What to Watch Verdict
'Only Murders in the Building' wraps up its phenomenal first season with a finale that answers all the right questions, solves its mystery effectively and features brilliant physical comedy.
Steve Martin pulls off some hilarious slapstick humor in a key moment
The explanation of who killed Tim Kono plays fair with the way the story has been unfolding since the start
The cliffhanger teasing a second season is thrilling
The core trio work together just as well here as they have past episodes
There's really only one flaw with this episode: having to wait for a second season is just unfair
Was there ever going to be a world in which Only Murders in the Building didn’t get a second-season renewal? Hulu wisely awarded this crime comedy a sophomore season after its apparently very highly rated three-episode premiere. (I say “apparently” because all streaming services, Hulu included, are notoriously stingy with revealing actual, detailed viewership numbers.) But what if that hadn’t happened? The final moments of this show’s first-season closer would’ve been an incredibly cruel tease, instead of what it is: a delicious conclusion to the year’s single best comedy.
I didn’t get into it too deeply during that three-episode premiere, but I will admit that I’m typically very wary of in medias res openings, those in which we begin at an undetermined future moment in a story at a point of high suspense, only to rewind and wait for the full story to arrive at that moment again with the appropriate context. Only Murders in the Building started that way, with Charles-Haden Savage (Steve Martin) and Oliver Putnam (Martin Short) rushing into a mostly deserted apartment in their building, the Arconia, only to find their fellow podcaster Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez) covered in blood next to a body in a tie-dye sweatshirt, promising that “it’s not what you think.”
Honestly, one of the reasons I didn’t keep coming back to that opening is because the writers on Only Murders in the Building wisely didn’t either. Aside from a mid-season future tease in which podcasting legend Cinda Canning (Tina Fey) reveals that her next crime podcast is about our three heroes and is titled "Only Murderers in the Building," the series hasn’t revisited its brief opening scene. It was, in short, easy to forget about, which is exactly why it wound up working so much in “Open and Shut,” the tenth and final episode of the first season.
Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself. As you may recall from the end of “Double Time,” Charles, Oliver and Mabel separately made some surprising discoveries about Charles’ girlfriend and bassoonist Jan (Amy Ryan). Charles ignored her request and attended a concert where she was purportedly performing a big solo in Igor Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite,” only to learn that Jan had lied about being the first-chair bassoon, a title bestowed upon a much younger performer. Oliver and Mabel, meanwhile, realized that one of the presumed sex toys that the dead Tim Kono (Julian Cihi) was carrying around was actually a bassoon cleaner, implying that Jan was involved with Tim in some way.
Tim, as it happens, takes on narration duties in “Open and Shut,” addressing the audience direct to camera, specifying that he only spent 23 seconds in the elevator with Charles, Oliver and Mabel back when those three were strangers. Tim notes — as he tries to let us get to know him, a quest the three heroes have been on since the beginning — that he only became lonely after losing Mabel, Oscar (Aaron Dominguez) and Zoe (Olivia Reis), the latter of whom we know was killed, a death that Oscar went to jail for despite being innocent. His loneliness, as it turns out, is something shared by Jan, which is why they immediately became lovers. The episode wastes no time in confirming that; it’s no accident that Jan’s bassoon cleaner was something he carried around.
“What a terrific goddamn finale this is going to be!” Oliver crows, as he and Mabel rush to tell Charles about Jan’s connection to Tim. But while they worry that their friend is in danger, he’s just returning from the performance (still with some dried blood on his nose, from his anxious condition) and Oliver wastes no time in revealing that Jan must be the murderer. In spite of Charles now knowing that Jan’s willing to obfuscate at least some of the truth, he refuses to be led down another rabbit hole by either Oliver or Mabel. (All this during a scene that gives Martin Short even more great lines, such as noting that Jan and Tim’s age difference is basically the same as that of Charles and Jan.) Once they realize, per Charles, that Jan’s still at the symphony, Oliver and Mabel take it upon themselves to break into her place.
But Jan’s closer than they think — she left at intermission to apologize to Charles about lying that she was first chair. She seems contrite enough, offering a handkerchief with ice and a drink to Charles. As much as Charles may wish to think she’s innocent, Jan quickly realizes that her bassoon cleaner is there and identifies it as such. Charles quickly says that while Oliver and Mabel think she’s the murderer, he doesn’t. He doesn’t even want to talk about Tim Kono — “I think I’m falling in love with you”, he says. Jan says she is too, which would be awfully nice if she wasn’t clearly the murderer. Before you wonder if Charles has fully lost his ability to spot a bad guy in his midst, he slyly reveals that he hasn’t taken a single sip of his drink. “I’m taking stage sips because there’s poison in it,” he says calmly to Jan’s shock.
There’s no attempt on Jan’s part to hide the truth, either. Once Charles muses on why she poisoned Evelyn the cat, she all but leaps forward and says that wasn’t her — the earlier theory that the cat must have gone in through the window afterwards and taken a lick of the wrong drink is all we can go on. As delightfully quirky as Amy Ryan has been all season long, she leans in hard to the more flamboyant angles of being a “murderous maniac,” as Oliver calls Jan. She’s been fun all season, but this is a high point for her. Jan reveals that Tim broke up with her two days before he died, and when she lured him back to his apartment to get some old things that’s when she poisoned him via drink, before shooting him. Charles is in the process of revealing that the way Jan wrote the letter “j” in notes to him, as well as to Tim, gave her away ... before it becomes clear that even if he didn’t drink anything, he has indeed been drugged.
Not the drink this time, either — it was the handkerchief that Jan used to help staunch the bleeding from Charles’ nose. As she claps in glee at Charles continuing to realize various details, including that Jan stabbed herself two episodes ago, Jan sees that her beau is now basically fully incapacitated. But even so, she speaks at length about what ended up triggering her into killing Tim: the emerald ring he was hiding as part of his plot against Teddy Dimas (Nathan Lane), which she presumed was for another woman. That ring, meanwhile, is what Mabel and Oliver find in Jan’s apartment, sealing their realization that she’s the true killer. “Sadly, I will not be seeing you bass-sooner or later,” Jan says as a final kiss-off, as tearful as she is criminal. After she leaves, though, we get one more twist: Charles may be drugged, but he’s very much alive, willing himself to sit up and grab his phone, which he had recording the whole time.
It is here that I want to pause and emphasize a few things. First of all, Only Murders in the Building is the kind of good that gives you goosebumps. All of the ingredients for great television are here, and to see it all lock into place is genuinely thrilling. It’s not just that the crime at the heart of the season was carefully plotted out and makes full sense, it’s that the blend of tension and humor is at its height in this episode. Charles’ drugged state allows for some grade-A slapstick from Steve Martin, who flops around like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street during the bad Quaalude scene. Plus, as the slapstick begins, there’s a perfect callback: Charles grabs his phone with his mouth, trying to get Siri to call for help. Siri mishears his slurred “I feel bad” as a request to play “Fields of Gold” by past suspect Sting. This show, folks. This show!
When that request fails, Charles tries to roll himself onto the elevator on his floor, while Mabel and Oliver unknowingly escape being spied by Jan — they head upstairs just as Jan returns to her apartment. And then they arrive on Charles’ floor just as he barely manages to get his incapacitated self into the other elevator. He’s mistaken for having had a bender by a few of the Arconia’s still grumpy residents, such as Howard (Michael Cyril Creighton) and condo board bully Bunny (Jayne Houdyshell). After the building’s doorman sends Charles back to his floor, Mabel and Oliver return, getting the same warning from the doorman that “the same thing happened to Sting.” Fortunately, the back-and-forth ends on his floor, as Mabel and Oliver retrieve Charles, realize he was shrewd enough to record Jan’s confession on his phone and then grasp that Jan is planning to send out the same poison gas throughout the entire building to enable her escape.
Though Mabel and Oliver are well out of their depth — and pushing Charles around in the same stroller where Oliver usually pushes his dog — they’re able to turn off the dual boilers in the basement and stop Jan’s plot. Jan, of course, is waiting to hold Oliver at gunpoint. After she does a little cat-and-mouse with Oliver, Charles shocks everyone by standing up and delivering the impassioned plea that the show has been building to since the start. He talks about how Mabel and Oliver have woken part of him up, and how he feels alive once more, even as he offers himself up as a sacrifice to save them.
And then we get what may be the single funniest gut-busting moment of the season: the speech and its clarity is all in Charles’ head. He’s still very drugged, mumbling incoherently to all the rest of the world. But Oliver is able to use that as a surprise tactic, pushing the stroller into Jan as she fires the gun off-angle. Then Mabel steps in and punches Jan, “for Tim,” with the emerald ring on her finger. Oliver is able to translate Charles’ next mumble — “This takes the investigation in a whole new direction,” his old catchphrase from TV.
That ought to be it, right? Jan is taken into custody and Bunny begrudgingly removes the threat of eviction from all three of our heroes. “Congrats, Bunny,” Mabel says snarkily, “you’re the most hated person in the building now, you cranky old bitch.” Call that foreshadowing, folks. Later, Oliver’s son (Ryan Broussard) returns with Oliver’s dog Winnie and a check that his dad asked for in the premiere. Oliver rejects it, knowing that he’s on a path forward, and invites his son to stay so he can tell the whole story. Mabel reunites with Oscar, whose name is fully cleared, as they marvel at her portraits of the various Arconia residents, a project now finished. And Charles finally reaches out to Lucy, the daughter of his old ex, pleasantly surprised that she responds even briefly via text. Charles then finishes recording the final episode of the podcast, summing it up that “we are all Tim Kono.” The podcasting trio then toast each other on the top of the Arconia, sharing some champagne.
“Does anyone feel like there are still some loose ends?” Mabel asks, to a confused Charles and Oliver as they celebrate. Mabel decides to think on it while getting more champagne from her place. Meanwhile, Charles acknowledges “we do make a decent team” to Oliver — which anyone following Steve Martin and Martin Short knows is true — before they both realize that there are sirens getting louder and louder towards their building. And then a strange phone number texts both of them, warning them to leave the building immediately.
And finally, we return to the opening scene of the season: Charles and Oliver running down to Mabel’s apartment, opening the door to find her covered in blood next to a person in a tie-dye sweatshirt. The wearer of that sweatshirt? None other than Bunny, who is extremely dead and was apparently in the apartment, stumbling in on Mabel when she opened the door. If that wasn’t bad enough? Bunny appears to have been killed by Mabel’s knitting needles. Our trio gets no time to think of their next steps, because the police barge in and arrest all three of them. They’re carted out in front of the aghast residents of the Arconia, the podcast’s fans, Detective Williams (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) who warns them to stay silent and even Cinda herself.
And that’s the end of the season. You see what I mean about wondering what would’ve happened if this show wasn’t picked up? Oliver said it best earlier in the episode, but this is a terrific goddamn finale. And as Mabel said a few minutes before the close, with Bunny being the most hated member of the Arconia, having been plenty nasty to everyone around her, there are no doubt plenty of suspects. (Since we know it was neither Charles nor Oliver, and it couldn’t be Mabel either.) She’s not wrong about loose ends, such as the notes on both Oliver’s and Jan’s doors, which were written in a different style than the notes Charles compared when he realized Jan was up to no good. (As far as my eye can tell, at least.) Who killed Bunny? And why do we have to wait for a year? That’s what kills me now.
Anyway, I cannot emphasize enough how much fun Only Murders in the Building has been in its first season, such an effectively, precisely written show full of excellent performances, smart world-building and true surprises and tension. Now there’s just one problem: this show’s sophomore season has a high bar to clear.
But this season has proved that co-creators Martin and John Hoffman, and the writing staff, have earned our trust.
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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