging respect. It must be clear to her that the firm she works for has no interest in justice.

The prosecution offers the accused a gift from the gods, manslaughter 15, which means fifteen years in jail on a manslaughter, rather than a homicide, conviction. Naz can’t appeal this, but must admit his guilt, to prove he’s not just saying he’s a killer to be nice, save the state a small fortune and let everyone go home. All Naz has to do is say the words.

Chandra is the turning point. She tells Naz that if he killed the girl to take the deal. But that, if he didn’t, not to take the deal. The lawyer takes it as a personal affront that Naz can’t bring himself to lie to the court and give the details of the murder. Quite frankly, she feels like killing the young, polite Muslim collegiate herself. Stone, meanwhile, cares so much about small things he calls about the abandoned cat, whose time is still ticking.

Sure the big man on the cellblock seems like he’s looking out for you. But getting in his debt is worse than that innocent grin Calvn flashes after the kid does the right thing by keeping his mouth shut. The next thing you know Freddy got your ass by the throat. The episode opens and closes with burnings as Naz’s guardian angel drops some homemade napalm on him for not admitting to the crime he doesn’t remember committing. You don’t get clean at Riker’s.

“The Art of War” was written by Richard Price and directed by Steven Zaillian.  

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4.5 out of 5