The HBO movie series, The Night Of, presents the tragic story of the protagonist, Naz, whose life is condemned for destruction by an accidental meeting with a female passenger, Andrea. Naz had stolen his father’s cab for the night but had not planned on doing any business on transporting passengers. Instead, Naz wants to call the night off and head over to a party to enjoy himself. However, after rejecting several male clients, Naz finally agrees to allow Andrea to board the cab.
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The events that follow are both dramatic and disastrous for Naz because he has no recollections of what happened after taking various drugs and having sex with Andrea. The only realization the young man has is that when he comes to himself, he finds Andrea stabbed to death. Convinced that he did not commit the crime, Naz tries to run away from the scene of the crime but is shortly arrested and traced back to that place. Now, in the hands of the state, Naz awaits his trial, uncertain of whether it would end in his vindication as innocent or result in his being sentenced to a murder conviction, the most likely punishment for which is the death penalty.
The narrative of the movie series, The Night Of, follows in the footsteps of Michael Foucault’s theory of the right of death and power over life, which underscores the authority of the sovereign state, one of the characteristic features of which is “the right to decide life and death” (“Right of Death” 135). By analogy with this theory, Naz’s fate rests squarely in the hands of the sovereign state, which has the ultimate determination, through the court trial process, on whether Naz is guilty of committing a murder. Therefore, this analytical discussion argues that Michael Foucault’s theory of the right of death and power over life, as assessed through the analytical lens of the movie series The Night Of, is still at play in modern society.
There are several reasons why Michael Foucault’s theoretical concept of bio-power, as demonstrated in The Night Of, continues to be relevant at present. Firstly, the power of the state to control subjects’ fate of life and death is a historical concept that was predicated on the sovereign state having the authority to expose its subjects’ life to death when it was necessary to avert some imminent danger (Foucault, “Right of Death” 135).
Therefore, the state’s bio-power persists in modern society, whereby if the state perceives the conduct of a subject to be capable of posing an inevitable danger to the welfare of the sovereign state, it can endorse the elimination of the threat by sanctioning the death of the subject. Naz is held under police custody while undergoing investigations because he is believed to be a danger to the wellbeing of other people.
Since Naz is considered to have been the party who has committed a murder, he is perceived as a threat to the lives of others within society, thus giving the state a reason to sanction his trial under a system in which the punishment for murder is also death through a death penalty conviction. Therefore, although Naz started off as a free individual who could define his own course of life by deciding to conduct the cab business or attending a night party, his freedoms and powers are limited by the sovereign state’s right of a death, which now puts Naz’s life amenable to an untimely death.
Further, the power of the state over life and death is unchallengeable. Michael Foucault’s right of death and power over life theory declares that the sovereign state holds the right not only to control subjects’ life and death but also to subjugate the subjects’ bodies and regulate the population at will (“Right of Death” 146). For instance, at an individual level, Naz’s body, as manifested in The Night Of, has been subjugated by the sovereign state while under custody awaiting his trials so that it is vulnerable to all forms of manipulation and torture. In custody, Naz does not hold any freedom over his body because he cannot move it around as he pleases.
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Instead, he has to stay within the confines of his custody cell against his own will since the sovereign state has subjugated his body to its powers of control. Additionally, Naz’s body is also vulnerable to various kinds of harm from other prisoners held in the cells, making Naz’s body powerless and incapable of defending itself from imminent danger. Therefore, the power of the sovereign state to subjugate the individual subject’s body to its absolute control becomes unchallenged.
Moreover, this authority is not limited to suppressing just particular subjects but also extends to controlling the population in general. For example, in The Night Of, the sovereign state has imposed its control over the population by imprisoning all those citizens who are perceived to be a danger to societal welfare.
Finally, it is relevant to analyze Foucault’s views on prison and life as a political object and adjust these views to the events happening in The Night Of. Foucault remarks that the sovereign state takes life “at face value” and turns it back “against the system that was bent on controlling it” (“Right of Death” 145). In this light, Naz’s life is regarded as something that he does not own and, once the young man is accused of committing murder, it is something the state can decide what to do with. In one of his numerous works, Foucault scrutinizes various types of punishment and discusses that imprisonment is not necessarily less effective a penalty than capital punishment (“Questions of Method” 74).
Hence, it is necessary to contemplate the threat of Naz being deprived of life as the only possible resolution. Foucault notes that one of the outcomes of bio-power is the increased significance “assumed by the action of the norm” (“Right of Death” 144). The main reason why Naz’s jury may convict him and award the death penalty is that the law “cannot help but be armed,” and it employs death as its arm (Foucault “Right of Death” 144). At the same time, Foucault acknowledges that the power whose duty is to take charge of individuals’ lives requires “continuous regulatory and corrective mechanisms” (“Right of Death” 144).
As such, at first, Naz’s situation is too dramatic since it seems that no one bothers to analyze the situation (The Night Of). However, later detectives and lawyers realize that their obligation as the representatives of justice is no longer “bringing death into play in the field of sovereignty” (“Right of Death” 144). Thus, they start to appraise the situation from different angles instead of displaying the system of justice “in its murderous splendor” (“Right of Death” 144).
Still, Naz’s life is entirely in the hands of the justice system. In the case that they succeed in finding enough evidence of him having committed the crime, he will be punished severely. Rather than being an “obedient subject,” Naz will become the “enemy” of the sovereign state and will be prosecuted accordingly (“Right of Death” 144). Therefore, considering life as a political object is another factor exemplifying Foucault’s theory.
The movie series The Night Of depicts the actuality of Foucault’s theory of the right of death and power over life in modern society. Although Foucault outlined his approach several decades ago, it does not seem to have lost its relevance. The government still considers that it is the sole decision-maker when it comes to the matter of an individual’s life or death. Although the movie’s main character, Naz, does not remember what has happened, he is still convinced that he has not committed a murder.
However, the power of the sovereign state is mightier than a citizen’s individual power. Thus, Foucault’s theoretical concept of bio-power continues to prevail in the modern system of justice. The first reason for the relevance of Foucault’s view is that the state’s authority to control the fate of a subject’s life and death has historical roots. In the past, the decision to deprive someone of life was governed by the need to protect other people and prevent probable danger. Thus, bio-power remains a determinant of the state’s decisions: in cases where the authorities decide that a person is too dangerous to be kept alive, they sentence him or her to death.
The second argument is concerned with the fact that the state’s power is impossible to challenge. According to Foucault, the government has gained total control, not only over individuals’ lives but also over their bodies and the right to reproduce. Being kept in custody, Naz, as well as many other suspects, has limited freedom of movement and restricted opportunities to communicate with others.
Lastly, Naz’s situation may be considered from the point of viewing life as a political object. Taking life at face value enables the state to control it rather than give the individual the right to do so. Therefore, the analysis of the movie series The Night Of through the prism of Foucault’s theory of the right of death and power over life leads to the conclusion that the scholar’s views are still relevant in modern society today.
Foucault, Michel. “Right of Death and Power over Life.” The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1, edited by Michel Foucault, Pantheon Books, 1978, pp. 135-159.
—. “Questions of Method.” The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality: With Two Lectures by and an Interview with Michel Foucault, edited by Graham Burchell et al., The University of Chicago Press, 1991, pp. 73-86.
The Night Of. Directed by Steven Zaillian, performances by John Turturro, Riz Ahmed, and Bill Camp, HBO, 2016.