The collaborations of Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij can be confounding, conjuring brilliant atmosphere, intriguing plots, and a singular, compelling tone, but occasionally falling down on the details. Such is the case with their latest limited series, A Murder at the End of the World, which delivers us to a moody, creepy near future and builds out a fascinating core mystery—that isn’t backed up by convincing world-building detail or narrative logistics.
The detective at the heart of the mystery is Darby Hart (Emma Corrin), a young hacker, amateur true-crime sleuth, and writer whose first nonfiction book has just come out. Darby is unexpectedly invited to a top-secret retreat full of eccentric elites, organized by billionaire tech-industry mogul Andy Ronson (Clive Owen). As a private jet hies her off to an Icelandic luxury hotel with numerous other “thought leaders,” Darby can’t figure out why she’s on the guest list—aside from her familiarity with and admiration for Ronson’s wife, a notoriously reclusive hacker named Lee Andersen (Marling). When Darby arrives, she’s shocked to find herself face to face with her ex-boyfriend Bill Farrah (Harris Dickinson), with whom she solved the case upon which her first book is based. Bill’s presence seems like less than coincidence, and sure enough, when bodies start to drop at the isolated location, Darby digs deeper, uncovering secret connection and hidden motives as she works to identify the killer.
A Murder at the End of the World can’t be accused of failing to have its finger on the pulse, what with its timely examination of big tech’s unfettered power, the terrifying perils of the climate crisis, and the looming threat of artificial intelligence. This last is represented by Ronson’s disembodied, virtual AI persona Ray (Edoardo Ballerini)—like Siri on steroids, a ghost in the machine of Ronson’s remote estate. The atmosphere is suitably apocalyptic, but also creepily sterile, as the problems of the world are discussed by privileged elites enjoying the secluded opulence of a billionaire redoubt. As in The OA, Batmanglij and Marling instill the scenario with eerie, unsettling vibes, nestling within the present crisis a compelling backstory that explores the connection between Darby and Bill, and their ultimate falling out. The overarching plot is well crafted, satisfying at a high level.
Where it falls down is at the micro-level: the detail, the connective tissue, the cause and effect. Some of these are specific to Darby as a character, the requisite smartest-person-in-the-room protagonist who arbitrarily engages in “idiot plot” behavior whenever the narrative requires it. The futuristic world-building, meanwhile, ricochets between credible and unconvincing—this latter, most specifically, in the security infrastructure of Ronson’s bleeding-edge smarthouse, the systems of which fail or succeed arbitarily based on the needs of the moment. At seven episodes, it feels both too short (rushing its endgame after extensive buildup) and too long (dragging its feet for the sake of tone), and it doesn’t build out a memorable enough suspect list considering the bottle-show possibilities. The finale, while structurally satisfying, is emotionally underwhelming.
Still, when it’s working, there’s something to it. It casts an intriguing spell, and its concerns are timely and well articulated. Corrin and Dickinson sell the unconventional core romance nicely, and Owen provides epic shadiness as a power-mad, out-of-touch billionaire. The characters may not be memorable, but the support is well played, with Alice Braga and Joan Chen registering the most memorable impressions. It’s a bit all over the place, then, but with plenty of nice touches and unique elements. Fans of previous Marling/Batmanglij collaborations will likely find it interesting, despite the rough edges.