Spoilers ahead, obviously.
“What a terrific goddamn finale this is going to be,” announces Oliver (Martin Short) in the opening moments of the season one conclusion of Only Murders in the Building. The former Broadway producer and perpetual boom-mic carrier is referring to the podcast within the Hulu series, which is also called Only Murders in the Building, but in one of the many meta touches that has made this season such a delight, Oliver’s words could just as easily be taken as a comment on the episode that’s about to unfold. Only an old-school showman like Oliver — and, for that matter, Short — would announce, “We’ve got a really great show for you tonight,” while in the midst of solving a murder.
The thing is, this finale actually does live up to the promise Oliver makes. It provides an answer to the question “Who killed Tim Kono?” (It was Jan. As has been the case in every unofficial, non-Hasbro-sanctioned game of Clue I have ever played, the bassoonist did it.) It lays out how the crime went down and, at least for a few minutes, vindicates our three crime-busting heroes, Oliver, Mabel (Selena Gomez), and Charles (Steve Martin). With its new murder victim — Bunny bites it! — and the arrests of Oliver, Mabel, and Charles in that case, it sets up a whole new mystery for its already green-lit second season, which I assume, like Cinda Canning’s potential podcast about the accusations facing our trio, will be called Only Murderers in the Building. This tenth episode also gifted us with the sight of Steve Martin doing some incredible physical-comedy gymnastics as a poisoned and partially paralyzed Charles.
Basically, Only Murders in the Building did all the things in its finale that most viewers could have wanted. But the finale and the first season overall weren’t satisfying simply because they met expectations. What made Only Murders such a standout was its capacity to surprise, both with its twists in the Tim Kono case and in its evolving identity as a series.
There are multiple reasons we listen to true-crime podcasts: morbid curiosity, our obsession with violence, to avoid feeling FOMOOCAM (that’s Fear of Missing Out on Conversations About Murder). But a huge motivator is our love of surprise. As much fun as it is to solve a crime before a podcast does, the pleasure, as in any storytelling, comes from being completely blindsided by where each episode takes us.
Only Murders in the Building got its kicks out of blindsiding us and its characters, introducing viable suspects (okay, Sting doesn’t count) and then leaning toward new ones; by pinning Tim’s death on the Dimases, then revealing they were not responsible for it after all; by having Charles avoid drinking the potentially poisoned beverage from Jan, only to realize too late that she had poisoned his handkerchief instead. The moment when Mabel discovers a dead Bunny is a surprise, too, but only for those who forgot that the whole series begins with a scene where Mabel, in a bloodied sweater, is discovered with a deceased body before the action flashes back to two months earlier. Even the catchphrase that Charles popularized as his ’90s TV character, Brazzos — “This sends the investigation into a whole new direction” — nods to how prized twists are within the series (and also how bad the dialogue on procedurals can be). But what’s more fascinating is the way this series keeps sending our conceptual understanding of it in whole new directions.
Based on the premise of Only Murders and its first couple of episodes, it seemed reasonable to view this as a star vehicle focused on its three principal actors: Martin, Short, and Gomez. That’s not an incorrect assessment, but during the second half of the season, the series allowed for the POVs of supporting characters like Detective Williams (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and Theo Dimas (James Caverly) to take center stage. The episode about Theo, the deaf son of Teddy Dimas (Nathan Lane), showed us the world from Theo’s standpoint by including no audible dialogue, and it turned out to be the most elegant and ambitious installment in the whole series. In the finale, even Tim Kono (Julian Cihi) gets a chance to explain himself, his loneliness, and his affair with Jan. As Tim says, “Get to know a fellow a little before he tells you how he died, right?”
Only Murders in the Building also seems, at first, like it’s going to be a satire of podcasts and podcast culture. Certainly there is some of that going on here. The mere fact that Mabel, Oliver, and Charles are able to get one up and running so quickly and eventually capture an audience suggests that any rando could start a successful podcast. And per episode eight, the show doesn’t exactly make podcast superfans seem like well-adjusted, normal people. It acknowledges, too, the exploitative nature of true crime, though it never gets dark or gritty enough to dig really deeply into that thicket of issues.
But ultimately, Only Murders expresses an appreciation of podcasts and what they can achieve, leaning in a more earnest direction than a truly critical one. Mabel and Oliver discover the evidence that directly points to Jan’s guilt while in her bathroom, a place they thought to look because of their fascination with another podcast, Baker’s Dozen, in which the killer kept all her incriminating evidence in her bathroom. The small group of podcast superfans that hang out in front of the Arconia are certainly obsessive, but they also are knowledgeable: When Oliver invites them in to assist with what is originally conceived as the podcast’s finale, they are able to consider the evidence critically and offer useful insight. Despite all the missteps, the Only Murders podcasters eventually do identify the real killer, with an assist along the way from an actual cop, and that’s a public service. The nods to actual true crime — Jan’s incriminating matching handwriting, for example, has to be a reference to Robert Durst’s misspelled “Beverley Hills” in The Jinx — imply a respect for what the genre, in podcast form or otherwise, can do. The series admittedly never attempts to reconcile that respect with the negative aspects it also brings up, but maybe that’s too much to ask from a series that’s also aiming to be entertaining and funny.
Maybe the most pleasant surprise in Only Murders in the Building, though, is that it turns out to be more than just a pleasant, diverting mystery-comedy. In the beginning of the season, that’s the expectation the series set, and I was okay with that. A light, amusing series with twists and turns is a perfectly fine thing to be. But by the end, I realized that, while still a fun mystery-comedy, Only Murders was ultimately about how vital it is for adults to break past the generational gaps that divide them, especially in a place like New York City, where it’s possible to feel deeply lonely despite the crushing mass of humanity.
Almost every relationship that is central to the series involves a generational gap, Mabel’s relationships with Oliver and Charles being the most prominent example. The disconnects between them are a source of ongoing humor; she makes fun of them for being old, out of touch, and unsure how to properly use technology. They are aghast when she describes Sting as the guy from U2. But by the end, they are genuine friends, and Charles has even learned that you don’t need to sign your name at the end of a text. Oliver has ongoing issues with his son, Will, but in the finale, they reconnect. So do Charles and Lucy, the daughter of his ex. Even the messy relationship between Teddy and Theo Dimas is a cross-generational one. And Jan’s dalliance with Tim plays into that cross-generational theme as well.
At first, Jan, played by Amy Ryan, registers as a type we’ve seen in Steve Martin films before: the much younger woman who winds up in a relationship with Martin’s character despite the age difference. (For examples, see Roxanne, L.A. Story, and Shopgirl.) But when we learn that she also was sleeping with Tim, that turns our perception of her upside down. “I’m a sucker for lonely guys with notable age differences I meet on elevators,” Jan explains. In other words, she’s comfortable going 20 years older or 20 years younger. She can cozy up to a boomer or a millennial. She’s an age-agnostic Gen-Xer. So basically, the lesson here is to never underestimate a Gen-Xer, always fear them.
Actually, no. The real point is that age does not need to be and often is not a barrier in relationships. This can be for better, when a healthy connection is made, or for worse, in a relationship that is predatory or, you know, winds up with one person getting poisoned. The spaces between people aren’t always as vast as they seem. As Charles says in his podcast voiceover, “We are all connected. We are all Tim Kono.” Unfortunately, that means that all of us can potentially enter a relationship that turns us into a victim. And, just like Mabel, Oliver, and Charles, any of us can form alliances that make all parties involved look like suspects.