What to Watch Verdict
As 'Only Murders in the Building' continues its confident run, 'Twist' stands out as a high point in raising the stakes and the humor.
The script doesn't waste time teasing the audience
The reveal regarding Tie-Die Guy is both logical and satisfying
The back-and-forth between Martin and Short continues to be a joy
That reveal is somewhat ruined by the opening credits having listed an actor who barely showed up for four episodes
With the show's first season halfway done, can it conclude well?
Some of the bigger recurring guest stars have yet to make a big impact
The late Roger Ebert, aside from being one of the greatest cultural critics to ever live, built up an impressive list of rules and guidelines that most films followed, as a matter of detailing common tropes and clichés of the industry. One of his most helpful and intelligent was the Law of Economy of Characters. Ebert argued through this law that a character who is introduced with no clear role will turn out to be important to the plot, in short because there are no unnecessary characters. Now, we’re only halfway through Only Murders in the Building with this fifth episode, “Twist”, yet fittingly enough, the episode represents a twist on the Law of Economy of Characters, one thanks to the vagaries of contract details when casting actors in a television show.
To wit: if you’ve been sticking around with Only Murders in the Building so far (and you should, seeing as it continues to be one of the best, most assured, and delightfully witty shows of the year), you may have noticed the New Yorker cartoon-style opening credits, which list five actors. There’s Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez (in that order, including the “and” in front of Gomez’s name), as Charles, Oliver, and Mabel, our trio of would-be true-crime podcasters. And there’s Amy Ryan, as fellow tenant Jan, who so far doubles as a love interest for the at-heart shy Charles. But you’d have to willfully ignore Aaron Dominguez’s name at this point to wonder why he's listed. Up to the end of the prior episode, Dominguez has made very few appearances, primarily in flashback. And that’s logical enough, seeing as he’s playing Oscar, an old friend of Mabel’s who was sent to jail for years for the murder of their fellow friend and tenant of the Arconia, Zoe.
But you could have reasoned out, by process of elimination, the identity of Tie Die Guy -- you know, the mysterious figure in a tie-dye hoodie seen by Charles the night of Tim Kono’s murder, heading up the stairs of the building during a fire alarm -- to be Oscar. We know from the previous episode, when Mabel visited Oscar’s father, the building super, that her friend is out of prison. And his absence from the present-day story is all the more notable for the fact. Plus, there’s the whole opening-credits thing: it makes undeniable sense for Martin, Short, Gomez, and Ryan to be there, because of how well-known they all are. Dominguez is a much newer actor, but as soon as you know he’s playing Oscar and he’s in the opening credits...well, there has to be a reason.
One of the many wise touches of “Twist”, written by Thembi Banks, is that it doesn’t toy around much with the audience. Where the opening episode had brief narration provided by Charles, Oliver, and Mabel, here we get Oscar narrating at the start, as we watch from his perspective. But just as he thinks he’s fooling Mabel, she reveals herself to be stealthier and more intense, leading him into a darkened alley only to turn around and threaten her presumed assailant with knitting needles. Oscar, at first, seems to be hiding more from Mabel than he should: while he tells her that he was going up the stairs the night of Tim’s death to see her, we see the truth, that he was headed to Tim’s apartment. With Mabel unaware, Oscar offers to drive her to the location on Tim’s Post-It note, raising the stakes as we wonder whether or not the young man -- sent to jail on false pretenses because Tim never spoke out -- might have had revenge in mind.
That, at least, is what Charles and Oliver are wondering when they see Mabel getting into Oscar’s car, Charles vindicated temporarily about his suspicions regarding Tie-Dye Guy and Oliver surprised that said suspicions were ever reasonable. Oliver, conveniently, has a car that they can use to tail Mabel and Oscar, though as the ever-industrious Oliver notes, his license was suspended 25 years ago. So Charles gets to rifle through his own emotions regarding Mabel, who clearly has taken the place of his ex’s daughter Lucy as someone he cares for in a paternal way, as he tries to navigate Oliver’s beat-up old car as they drive into Long Island. “Long Island. I leave Manhattan for the first time in 5 years, and it’s to Long Island,” Charles says disdainfully.
Oliver’s car only lasts the two men -- who Oscar compares to a pair of retired cops, in what seems like a very charitable connection -- to a gas station past the George Washington Bridge, where the engine conks out on them. Fortunately, a pair of horticultural podcasters (including Roy Wood, Jr. of The Daily Show) recognize Charles as Brazzos and happily help them tail Mabel to her location: a tattoo shop owned by her sketchy cousin Tavo. At first, they find Mabel on her own, because Oscar tacitly refuses to follow her lead. He tries to convince her to do the same, exhorting her that he hasn’t had “ice cream...with a girl...on the beach” for 10 years, but she can’t help herself from finding out what her family has to do with Tim’s death. There’s a very brief argument between her and her fellow podcasters, but it all comes out in the open pretty quickly: Mabel confirms to Charles and Oliver that she knew Tim Kono a long time ago, as did Oscar, but she knows he’s not the killer because he was visiting her the night of Tim’s death.
Except, in another shrewd move from the script (tying into the earlier note that this show’s not keeping secrets), Oscar confirms that he was going up to Tim’s apartment. But even though he was thinking of “fucking him up” a bit, Oscar says that before he could knock on the door, he heard a gunshot and then ran off. Tavo then appears, learning that Tim’s been killed and acting...well, not shocked at all, seeing as Tim apparently predicted he’d be dead soon, because he was trying to take down a black-market jeweler named Angel. Charles seems doubtful until Mabel unloads some of the jewels she found stashed away in Tim’s apartment.
“Twist” continues the winning streak for Only Murders in the Building, in so many ways. Though the episode is squarely placed in the present day -- even the flashback only jumps back to the first episode’s timeline, not years in the past or months in the future -- it continues raising the stakes emotionally for our three heroes. It’s honestly a bit gratifying and relieving to have so much information out in the open. Mabel’s no doubt got some further explaining to do for Charles and Oliver to clarify her past with Tim, but everyone knows the basics now, all the way up to Oscar’s presence the night of the murder.
More to the point, Only Murders in the Building continues being an extremely funny and shrewd show that both riffs on the idea of true-crime podcasts (and podcasts in general, such as “Yard Dogs”, the one hosted by the two cousins who drive Charles and Oliver to the tattoo parlor) and effectively tells a compelling true-crime story in and of itself. “Twist” also manages to walk a tricky balance in the scenes where Charles and Oliver try their best to follow Mabel and Oscar to her destination: these scenes have to get across their desperate urgency in figuring out what’s going on, while also being an opportunity for Steve Martin and Martin Short to riff with each other. On that latter note, there’s one specific bit, in which they each bounce off gross medical maladies they caught in different parts of the tri-state area that feels, in the most charming way, like Martin and Short getting a take or two to just improvise with each other.
As Only Murders in the Building is now officially halfway through its first season, it feels right that “Twist” not only raises new questions about Tim Kono -- why was he trying to take down a black-market jeweler, for one -- but that our three heroes are back on solid footing with each other, and have now potentially dragged in Oscar to help out in the case. Aside from Tim, there are questions to ponder for any viewers. Will Amy Ryan return soon enough to get more to do than just be a nice love interest for Steve Martin? (If the Law of Economy of Characters applies to Aaron Dominguez, it should also apply to Amy Ryan.) Will Nathan Lane show up again, seeing as his character Teddy is sponsoring the podcast that our heroes are co-hosting? He may not get an opening-credits mention, but it’d be a shame to see him so briefly. And most importantly: will this show continue its first-half ascent through its back half? Time will tell.
Josh Spiegel is a freelance cultural critic who has been published in Slashfilm, SyFy, ScreenCrush, The A.V. Club, The Hollywood Reporter, The Washington Post and others. His favorite films include Singin’ in the Rain, The Rocketeer, Pinocchio and A Matter of Life and Death. His favorite TV shows include Ted Lasso, Only Murders in the Building, Deadwood and Lost. He lives in Phoenix with his wife, two sons and too many cats.
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