It’s mysterious when an author arrives at their own book reading, which is true crime because that’s a trendy genre for new and returning readers, with their hood up and almost fully accomplishing a perfect Lisbeth Salander cosplay (albeit with bright pink hair). Citing statistics about murder, reading details of a horrific crime scene and giving a personal account of hacking a CIA database after dropping her hood is how Darby Hart is attempting to entrance the audience of a small book shop. After a quick Q&A, she goes home to the computer that keeps most of her attention as an amateur sleuth, later receiving a message inviting her to an exclusive outing at a reclusive billionaire’s isolated home in a remote location surrounded by several feet of snow. This is the beginning of FX’s new limited series, A Murder at the End of the World, the newest project from creative partners Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij that premieres on November 14th. What follows is an incisively emotional mystery that traces human curiosity, a series that sometimes lacks urgency in narrative progression but absolves the issue with keen understandings of self-proclaimed intellectuals who find themselves under extreme duress.
Audiences are perhaps familiar with Marling and Batmanglij’s work together, which includes the popular Netflix series The OA, a show that found a lasting fandom that pleaded for a renewal of the series after its cancellation. The creative pair move to a different streamer for Murder, which will air exclusively on Hulu, to provide audiences with an alternate version of the human capacity for understanding in a modern technology-fueled world. Darby Hart (The Crown Emmy nominee Emma Corrin) is a Gen Z amateur sleuth who finds the language of the internet easier than that of human communication. Curiosity with a natural resourcefulness allows her to find information she’s seeking rather quickly, a trait that surely informed her decision to write a book about a previous case she found herself involved in. When she arrives at Andy Ronsen’s (Academy Award nominee Clive Owen, Closer) isolated fortress, surrounded on all sides by nothing but snow, she lacks expectations of the possibilities as her invitation lacked information on what the purpose of this excursion is. It doesn’t take long before she meets the other guests, including venture capitalist David (Tony nominee Raúl Esparza, Candy), trained astronaut Sian (Alice Braga, The Suicide Squad), child of immigrants Arthur (Ryan J. Haddad, The Politician), Darby’s friend Bill (Harris Dickinson, Triangle of Sadness), and the host’s wife, Lee (Brit Marling), among others. After a thought-provoking dinner that leads into the close of the first night, one of the guests is found dead.
Darby’s natural response to the shocking death of someone on this trip is to investigate. She’s unable to control her impulse to leap into an exploration of the who, when, and why of the suspected murder. Emma Corrin disappears into Darby, their natural English accent neatly tucked away in a bid to solidify themself as a talent able to jump into any genre. The series allows the audience flashes of the past, revealing sketches of a defining relationship in Darby’s that surfaces on the trip. Naturally inquisitive, Darby refuses to accept minimal information regarding the ongoing investigation and pushes deeper as each episode progresses. Within the five episodes provided to critics for review (out of seven), she consistently proves her sleuthing skills as she uncovers more. It’s refreshing to see a character that could have been made introverted actually succeed in social interaction and is able to provide herself social currency through this ordeal, a direct opposition to the stereotypical reclusive and timid nature of past examples of detectives. The series boasts a strong supporting cast that complement Corrin’s performance perfectly, particularly the work of Harris Dickinson. Playing Bill, someone significant in Darby’s past, allows Dickinson a soft role with big emotional payoffs throughout the series. There’s a natural compassion from the actor that trickles right into his character, elevating the already-stunning writing of Bill, a man who genuinely seeks light amidst the darkness of the world.
As glimpses into Darcy and Bill’s past sew their narrative together, the present unravels around them, the series a marvel when the two are around one another. Darby is complicated where Bill is simple, excited when he’s calm, varying while he remains constant. Even when the episode lengths begin to outlive actual plot, having a scene between these two is welcome. Darby’s exchanges with the other members of the retreat aren’t as notable emotionally, but woven into her story as the mystery – and her paranoia – takes hold of her thoughts. Her relationship with Sian is a joy to watch because it’s light and understanding, with Alice Braga creating a sensitive atmosphere with her portrayal of Sian. Braga has a knack for appearing and instantly making projects better and A Murder is no exception. A camaraderie develops quickly after the titular murder happens, the remaining members of the isolated think-tank attaching themselves to each other and any information they can obtain. As the group grows more weary of Andy Ronsen, they become closer to one another. It excels at these relationships, intricate in the minutiae of watching friendships develop: a bonfire when the power goes out becomes genuine and sweet as the characters find humor around them. It’s a testament to Marling and Batmanglij that moments like these don’t feel out of place and, actually, further the plot and understanding of the characters facing a death amongst them.
Beauty and horror harmonize in both director of photography Charlotte Bruus Christensen’s lens and the ethereal score composed by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurrians. With flashes of Darby’s life before this retreat spliced into the story, the juxtaposition of the warmth of her past and the frigid present remains stark through each episode as the lighting reflects tone shifts. The music is the highlight of this series, a beautiful score that bountifully accompanies scenes, with some of the swells proposing a curiosity from the audience. Perhaps the alluring score is meant to create false senses of security for audience members while the series sneakily ambushes them with episodic runtimes that detract from the quality of the series. There is an episode where characters spend too long on a snowmobile, accompanied with long-held wide shots of the snowmobile puttering on. It feels long-winded and can be exhausting against the backdrop of a 60-minute episode, almost comedic in how long is spent on the snowmobile, just one example of a slight issue that appears more than once in the series. A reduction of even just a few minutes per episode could elevate them by trimming them down slightly. It’s also slightly confusing watching Darby’s hair throughout the series, as she begins the pilot with a dull baby pink infused into her hair but appears to have varying degrees of pink in her hair in the following episodes. It doesn’t make sense that they’d have the exact hair dye she would want at the End of the World, but Andy Ronsen seems to have thought of everything else, so maybe.
Surrounded by snow and isolated from the world, Darby finds novelty in losing the ability to research information her usual way without internet access, forced to retrieve information through interpersonal communication and social interaction. Her relationships with the other characters after the murder takes place are able to generate enough interest to push past superfluous details and create unlikely friendships that bolster the emotional acuity of the show. A Murder at the End of the World is beautifully violent, both physically and emotionally, Darby and the others subjected to a crime scene and introspective thought. Emma Corrin shows their strength as a performer by immediately diversifying their portfolio after The Crown, while the supporting cast around them each bring unique specificity to their roles and complement Corrin’s performance by mirroring the actor’s enthusiasm. A remote location surrounded by nothing might not seem the ideal place to find retrospective thought and emotional maturation useful, but the human capacity to understand can lead to anomalous discoveries.
The FX limited series A Murder at the End of the World premieres November 14 exclusively on Hulu with two episodes and new episodes weekly.
Photo: Christopher Saunders/FX