Spoilers ahead for the HBO Max miniseries The Girl Before.
Kudos to the Brits for their willingness to ask important questions when crafting their miniseries. Questions like, What if astral projection and bodily possession were a thing? in Behind Her Eyes, and now, in The Girl Before, the new four-episode HBO Max miniseries that premiered on February 10, Would you trade away your privacy and autonomy for a chance at a rent-controlled London apartment? Sure, your landlord might be a serial killer, but real-estate prices are rough out there!
Starring Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Jessica Plummer, and David Oyelowo, The Girl Before uses an unforgivably minimalist one-bedroom apartment made of concrete, glass, marble, and surveillance spyware as the central location for a twisty-turny thriller with all the hallmarks of this genre. Women who look eerily alike get involved with the same guy! Domineering men with bizarre peculiarities lay down strict rules about sex! A love triangle has a tragic bent! A surprise pregnancy! Nonsensical choices are made by people who know they are in danger and yet refuse to change their behavior! And my favorite: A man informs a woman that her boyfriend probably murdered his wife and child years before and then casually takes a hit of an e-cigarette and ignores her shock with a flippant “Enjoy your day!” Imagine crushing someone’s romantic dreams so fully and then punctuating your dismissal of said person with a disinterested vape; The Girl Before is giving us art.
Set across two time periods — the present day and three years previous — The Girl Before builds a dual world with an overlapping set of characters. The stories unfold simultaneously, with one half of the narrative involving couple Emma (Plummer) and Simon (Ben Hardy), who after their apartment is burglarized and Emma is raped decide to move into a beautiful, cold space designed by architect Edward (Oyelowo). A smart home without any on-off switches but with a “housekeeper” program that responds to voice commands and tracks tenants’ preferences and activities, the place is shockingly affordable because of the 200 (two! hundred!) rules Edward forces upon his renters. “No children, obviously,” says the realtor, and also no pictures, no carpets or rugs, no books, no knickknacks, no drink coasters, no planting anything in the garden, the list goes on and on.
While Emma convinces Simon that the severeness of this Marie Kondo lifestyle will be good for them, The Girl Before also introduces us to Jane (Mbatha-Raw), who decides to rent the place three years later. It’s sat empty since Emma and Simon lived there, and Jane, who is grieving her stillborn daughter, sees a fresh start in the home and its rejection of sentiment. Does the fact that Emma died in the house (a detail The Girl Before shares early on) turn Jane off? Nope, it sparks her curiosity, and Jane’s arc becomes tied to her investigation into what really happened to Emma. The Girl Before then bounces back and forth between the two timelines, with some slick editing that collapses the time periods and places Emma and Jane’s experiences on parallel tracks. Can they trust Edward? Isn’t it a little uncomfortable that he dates both Emma and Jane and they both look so much like his dead wife? And isn’t it very disconcerting that the bodies of Edward’s wife and son, who were killed on-site during the house’s construction, are buried there, too?
This isn’t played as camp, necessarily, because Mbatha-Raw, Plummer, and Oyelowo stay controlled enough in their performances that The Girl Before remains in the “sure, this is weird, but it’s still sorta believable” realm of possibility. In adapting his eponymous novel, creator, writer, and executive producer J.P. Delaney sets a self-aware tone that balances harrowing subplots about child loss and inattentive health care, the flaws in the criminal justice system, and the pervasiveness of sexual assault with winking scenes that nod to the absurdity of the series’s central narrative elements.
A smart home that forces you to answer a 50-question quiz whose prompts read like a bad matchmaking service — “it is wrong to make decisions based on emotion,” “it is important to embrace change” — before allowing you to take a shower is a smirking comment on our reliance on tech and self-help. The fact that stunning, vivacious women like Emma and Jane are willing to settle for the dreadfully boring, unapologetically overbearing Edward, who rejects “the clutter of conventional relationships” because he still seems better than the other guys in the dating pool is actually an observation on the overall terribleness of men. And the selfish co-workers who toil alongside Emma and Jane and who refuse to offer any assistance when they learn that these women are living in what might be a murder house are obviously a “your workplace isn’t your family, and capitalism is bad, actually” detail.
Does it all come together in the end? Well, sort of. The Girl Before sets up three questions that must be answered in its final episode. The first is the most obvious: Who killed Emma? Jane spends the majority of the season investigating this, making a Charlie Kelly–like wall of connections between Edward, Simon, the man who broke into Emma and Simon’s home, the cops who basically forced Emma into perjury regarding her sexual assault, and Emma’s (disloyal) friends and co-workers. Was one of them responsible? And second, but connected to this, who raped Emma? Are they blackmailing her with a video of the incident so that she would stay quiet?
The final 15 or so minutes of the series lay these answers out by skipping between Emma and Jane’s timelines as they’re both pursued by … Simon, the Nice Guy™ boyfriend whose flower-bouquet deliveries and bottles of wine hid his true motivations. Irritated at being friend-zoned by Emma, threatened by her dating Edward, and frustrated to learn that his best friend Saul (Mark Stanley) was the one who raped his girlfriend, Simon shoves Emma to her death down the stairs of One Folgate Street, wipes the home’s surveillance footage and data, and then makes the scene suspicious enough to cast doubt on Edward.
There isn’t much to Simon personality-wise, but The Girl Before pulls off a neat trick by transferring all the strange details about Edward to Simon by the end: his preference for women who look a certain way, his belief that his romantic partners should defer to him in all things, his surveillance of One Folgate Street and its inhabitants, and his certainty that the police will take his word over anyone else’s. Is it perhaps too neat that Jane, who had become obsessed with getting justice for Emma, ends up shoving Simon down the same stairs to die in the same way his ex-girlfriend did? A little! But he still dies, and he deserves it, so … bye, Simon!
That dual reveal regarding the nefariousness of Simon and his best friend Saul leaves one final mystery for The Girl Before to explain: What’s Edward’s deal? To be sure, Edward is a closed-off, emotionally unavailable jerk who, Emma’s therapist suggests, has “repetition compulsion.” He dates a series of Black women who could pass for each other; he gives them all the same pearl necklace as a gift; he dictates — let me remind you! — 200 rules that they must live by when renting his apartment; he sets the terms of their relationships, the locations of their dates, and the details of their sexual rendezvous. “Why shouldn’t a house be designed to give you a framework to live by?” Edward wonders, and the answer is because that’s weird and controlling and egomaniacal, my dude!
Being a pain in the ass isn’t the same as being homicidal, but could Edward’s exacting nature be connected to the deaths of his family? The Girl Before is unclear on this third query, and the series’s nonanswer sparked a furious amount of interior Vulture discussion between myself and senior news editor Morgan Baila. To quote Morgan, was Edward just “good, weird, sad,” and if so, why did his former partner (the vaping guy) so heavily imply that Edward was a murderer who purposefully leveled a wall onto his loved ones? Or was Edward actually a baddie who intended to repeat a pattern of behavior with Emma and Jane, but Simon got in the way? The Girl Before floats the former by making Edward quick to anger and physically aggressive, adding fuel to that fire by having the pregnant Jane secretly abandon Edward at the medical center where he demanded she get an abortion and then … write him a letter telling him that she hopes their unborn child “will be the wake-up call you need” to go to therapy.
That is a twist! And that’s not at all! Then Jane, eventually revealed to have raised their son by herself, gives Edward a referral to Emma’s therapist, who was the person to first tell Jane that Edward was dangerous because of his behavior toward Emma! Jane, what are you doing? That is actually the final lingering mystery of The Girl Before: whether Jane was trolling or sincere with that final recommendation for counseling.
That Jane outlier makes The Girl Before about fifty-fifty in terms of explaining itself, but the strongest elements of the series are Mbatha-Raw and Plummer’s performances. The series leans into the actresses’ similar looks by presenting the women as tweaked duplicates of each other via mirror reflections, shared conversations with Edward, and split screens; fluid pans and dissolving transitions support the effect. Although the writing lacks some connectivity from scene to scene (why would Jane return to the house and to her relationship with Edward, even after she learns he’s lied to her over and over?), Mbatha-Raw molds Jane into a strong-willed, persistently inquisitive woman who refuses to be intimidated. She acts as an inverse of Plummer, who effectively unravels Emma; a scene in which Emma dissolves into tears while realizing how isolated she’s become by relying on Edward is agonizing to watch. It’s a lingering frustration that The Girl Before backs away from revealing Edward’s hinted-at motivations, but what the series effectively leaves us with is a reminder that landlords are the worst. In that observation at least, there’s no mystery.