In the seven-episode limited series Murder at the End of the World (FX/Hulu), a resourceful, pink-haired Gen Z hacker-sleuth-author is our gateway character into a world of vast wealth, disruptive thinking, new technologies and some very mysterious people. How will Darby Hart (Emma Corrin) get to the bottom of the only murders in the building when the building itself was designed by a reclusive titan of 21st century industry, she is his guest in this remote location, and he’s married to an equally difficult to decipher woman who became a legend in Darby’s hacking community? A Murder At the End of the World was created, written, and directed by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, who were also behind the wiggy sci-fi thriller The OA; Corrin and Marling co-star beside Clive Owen, Harris Dickinson, Alice Braga, Joan Chen, and Jermaine Fowler.
Opening Shot: A lone figure walks in silhouette through the headlights, neon, and steam of the city at night. Playing on her headphones is “The End” by the Doors.
The Gist: Darby Hart (Corrin) is on her way to a reading and signing event for her new book, The Silver Doe, dubbed a “true crime memoir.” Now in her mid-twenties and fully ensconced in the online world of hacking and amateur sleuthing, Darby spent her late teens working to identify and seek justice for the female victims of a serial killer who was never caught. That experience, and the burgeoning romance with fellow online sleuther Bill (Dickinson) that came out of it, formed the basis of Darby’s debut book. But for her, the true crime aspect goes deeper. As the daughter of a county coroner who raised her on his own, she grew up with a proximity to death and the knowns and unknowns of what leads to it.
Darby isn’t much for in-person social interaction. But when she receives a cryptic invite to an exclusive retreat hosted by high-tech security mogul Andy Ronson (Owen), it’s difficult to refuse. Besides, the invitation arrives via a proprietary visual AI program named Ray (Edoardo Ballerini), so it’s hard to say no. She packs her devices and a tube of hair dye and is whisked to a private airport and Ronson’s corporate jet, where Darby meets smart cities architect Lu Mei (Chen), filmmaker Martin (Fowler), lunar colony proponent Sian (Braga), and venture capitalist David (Raúl Esparza). Destination? Unknown. And please turn in your phones.
Not only is Ronson an impossibly wealthy future tech innovator, he’s also married to Lee (Marling), a hero hacker/coder idolized by Darby who “disappeared herself” after becoming the target of a vicious online doxing campaign. Both Ronson and Lee are on hand to greet Darby and the other guests once they arrive at the luxury hotel he designed – it sits on an inhospitable spit of land amid the ice and snow of remote Iceland – and Darby also meets other guests like Ziba (Pegah Ferydoni) and Rohan (Javed Khan). AI Ray told her the retreat would discuss technology’s role in humanity’s evolving future, and at the welcome dinner, Ronson echoes that statement. Whether they love tech or loathe it, he says, everyone gathered at the retreat is an original thinker. And according to him, original thinking is the single best resource humanity has. Darby’s not yet sure what to think about all of this, and still doesn’t know the specifics of her invitation. But it’s the late arrival of the retreat’s final guest that she never sees coming.
What Shows Will It Remind You Of: The OA, also created by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, was full of weird ideas, meme-able “Movements,” great ensemble acting, and really cool stylistic touches. (Netflix canceled it, of course.) But even early on, A Murder at the End of the World shares its beckoning vibe with Marling and Batmanglij’s earlier show. Something ominous is occurring here, even if the shape of it remains concealed. (Maybe not a sentient whale, like in The OA. But something sinister, certainly.) And with “Murder” in the title and people gathered in one location – who is a killer and who is a victim? – you can also include any kind of Agatha Christie adaptation here, like John Malkovich playing Hercule Poirot or the recent BritBox limited series Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?
Our Take: The unsettling quality that greets Darby Hart upon arrival at Ronson’s exclusive retreat doesn’t really dissipate, despite the full service and cushy amenities, and that had us thinking about recent stuff like The Menu, which put stinging social commentary on the bill of fare alongside exclusivity, grisly violence and unlikely laughs. And maybe it’s the isolated, cold weather setting, or the promise of murder right there in the title, but there are bits and pieces of Nordic noir here, too. Darby Hart, who Emma Corrin plays with a quiet charm and probing curiosity that’s immediately likable, is someone we’re still getting to know even as she’s trying to understand the environs of this strange and thrilling new adventure. She’s very easy to root for, especially as we continue to learn more about her motivations in flashbacks that reveal her investigative acumen and relationship with Bill. One of the other retreat guests refers to Darby as “the Gen Z Sherlock Holmes,” and we’re intrigued with what her investigative tools will reveal here, whether it’s with her hacking abilities or good old fashioned gumshoe detective work.
Will Darby have any backup at all in this endeavor? Clive Owen gives Ronson the mildly greasy air of a guy who’s lying about his intentions, even as he tousles the hair of his precocious son and is all smiles alongside his wife Lee. There’s something happening underneath his words and actions, something probably more closely aligned with “dark shit,” as one of Darby’s online pals puts it. As the thinking goes, when you get to the level of moneymaking Ronson’s at, it always involves dark shit. What does Ronson mean by the facts and figures he tosses out to the guests – sobering climate disaster projections, and the nature of resources we’ll need to survive. Is Ronson based on the narcissist tech sector disruptors of our own society? Is it purposeful that a Grimes song is included on the Murder at the End of the World soundtrack? Though it is as yet unclear what exactly is going on at Ronson’s fancy, exclusive retreat, it’s obvious that not all is what it seems. (It also feels very key that Lee is someone Darby has always admired, even as the woman’s life is shrouded in its own mysteries.) Discovering what’s really afoot at this retreat, alongside an eminently watchable character like Darby Hart, is sure to be engrossing.
Sex and Skin: A brief bit of nudity from far away as it relates to how an AI program embedded in the walls of a luxury hotel might anticipate a guest’s desire for a hot bath.
Parting Shot: When Darby hears noises coming from inside one of the guest rooms at the hotel, she ends up in the bitter cold and blowing snow, working her way around the circular structure to view that room from the outside. And what she discovers is just too spicy to divulge here.
Sleeper Star: Alice Braga, always a great addition to any cast, is at least initially one of the more intriguing retreat attendees, since her Sian greets Darby and the other guests warmly but is also introduced as one of Ronson’s closest friends. Assuming lines are drawn, whose side will Sian be on?
Most Pilot-y Line: “I’ve met some of my closest friends during these retreats. And some incredible innovations have come about from these encounters. It really is amazing what people can offer the world with proper support.” When gazillionaires with more attempts on their life than most heads of state say things like this, it feels like TED Talk speak tinged with a nonspecific threat.
Our Call: STREAM IT. A Murder at the End of the World is here for your wintertime whodunit watching, with a terrific lead performance from Emma Corrin, a strong cast throughout – while they’re still living, anyway! – and layers of forward-looking tech and classic mystery elements to pick at and peel.
Johnny Loftus (@glennganges) is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift.