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15 Essential Episodes of Murder, She Wrote

Photo: CBS

There are not many television shows where one character can carry a series. But the one-character bit lends itself perfectly to the mystery genre. Agatha Christie created Hercule Poirot to journey through different destinations and lend his meticulous eye to crime scenes. Daniel Craig’s cartoonishly accented Benoit Blanc will continue his crime-solving career in a Knives Out sequel. And then there’s Jessica Beatrice Fletcher, one of the most recognized TV sleuths. A good-natured widow who lives in the small coastal Maine town of Cabot Cove, she’s hardly the caricature you expect to lead a mystery. But it’s her demeanor and the extravagance of the characters she encounters that make Murder, She Wrote the perfect balance of coziness and camp.

The role of J.B. Fletcher was a departure for Angela Lansbury, who gained fame in The Manchurian Candidate, The Harvey Girls, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and countless theater roles. “Mostly, I’ve played very spectacular bitches.” Lansbury told the New York Times in 1985. “Jessica has extreme sincerity, compassion, extraordinary intuition. I’m not like her. My imagination runs riot. I’m not a pragmatist. Jessica is.”

As a mystery writer, Jessica writes about murder for a living, and her book research has prepared her to solve the most outlandish murder plots, whether or not the local authorities want her there. Her independence, calmness, and analytical tendencies make the weekly whodunnits thoughtlessly watchable. She can narrate with her facial expressions, and her sassiness is a side-eye to the viewer about whatever ridiculousness the episode is unravelling. Beyond Angela Lansbury’s charm, there’s also a delight in seeing many old Hollywood stars, decades past their prime, parade through the TV show’s sets — as well as the many not-yet-famous guest stars who appeared, like George Clooney and Courteney Cox.

Murder, She Wrote delivers melodrama, mystery, and comfort neatly packaged into one-hour slots. Watching the show chronologically could be a yearslong endeavor, but here are 15 standout episodes across the show’s 12-year run. These episodes feature over-the-top story lines, compelling mysteries, scenic destinations, and amusing performances by guest stars.

Murder, She Wrote is streaming on Peacock.

“Death Takes a Curtain Call” (Season 1, Episode 10)

Murder, She Wrote premiered in 1984, so it makes sense that the show treaded into Cold War territory for some of its mysteries. In this season one episode, Jessica is visiting Boston with a friend to see a touring Soviet ballet company only to get dragged into the defections of the show’s leads. Jessica, of course, doesn’t flinch when she gets involved in harboring the two fugitives, even if it may have resulted in the murder of one of the traveling KGB officers.

Jessica, still unafraid to stick her nose even in the highest level of law enforcement, isn’t making fast friends with the FBI agent in charge of the investigation. Luckily, the surviving KGB officer happens to be a big fan of J.B. Fletcher mysteries and lets her tag along in the investigation. Under suspicion of murder, the ballet dancers go undercover in Cabot Cove until Jessica and her new secret police friend can find the true killer.

While most episodes take place exclusively in Cabot Cove or another location, this mystery features exciting geopolitical drama typically found in destination episodes paired with floundering Cabot Cove characters navigating their role in an international conspiracy.

“Murder Takes the Bus” (Season 1, Episode 18)

There’s a long tradition of locomotive-based thrillers, from Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express to the book turned movie Strangers on a Train. Episode 18 of season one puts J.B. Fletcher aboard this cultural tradition, albeit on a less glamorous journey than the heyday of train travel — a bus to Portland.

With a pounding rain storm and a score styled after Psycho, Jessica’s eyes suspiciously scan the passengers. There’s the sailor in full sea-captain regalia, a librarian who is a fan of J.B., a man boarding from a prison stop who seems afraid of someone else onboard, and a guy with a gun tucked in his jacket. Engine troubles force the bus to stop at an interstate diner, and when one passenger is found stabbed with a screwdriver, everyone is a suspect.

With a crowded cast of notable guest stars including Rue McClanahan, Michael Constantine, and Linda Blair, this locked-room mystery features twist upon twist upon twist. The whodunnit is clever, and passengers turn out not to be the strangers they originally seem.

“Sing a Song of Murder” (Season 2, Episode 5)

The scientific consensus is that identical cousins don’t exist, but we’ll take any excuse to see Angela Lansbury play Emma MacGill, the eccentric British relative of J.B. Fletcher. Emma, an aging actress, owns a theater on the verge of financial ruin that a group of seedy investors want to buy. But almost as soon as we meet Emma, Jessica, back in Cabot Cove, is invited to her funeral. Luckily, when J.B. loads into the backseat of her airport chauffeur, she’s greeted by her very much alive cousin.

Jessica gabs with the cockney-accented, red-haired version of herself, and the plan is to fake Emma’s death until they can figure out who wants to really kill her. But it wouldn’t be Murder, She Wrote if a real killing didn’t occur, and when one character is struck by a yellow car, Jessica and Emma get to tag-team as detectives.

Emma MacGill’s appearances also usually mean allusions to Lansbury’s own theater and film career. In this episode, she reprises “Good-bye, Yellow Bird,” which first appeared in The Picture of Dorian Gray, and reminds us that Lansbury is endlessly talented.

“Jessica Behind Bars” (Season 2, Episode 9)

Jessica is teaching a writing class at a women’s correctional facility, and she is only a few minutes into her lesson when murder disrupts it. The prison’s physician is found dead, and the warden, who has ambitions for state senate, immediately accuses an inmate found near the scene of the crime.

The cast of inmates, including over-the-top performances by Adrienne Barbeau and Margaret Avery, seize the weapons from security and hold the warden and prison guards hostage. Their demands: Drop the charges against the accused and improve the food and living conditions. As Jessica investigates, another murder happens, and a stakeout develops between local police and the incarcerated women. This is the only episode with a primarily female cast, and the characters’ bold confrontations, its themes of corruption, and Jessica’s calm amid chaos make it an early season classic.

“Keep the Home Fries Burning” (Season 2, Episode 14)

A new diner opens up in Cabot Cove, and it has everything that no one could want: waitresses in colonial-era garb, punny menu items (One If by Land, Two If by Sea Surf and Turf Platter; Benjamin Franklinfurter; Eggs Benedict Arnold) and a potentially poisoned strawberry jam.

This diner doesn’t do jelly packets, but single bowls of homemade preserves travel between tables (definitely not COVID safe). When one patron who dipped his spoon in the jam collapses in the parking lot, diners rush out, and suddenly more and more people are dropping to the pavement. At the hospital, one woman on a road trip with a friend dies. The investigation is now more than a case of poisoned preserves, but murder. The premise, though silly, makes it hard to know who the poison was truly intended for and who would have wanted to spike the jam.

The suspects? A chef who tries to wiggle out of his contract by showing up drunk on the job, the owner of a rival diner, the victim’s husband, who arrives suspiciously soon, and the victim’s road-trip companion.

“One Good Bid Deserves a Murder” (Season 2, Episode 17)

Jessica Fletcher has no shortage of rich friends. In Boston, one such friend gives her $1 million to win the auction of his famous ex-girlfriend’s diary while he films a movie in Barcelona. His instructions: Buy it and destroy it. Jessica heads to the auction house to win the journal of the young starlet, Evangeline, which is already attracting the attention of a sleazy director, Evangeline’s former producer, and her old psychiatrist.

As anticipation builds for the diary to enter the auction floor, an armoire is presented for bidding, only for the body of Jessica’s friend to fall out. Beyond that, Evangeline’s potentially salacious diary is missing. Jessica becomes a suspect, but a lucky run-in with private investigator Harry McGraw keeps her free. McGraw, who speaks like the lead detective of a 1930s noir film, is the tough, Boston-based private eye Jessica often works with. A Murder, She Wrote regular, when Jerry Orbach appears as a guest star in the opening credits, you can expect a treat. His wisecracking, cynical approach contrasts Jessica’s earnestness, and the episode becomes an unexpected buddy-cop mystery.

McGraw and the other characters are all tempted by the diary, lured by the magazine-worthy gossip it may contain and the paranoia of what it may reveal. But who was desperate enough to kill for it?

“Crossed Up” (Season 3, Episode 13)

When Jessica isn’t invited somewhere, she finds a way in. When someone won’t answer her calls, she’ll show up at their house. Even without a car, she’s constantly buzzing through Cabot Cove or her latest travel destination. But what happens when someone is killed and she can’t get out of bed?

While recovering from an injury and under her nephew Grady’s care, Jessica’s phone lines are crossed and she accidentally hears the plot of a murder. Grady, who in his 12 appearances is often suspected or sometimes arrested for the week’s murder, now gets to play detective. If you can stand Grady’s bumbling interrogations, this episode’s structure is an engaging departure that shows Jessica’s cleverness even when she can’t leave her room. The drama of an approaching hurricane adds to the tension, as does a thriller-style scene of a break-in at J.B.’s home.

“A Fashionable Way to Die” (Season 4, Episode 1)

One of Jesscia’s old friends, Eva, is working as a designer and finds herself unable to pay back the financier of her latest collection. When the loan shark ends up dead and a witness spotted someone in Eva’s checkered coat leaving the scene of the crime, Jessica has to prove her friend’s innocence. Was it the loan shark’s wife? His mistress? The mistress’s daughter who may be another one of his mistresses?

This episode may have broken into our top 15 for the inspector’s Pepé Le Pew–level French accent, but aside from dramatic voice work, there’s still a lot to enjoy: outdated ’80s fashion, on-site Paris shots, and Edith Piaf covers.

“Trouble in Eden” (Season 4, Episode 9)

In Cabot Cove, Jessica is well-respected. She’s a former schoolteacher, she rarely turns down requests for help, and nearly everyone is willing to give her a ride when she needs it; certainly not the type of woman you expect to accidentally become the madame of an Oregon-based brothel.

In this season four episode, a friend asks Jessica to travel with her to investigate the sudden death of her sister — could there be foul play? Jessica represses her curiosity and says no until her friend is literally mowed down by a car at a crosswalk. With her friend in the hospital, J.B. packs up and heads to Oregon, impersonating the injured friend who is supposed to inherit her sister’s business of ill repute. The rest of the episode is filled with secrets, blackmail, tacky décor, and a sketchy cast of locals who want the lucrative brothel for themselves.

“Something Borrowed, Someone Blue” (Season 5, Episode 9)

Wedding episodes often earn high ratings. People love to see characters whose relationships developed onscreen finally tie the knot and fuel the fantasy that true love is out there. The wedding between Grady, Jessica’s chronic job- and girlfriend-hopping nephew, and Donna, a rich heiress from upstate New York, certainly didn’t garner the same excitement as other TV-famous weddings, but it did make an entertaining mystery filled with snobby rich antics, disapproving family members, and a disgraced childhood sweetheart.

Grady, awkward yet endearing, seems like an odd match for Donna, who is the type of rich that she still refers to her father as “Daddy” in conversations. At the mansion, we soon meet the brash housekeeper who has plenty of enemies. When she is found stabbed with a meat thermometer, the wedding is delayed. “Nothing serious,” the priest tells the guests. “Slight problem with the help.”

The humor in this episode borders on slapstick, with the housekeeper’s body being dragged around the estate contrasting the gossipy chatter of the rich attendees. Grady and Donna also stay married throughout the rest of the series, so the episode doesn’t end with an arrest but with a somewhat happy ending (depending on your opinion of Grady).

“Mirror, Mirror on the Wall Pt. 1 & 2” (Season 5, Episodes 21 & 22)

Murder, She Wrote viewers know Jessica Fletcher is famous. Everywhere she goes, at least one person seems to recognize her, people make snide comments about the quality of her books, and she often speaks at conferences and events. But it’s not until the finale of season five that we find out Jessica is so famous that she has a nemesis who may be willing to kill.

Jean Simmons breaks out her transatlantic accent to play Eudora McVeigh, the once premiere mystery writer who has lost the favor of critics (or as she calls them, “That simpering cadre of barnacles, ticks and other parasites”). Delightfully villainous, Eudora decides the way to win back her success is to take down the now leading mystery writer: Jessica Fletcher.

The first segment opens up doors to poisoned apples, drugging plots, stolen manuscripts, extramarital affairs, private investigators, and, of course, murder. The second segment is packed, untangling the personal dramas and jealousies that Eudora’s family has unleashed upon Cabot Cove. Because this mystery was originally conceived of as the series finale, it’s melodramatic, suspenseful, and full of twists that encompass everything to love about Murder, She Wrote.

“Family Doctor” (Season 7, Episode 11)

Jessica is in Boston with her doctor friend Seth, who just wants to visit his favorite seafood place. Turns out it’s under new management and may now be a mob front. They get just a taste of dessert when Seth gets a phone call and disappears.

When Jessica is reunited with Seth, she finds out he had been whisked away to treat the gunshot wounds of mob patriarch Carmine. After a round-trip, blindfolded commute to a country estate, Seth thinks his job is done; but one hour later, Carmine dies, and the family thinks Seth killed him. To get revenge, Jessica and Seth are kidnapped and held hostage. The only way to save themselves is to prove who really killed Carmine.

“Who Killed J.B. Fletcher?” (Season 7, Episode 14)

Jessica is ready to relax after a book signing event — until she turns on the news to find out that in the little town of Bremerson, Texas, she was arrested for breaking and entering. And in a dog kennel of all places. Jessica heads down to clear up the case of mistaken identity, but when her impersonator turns up dead, her trip becomes more than a weekend errand.

The episode features a whole cast of J.B. enthusiasts, including guest performances by Betty Garrett, Marie Windsor, Janet Blair, and Margaret O’Brien. As the death of the impersonator unravels into three different murder investigations, including one man allegedly killed with a rifle by his dog, J.B. works with her fan club to solve the cases. Like Jessica, the group of older women are warm, sincere, and unabashedly nosy. Their overexcitement at the twists of the mystery is also a reminder of the delight in watching the show.

“Murder on Madison Avenue” (Season 8, Episode 22)

For many kids, games like Clue gave them an appetite for murder mystery, and in this episode, Jessica is meeting with executives of the Marathon Toy Corporation to design her own mystery board game. She explores the wonderland workshop of the “eccentric” designer, which has a life-size, nightmare-quality sheriff toy as well as some other trinkets kids would seem more inclined to run away from than to play with. It’s in this workshop that Jessica will later discover the body of the toy CEO, struck in the head, squeezed into the petite car of a kid-size train whirling around the room.

A police lieutenant with a questionable haircut shows up thinking it’s robbery-related, but Jessica and viewers know better than to believe that. It wouldn’t be a corporate-set episode without office affairs, vague talk of securing accounts, and pantsuits with heavy shoulder pads.

“Nan’s Ghost Pt. 1 & Pt. 2” (Season 12, Episodes 6 & 7)

Murder, She Wrote only occasionally tread into supernatural territory. Scorned lovers, desperate heirs, and ambitious businesspeople are much easier to believe as killers than ghosts or witches. But in this spooky episode set in the Irish countryside, somebody wants Jessica to believe a medieval castle is haunted by the ghost of a dead girl trapped in a dungeon. The townspeople think her death was an accident, but Jessica doesn’t buy it.

The secret to the girl’s mysterious death may be found in a buried horde of ancient treasures. Along the way, Jessica herself gets trapped in the dungeon, and she turns out to keep a surprisingly large supply of Werther’s caramels in her purse. As greed motivates more killings, Jessica, alongside her Irish friends with accents of varying quality, must uncover the trove to stop the murders and find out who is responsible.

15 Essential Episodes of Murder, She Wrote