This review contains mild spoilers for A Murder at the End of the World.
A Murder at the End of the World is a crime drama with a conscience.
When I reviewed the show Clarice, I wrote there was no such thing as a progressive police procedural. That show’s attempts to critique the FBI fell flat when it was still the FBI who saved the day. Like most crime media, Clarice often gave law enforcement special skills they rarely — if ever — have in life, and I suggested there was no reason why those same imaginary skills couldn’t instead be given to journalists, hackers, or literally anyone.
Well, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij have done just that. Their seven-episode mystery series, A Murder at the End of the World, is a crime drama set in the world of tech. And its gumshoe isn’t law enforcement — she’s a queer hacker.
The hacker in question is Darby Hart, played with a quiet emotion by Emma Corrin. When we first meet Darby, she’s giving a reading from her first book, a true crime tale of catching a serial killer alongside her fellow hacker ex-boyfriend, Bill (Harris Dickinson). She mentions hacker Lee Anderson (Marling) is her hero, and soon enough Lee and Lee’s tech billionaire husband, Andy Ronson (Clive Owen) — who is kind of like if Elon Musk was hot and actually smart but still really sucked — are inviting her to an exclusive Icelandic retreat.
The first twist, that I will spoil here, is Bill, now a guerilla artist named Fangs, also happens to be at the retreat. The second twist, that I will not spoil in detail, is at the end of the first night Darby discovers another guest has been killed and she takes it upon herself to solve the crime.
A Murder at the End of the World alternates between the timeline of Darby and Bill secluded at this snowy retreat in the present and Darby and Bill solving the serial killer case as teenagers in the past. Harris Dickinson as Bill is the standout of an impressive ensemble cast. Especially in the past timeline, his conflicted emotions about Darby and their mission deepen the show episode-by-episode. Without his performance, the past might have felt like a distraction from our central mystery — instead it provides some of the show’s best moments. Corrin is playing a character who has closed off her emotions as a defense mechanism and Dickinson becomes their heart.
During its first episodes, I began to question my previous desire to see other people gain the skills historically granted to law enforcement. After all, changing the protagonist only resolves some of my problems with the crime genre. When Darby is going full Sherlock Holmes/Columbo/Clarice Starling, I continued to roll my eyes at the suggestion that anyone — cop or hacker — can solve a crime through forensic junk science and super intelligence. Even carried out by Darby, this narrative still reinforces our harmful justice system and leads to overly simplistic — albeit entertaining — storytelling.
But the show’s greatest strength is how it ties this critique into its own existence. A Murder at the End of the World is a fitting title for the show because of the distant Icelandic setting and because our world is, in fact, ending due to climate disaster. Within both timelines, the show wisely attributes the greatest harm to those who enact the most harm in our real world. Critiques are aimed at law enforcement, domestic abusers, billionaires, and, yes, even amateur detectives and true crime writers like Darby.
It’s fun to watch the gears of Darby’s brain turn as she finds clues. This has been fun to watch for centuries and it’s not going to go away just because of something as unimportant to the average viewer as “reality.” But Marling and Batmanglij question the impact of even the greatest sleuth if their interests lie with serial killers rather than the victims of serial killers, with the murderers of individuals rather than the murderers of Earth.
From early in the series, it becomes clear that it doesn’t matter if Andy or one of the other tech billionaires turns out to be the show’s murderer. They’ve already killed more people as part of their quest for money, power, and personal safety. The greatest violence carried out in our world isn’t part of a whodunnit. We know who did it. They’re just powerful enough and kill enough people that it’s almost impossible to stop them.
A Murder at the End of the World is at its best when it’s allowing these points to be made through its narrative. It falters when it tries too hard to underline its politics with blunt speeches. But this desire for audience clarity feels born from the creators’ desperation. It’s a desperation I understand and that resonates throughout the series. Darby’s journey isn’t just to solve these two crimes but to reckon with the grief of her childhood that weighs on her and the grief of our world that weighs on us all. This is a show that is itself weighed down with grief.
It’s easy to compare the show’s plot to Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery and its portrait of Hot Elon Musk to The Morning Show’s last season. But there’s something freeing about stripping away the satire and the soap. Of course, even this more serious take is still operating within the confines of genre. There are cliffhangers and twists and intense sequences of suspense. And yet, none of that distracts from the grief.
A Murder at the End of the World plows a path forward for the crime genre. It’s not enough to change the protagonist. There also must be a reckoning with our very idea of crime. Brit Marling and Zal Batmangli have taken on that reckoning and, in doing so, given me hope for the future of a genre I’ve long detested.
There are killers among us. They’re on our TVs. They’re running our governments. They’re in charge of the companies that control our lives. Will we change our narratives? Will we stop them?
The first two episodes of A Murder at the End of the World are now streaming on Hulu.