‘A Murder at the End of the World’ Review
Lethal binaries and tech on ice.
BRIT MARLING AND ZAL BATMANGLIJ bring to film and television an audacious creativity thought left for dead in concept albums and a high idealism long-buried in back issues of Adbusters. Their stories tell of alternate dimensions, duplicate earths, and time-traveling gurus. Their heroes are investigative freelancers, dumpster-diving activists, and gifted loners in need of redemption. Their sweeping vision acclimates to multiple genres without violating their strictures. It requires prestige-level resources and tends to get them. It assumes an audience of equal intelligence and, as a result, commands a small but intense following, to such an extent that the cancellation of their Netflix series The OA was taken like a personal loss.
A Murder at the End of the World, the duo’s long-awaited, writers’ strike–delayed miniseries has all the ambitious echoes of its predecessors. Its scope is global, its ideas are momentous, its narrative palate is eclectic, its production quality is immaculate, and its heart doesn’t so much bleed as it hemorrhages. Yet at the same time it is the most restrained of their efforts, offering a series that fits more comfortably beside other prestige dramas and deals more concretely with issues within the range of concerns and interests of ordinary people, as if to consciously invite them into the story’s world. It is an irony as the series is centered on a desire to leave the world behind.
Much of A Murder’s action takes place in Iceland, where tech mogul Andy Ronson (Clive Owen) and his wife, legendary hacker Lee Anderson (Marling), have invited nine “original thinkers” to a retreat in their new hotel out in the distant tundra: a high-tech facility, comfortable but spartan, looking something like a spaceship from the outside, disorientingly designed with concentric circles, and extending many stories under the ground. Iceland’s vertiginous, volcanic terrain retains its own otherworldly aura which Marling and Batmanglij never fail to make use of, whether pursuing characters along canyon walls or trying to outrun a blizzard through a seemingly endless white expanse.
Armed with dire projections of irreversible global catastrophe and Margaret Atwood quotations to show he wants to put his obscene wealth to good use, Ronson is committed to defining “technology’s role in assuring a human future.” The vanguard he called to help him include an astronaut, a climatologist, a venture capitalist, a Chinese “smart city” planner, an Iranian dissident, a roboticist, a filmmaker, a Luddite guerrilla artist, and the protagonist Darby Hart (Emma Corrin)—a hacker, amateur sleuth, and true-crime writer. Also around are Ronson and Anderson’s young son, a handful of hotel employees, functionaries of the sort that a billionaire like Ronson would be expected to have underfoot, and an AI-powered virtual assistant named “Ray.”
Very little of Ronson’s agenda for the retreat is accomplished. Almost as soon as they arrive, Bill Farrah (Harris Dickinson), the guerrilla artist—who happens to be Darby’s ex-boyfriend—dies under suspicious circumstances, and the show seemingly transitions from cerebral science fiction to the convoluted claustrophobia of a murder mystery.
A Murder’s narrative jumps around in time, location, and genre, but its tone is consistent from start to finish. That it is not the lightly comic, high-energy pace of Glass Onion or The White Lotus, but rather earnest and ominous to the point of severity, should lower the expectations of mystery fans. It commits to the framing in a perfunctory way, just barely avoiding afterthought, so as to support its true passions, hovering precariously above it like spinning plates.
Our locus is Darby, whose hacking savvy, childhood spent shadowing her forensic pathologist father, and inborn thirst for justice have made her the “Gen Z Sherlock Holmes.” Cursed, as “Ray” articulates, with the burden of “being the smartest person in most rooms,” Darby lives mostly online. She finds purpose in trying to do right by America’s renewable supply of Jane Does. Throughout the main narrative, we see flashbacks showing how she met Bill years ago and went with him on a quest into the American West in search of a serial killer. These idyllic interludes add road epic to speculative fiction and whodunit. When put together, they make for reverse-engineered Natural Born Killers, where Cowboy Junkies are replaced by Annie Lennox.
Depending on a viewer’s priorities these are tedious interruptions or worthy of their own independent story. Taken together, however, they are necessarily reflective illustrations of the themes guiding this appropriately binary work. The visual shift between desert motel and Arctic compound also denotes respective thematic shifts between contingency and security, hope and fatalism, technology as tool and technology as companion, and how each environment exposes their deceptions.
A Murder’s primary concern is technology and can elaborate on it with confidence. In the second episode, for instance, Darby needs to see the door-camera footage for Bill’s room the night of his death. It is stored on a separate wireless network, so to gain access Darby unscrews an LED light and takes it apart. Elsewhere she goes into uncomfortable detail about how a pacemaker can be hacked. Where at first the hyperconnectivity and conveniences of Ronson’s compound dazzle and comfort his guests, Marling and Batmanglij are effective in chipping that comfort away piece by piece until it falls completely apart.
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An essential character, if it can be called that, is Ronson’s AI program. “Ray” exudes empathy and reliability presumably better than any one person can. (The actor who performs “Ray,” Edoardo Ballerini, perfected his uncannily neutral voice in his career as a prominent audiobook narrator.) “Ray” provides encyclopedic information, can talk you through hypothermia, gives you therapy, and provides education. Over time it becomes clear that “Ray” has limits, not least because its creator is living a life of professional and existential paranoia. “Ray” is a clever creation, technically and narratively, but also a weakness if you, like me, are already wary of AI and of the impulse to take technology for granted.
That tech skeptics of the world have Bill as their intermediary is another problem. If the femme fatale archetype has too many doll-like qualities for the liking of some, Bill’s homme fatal is something of an overcorrection. Not merely a cipher, he is an ideal, a kind of Rousseauean Übermensch wrought fully formed out of the pages of Emile. He overflows with compassion, is indignant over modernity and inequality, defers his own needs to that of the greater good, and has a genius for perspective-giving. When Darby exhibits all the side effects of internet-sleuthing—research addiction, tunnel vision, morbid curiosity—he’s there to talk her back from the ledge, if only momentarily. Yet the fate of such a person in the world as envisioned by Ronson and his ilk is a very limited one.
Criticisms of heavy-handedness and an overall allergy to subtext have haunted Marling and Batmanglij. A Murder does little to assuage them. In almost reverse proportion to its technological verve, the series speaks of broader issues like capitalism, climate change, and gender relations in dating-app platitudes. Aside from repeating the late wisdom that the youngest person in the room has the most valid opinion, I’m not sure what makes Darby a “Gen Z” anything; the show’s voice is too close to its creators’ well-established Xennial culture-jamming optimism. And even that rises a little too close to parody. I can see why they wanted to appropriate Dash Snow’s single classic Polaroid for Bill’s Bansky-style agitprop, but it is done at the expense of the original’s haunting simplicity.
Finding any finesse within the show certainly makes you feel like an amateur detective—but it is there. It’s there when Marling and Batmanglij leave the tenderer moments between Bill and Darby to the individual abilities and combined chemistry of Dickinson and Corrin, who depict the coming together and breaking apart of two people alone in world that’s collapsing and its population going slowly, then quickly, mad. And, to Marling and Batmanglij’s credit, it’s there in the refinement upon an increasingly urgent topic. There has been no shortage of scenarios where technology gets the upper hand on a technology-dependent humanity, from “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” through to The Terminator to Black Mirror and even 2022’s “smart house” slasher film Margaux. But A Murder at the End of the World is best in showing not that it is inevitable but how it gets that way. As “Ray” puts it: “I’m a good listener.”
A Murder at the End of the World is now streaming on Hulu.