Only Murders in the Building: Dissecting the Season 1 finale
Brendon Connelly | On 31, Oct 2021
Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 1 of Only Murders in the Building. Not caught up? Read our spoiler-free review here.
Only Murders in the Building is one of the best TV shows I have ever seen. Could it have been even better?
I fell in love with Only Murders in the Building almost instantly. For seven weeks, I waited impatiently for each new episode. When they arrived, they were all funny, moving, thrilling and bristling with ideas. Scene after scene came in and punched way above its weight, bringing so much more to the table than was anything like necessary.
Just ahead of the final two episodes, which were released on the same day in the UK, I shared some ideas about how the mystery would resolve with a few friends. This show had me in the palm of its hand; I was totally engaged with its characters, intrigued and engrossed in its mystery, and I couldn’t help but thrill in putting pieces of its multi-layered jigsaw together.
But on seeing those final two episodes, my feelings were rather more complex than I had anticipated.
It seems to me that there was just one card slightly and unfortunately out of place in this delicately built Arconia of Cards. But in good, tightly woven stories, a skipped beat reverberates through the whole story, and this goes extra for clue-laden mysteries.
Here are my thoughts, both Pros and Cons, on the showmakers’ choice to make Jan their murderer.
Pro: Amy Ryan
Amy Ryan. It’s that simple. She was able to execute a number of tricky gearshifts and double-layered moments with skill and taste. Having Amy Ryan play Jan made sure Jan was, at the very least, well acted. She’s creepy and funny, and her performance makes a certain kind of heightened, tall story-sense throughout.
The first downside to making Jan the murderer, at least chronologically, is how late she appears in the series. Jan first appears on screen in Episode 3 – although we hear her playing the bassoon, or at least a recording thereof, back in Episode 1.
Ronald Knox was a crime novelist and member of the Detection Club alongside Agatha Christie, GK Chesterton and Dorothy L Sayers. His Ten Commandments for mystery fiction begin with “The criminal must be mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to know.”
Knox was aware of the fun in having the murderer hidden in plain sight. We certainly miss out on that here. With Jan, there’s no chance of “We were looking at things the wrong way since the very beginning!” At best, this feels like a lost opportunity.
There are two whole episodes of this murder mystery where the audience is entirely unaware of the murderer. A full 20 per cent of the episode count. More importantly, the story is way past its inciting incident by the time Jan turns up. She never feels as foundational to the story as she might, and this results in disappointment, a kind of split narrative custard. To some viewers, I fear, Jan might feel a little tacked-on, tangential, or at least relegated to a second-tier part of the structure.
Pro: Charles Haden Savage
What does feel foundational to the story, of course, is Charles Haden Savage. He is our true protagonist here, and his emotional arc is the heart of the show. The third act and the climax would feel truly unfulfilling if they did not resonate with Charles’ flaws and challenges, or pay off his character’s path throughout the mystery.
This is the story of Charles embracing the mess after the end of a relationship, and finding a new way forward. Jan’s arc is absolutely tied into Charles’ story, and therefore it touches upon the core of the show.
The end of any story carries extra weight for its audience, doubly so a serial, triply so a mystery – this is where the audience’s assumptions are corrected, the storytellers have the last word, and the meaning of the characters’ journeys comes into focus. It’s only right that the revelation of the murderer, and all of the ensuing action and drama that follow, fit smoothly into the protagonist’s arc.
Con: The motive
But, sadly, this is also exactly where the choice of Jan being the killer proves the least satisfying. When we learn that Jan killed Tim Kono, many other things also come to light. Not the least of these is her motive and, sadly, it seems to be a very weak one, and certainly doesn’t make a meaningful contribution to our experience of the show’s themes, mood or characters.
Jan was sleeping with Tim. They met and they started sleeping together and… we have no sense that this meant anything more to Tim. Not the Tim we saw throughout the rest of the series, the sometime Hardy Boy committed to his takedown of the Dimas family.
The choice of relationship and ensuing murder motive between Jan and Tim have the unfortunate outcome of slightly isolating his murder from the rest of the show. Although we learn quite a bit about Tim earlier on in the series, there’s no substantial shift in our understanding of him when the fateful events of his final day come to light, and this too seems anticlimactic.
The connection between Jan and Tim feels rather thin, or at least arbitrary. Her motive to kill him is that they separated and… what? She’s crazy? She doesn’t want to take second place? This does not feel as substantial as the ideas in the rest of the show – it wasn’t developed in the same way – and it certainly doesn’t chime with the other themes and threads. Other than Jan’s character, what does a pathological resistance to coming second have to do with anything else in the entire series?
I strongly believe the show would have benefited from giving a much wider berth to the “crazy girlfriend” angle, and putting as much distance as possible between itself and casually fear-mongering ideas about secretly insane murderer neighbours who might kill you just because they’re completely nuts.
Pro: The clues
Jan did leave a series of extremely visible clues. Her distinctive handwritten “J” was in plain sight and easy to spot, and anybody who has ever cleaned a bassoon had the inside track from an early episode. This is one key element of good clue-giving…
Con: Obvious meanings
… but it’s significantly disappointing that these clues meant exactly what they had first seemed. For those who caught them early, and internet chat suggests plenty of people probably did, there was hope for a satisfying subversion of these clues and what they were pointing to. But this subversion never came.
In fact, it was extremely clear that Jan was the culprit by the climax of Episode 9. What came after this was written with flair, packed full of great character bits, and beautifully realised by the actors and crew, and it only really matters that Jan was such an obvious killer because she was a disappointing choice for the other reasons stated above, but I’ve certainly been talking to a few friends who noted their disappointment at the lack of a big twist.
This compares to Ronald Knox’s observation on a belated introduction to the murderer. The murderer being relatively easy to spot feels like a missed trick in a genre that’s all about nailing tricks.
As well as the giant Jan clues that retained their most obvious meaning, there were also a number of red herrings that, at least so far, went on to mean absolutely nothing. It did not have to be like this. In fact, I can think of a simple, elegant way in which all of the red herrings could have been woven into the central storyline.
What could have been done differently?
It might be gauche to even offer up an idea like this, but here are the basics of how I would have ended the story:
After Tim saw Theo and Zoe fighting on the roof of the Arconia, he kept quiet. It’s implied that he was sufficiently threatened by the Dimas’ to do so. But what if he wasn’t keeping quiet out of fear? What if Tim, just like Mabel, threw himself into uncovering evidence, putting the truth together and lining it up as a complete package for public consumption.
Mabel chose to work with Charles and Oliver… but what if Tim chose to work with Cinda Canning? There’s a bold contrast that draws on Mabel and Tim’s Hardy Boys past in different ways, and speaks to the difference between Charles and Oliver and their podcast, and Cinda and hers.
We can easily imagine all of Tim’s investigations in the building were for a podcast project he was either pitching to Cinda, or for which he had already gained Cinda’s support. It was established that she had other podcasters on her network, so why not Tim?
If you remember the video discovered on Tim’s phone, and which ultimately played out as a conspicuous bit of to-camera exposition, then it could have easily been contextualised as part of his pitch to Cinda, or the literal recording for a podcast or vlog. Tim’s investigation would turn over all sorts of stones and could weave in any and all red herrings that still needed a home. The conspicuous Gut Milk loose ends could pay, for example, maybe even giving another, third meaning to the “GM” note Tim had made.
This would also strengthen the story between Tim and Mabel, putting him in a position of keeping secrets from her to protect her, and her later uncovering of those secrets not only putting her in danger but emotionally reconnecting her to the deceased Tim.
In this alternative version of the story, Tim’s relationship with Jan could be something entirely different, and be arguably better integrated into the web of all of the characters’ stories. What if Tim was investigating Jan and found out about some other, relatively minor indiscretions or crimes she had committed? These would be easy to seed. Perhaps the suicide notes were simply her own, and this could lead to ideas about secrets she might be keeping. This could leads in turn to a version of the story that brings hope not only to Charles, Oliver and Mabel through their newfound connection, but also Jan.
A very small amount of nudging would allow for a different angle on Jan, but still creating a character with powerful secrets and interesting layers, and maintaining a climax that would have a direct, personal resonance for Charles.
As Tim’s podcast would come to light, Charles and Jan’s relationship could be tested, and Charles could very well be forced to decide between Jan and the investigation. He’d hopefully find a way to thread the needle and be good to both. It would even be possible to make Jan look like the murderer, test Charles with this, and still come back with reversals beyond that point to close everything up seamlessly.
My personal number one choice of murderer would be Cinda Canning for a number of reasons.
She was part of the story from its set-up, appearing before the true inciting incident – when the trio meet in the restaurant during the fire alarm. The characters’ relationships to Cinda were the first real ones we encountered, via the medium of her podcast. These relationships were evolving from the very beginning and it would have felt extremely cohesive and cogent for them to keep evolving right through (not to mention because of) the final reveal and climax. This solution would certainly please Ronald Knox.
Without changing a thing about the video inserts of Tina Fey in episode one, they would already work brilliantly to hide her in plain sight, seeding the killer early but in a way that draws no suspicion.
The flash-forward in which Cinda announces a new podcast called Only Murderers in the Building is explained away in a button on the final episode, but what about a tricksier explanation? What if this flash-forward was Cinda starting her new podcast from a lush, high-security prison for white collar murderers? That seems to fit quite nicely inside the show’s point of view, and definitely makes that flash-forward into a meaningful clue and not just a slightly wobbly piece of foreshadowing.
So why would Cinda kill Tim? Because he’s discovered something that he wants to inform the police of immediately, and this robs his nascent podcast of its monetary value. She wants to preserve the scoop – it has been clearly established how much money her podcast empire is worth, so she’d be desperate to keep that going. What if all of her work has been stolen from interns, hangers on, and well-meaning hopefuls like Tim?
Making Tim’s key podcasting discovery about Jan – although certainly not that she’s a “crazy girlfriend psycho killer” – would tie all of the threads together and keep Charles’ arc in the spotlight. Having Cinda commit murder over Tim’s secret podcast would create a surprising culprit reveal, with a resonant motive that speaks more fully and directly to the themes of the series than Jan’s.
If we consider what Only Murders in the Building says about true crime podcasts, about the intricate weave of community and secrecy in New York apartments, and about the assumptions we make about one another, the meanings introduced by revealing Cinda as the killer are more central to the show’s overall concept than those that came with Jan.
In short, I not only believe Cinda was a much less obvious killer than Jan, and that the show had ready-made her as a plausible killer, but that her being the murderer of Tim Kono would have allowed for a closing episode or two that spoke more cogently to the show’s overall world view.
Looking ahead to Season 2
Having said all of this, of course, the show’s ending is just a new beginning. I might have been frustrated that the flash-forward from Episode 1 had nothing to do with the main plot at all and resurfaced only in a coda – the question “How will this tie in?” deserves a better answer than “It won’t, not really” – but I’m over the moon that a second season is on the way, and I’m absolutely sure that it’s going to join the first as a new TV classic.
Only Murders in the Building is available on Disney+ UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.