Photo: Patrick Harbron/Hulu
There’s a moment about two-thirds of the way into “Performance Review,” the sixth episode of Only Murders’s season two, that adroitly captures what is, for me, one of the series’s strengths — foregrounding the personal relationship and revelations of the core trio over the murder mystery that continues to unfold around them.
Realizing they’ve been texting with Bunny’s murderer — or, at least, someone other than Detective Williams, who’s on maternity leave in Denver — Mabel, Oliver, and Charles set a trap for the scoundrel, who asks them to leave their evidence (the bloody matchbook) in Morningside Park. Charles takes a cue from Brazzos yet again and suggests they instead plant a paint bomb, which Oliver reworks as a glitter bomb because his experience in regional theater and wild orgies has taught him that glitter leaves a much more indelible mark. They sit in Aphrodite (Oliver’s car) to stake out the trash can, the conversation turning from Oliver’s fears that Will isn’t his son to Cinda Canning’s attempts to smear Mabel to Charles’s rekindled relationship with Jan.
As Mabel calls Charles out for dating her friend’s murderer — this time, knowingly — a tall figure, looking a lot like the person that Lucy heard and we saw in the secret passageway in “Here’s Looking At You…,” approaches the trash can. The glitter bomb goes off as Charles says he’s never broken up with anyone, so he doesn’t know how to detangle himself from Jan. It’s quite the tableau: Mabel looking betrayed, Charles sitting sheepishly, and Oliver, for once, just listening intently, all while their quarry deals with all that glitter. But by the time Mabel, Charles, and Oliver realize what’s happening, the suspect has disappeared into the park.
You could view this as yet another instance of the Arconia three being incompetent investigators — so self-absorbed that they blow the chance to clear their names, a cloud of pink glitter in the background punctuating the absurdity. I know I laughed when “The Mariah,” Oliver’s name for a combination of glitter, rubber cement, and C4, went off, knocking the hooded figure back. But the scene plays almost like group therapy, with Charles and Mabel first consoling Oliver about his DNA test, then Oliver and Charles consoling Mabel over Cinda’s bombshell interview with some creep named Jimmy Russo. Charles doesn’t get the chance to disclose his secret to his friends; he’s caught in the lie, which shifts the energy. Mabel gives Charles some tough love, telling him to “get [his] shit straight” before deciding she needs a break from her neighbor buddies.
The scene is part comedy of errors, part wake-up call: Murder mystery parties and TV reboots aside, the trio’s lives are on the line; they’re now the subjects of a true-crime investigation. Mabel, Charles, and Oliver thought they had embraced the mess in season one, but they’re facing much more uncomfortable truths this time around. They all take turns confronting the past, both recent (Jan and Charles’s relationship, Tim Kono’s murder) and long-buried (what happened to Mr. Savage Sr., Teddy’s possible dalliance with Roberta, Mabel’s heretofore unmentioned dad).
Jan hinted at this in “The Tell,” observing that whoever is staging these crime scenes knows the Arconia three well. It’s hard to trust her when she’s taking advantage of Charles’s guilt about abandoning his father when it was the other way around. Amy Ryan is thriving in Hannibal Lecter mode this season, as Jan engages in her own quid pro quo with Charles: murderous insights in exchange for blueberry bagels and some mildly horny phone calls. But she’s right that the person they’re after really seems to know them, either from having spied on them through the secret passageways or being part of their lives.
Every true-crime story is true for someone — that’s what Charles said to Oliver after they met Mabel’s mom and learned just how much Zoe’s and Tim’s deaths traumatized Mabel. It was a self-aware moment for both Charles and the series, acknowledging how the entertainment industry and media can turn one person’s tragedy into another person’s binge-watch or listen. But Charles, Mabel, and Oliver also realized they could use their podcast to process what they’ve been through and help others do the same. In season two, it’s also a matter of self-preservation — they have to clear their names, and the podcast may be the only way. And it probably doesn’t hurt that another successful investigation could lead to success elsewhere.
The great team behind the scenes of “Performance Review” — writers Ben Smith (Barry, Santa Clarita Diet) and Joshua Allen Griffith (Mrs. America), and director Cherien Dabis (OMITB, Ramy) — contrasts the growing ambivalence the Arconia three feel about their podcast with the unbridled ambition of Cinda Canning. Tina Fey makes a swaggering return as the podcast host, who readily admits that she’s more interested in entertaining than illuminating. Cinda doesn’t care that Jimmy Russo sexually harassed Mabel at work or that his injury was an accident because “To our audience, there is nothing more tantalizing than an unhinged, murderous beauty.” “Bloody Mabel” makes for a better story than whatever else might actually be going on at the Arconia.
Cinda’s zeal is obvious, but could it have driven her to make the news in this case — that is, beyond doing some irresponsible reporting? She was already on site when Charles, Mabel, and Oliver were arrested last season, with Poppy and recording equipment in hand. Actually, this episode makes it clear that, to Cinda, Poppy is equipment. Poppy realizes that too, which is why she calls Mabel to warn her that she’s in Cinda’s crosshairs. Will treating Poppy so shabbily really come back to bite Cinda? Poppy claims to know where all the “bodies are buried” (figuratively speaking), but I’m not sure she’ll really go against Cinda to help Mabel and “the old men” (I love that the generation gap is never lost on anyone).
If Poppy’s to be believed, Cinda is as big a phony as Alice (I mean, what’re the odds that Kay Graham would have been hanging out with WaPo interns?). Both Cinda and Alice remain wild cards in this season’s investigvation because it’s so hard to tell when they’re helping and when they’re “helping.” When Detective Krebs (Michael Rapaport) scoffs at Cinda’s offer to help him with the case, which he loudly describes as a “career-making” one, she immediately threatens him: “You should be grateful, given your reputation, Detective Krebs.” He looks chastened, so clearly, Cinda’s not bluffing.
Alice is similarly not to be trusted, but it’s harder to pinpoint why. On the one hand, she’s lied about her background and about being the Son of Sam (in a game, that is). In “Performance Review,” we spy her taking pictures of the stain that Bunny’s blood left on Mabel’s floor. Then there’s the whole “recreate Mabel’s apartment in the gallery” deal, complete with Tim Kono and Zoe stand-ins (Alice shows zero chill by having the fake Tim walk around with some gruesome makeup/prosthetics). Alice claims she’s to be “looking at trauma through a fine-art lens,” and she may be telling the truth — she did also allow Mabel to obliterate the past by destroying a sculpture of herself. Maybe Alice’s real flaw is that she leans into the most literal interpretation of everything, in which case, she’s just not a very good artist.
She could be feigning this lack of skill, but Alice’s life-size diorama of the murder scene makes me think she can’t be the killer/person behind the frame job because the latter is (or are) much more adept at storytelling. Using Oliver’s knife to kill someone in Mabel’s apartment and then hiding it in Charles’s knife block is just a few levels above this gallerista. But if she’s not the killer and neither is Cinda, then who is?
I know I just said I’m more interested in the characters and vibes, but I am just as prone to theorizing as anyone else. The person who got Mariah-ed this episode was wearing goggles, just like the person who attacked Bunny in her apartment. And they’re tall, like the person we saw in the secret passageway in the fourth episode. But what if the person who first attacked Bunny isn’t the person who finished the job? What if there are two killers? What if Charles, Oliver, and Mabel aren’t the only ones who have made new friends? The timeline of the night of the murder might back up this theory, because if the killer pursued Bunny into Mabel’s apartment through the secret passageway, why didn’t Lucy hear Bunny run by, too? Wouldn’t this mean Bunny got into Mabel’s place through the front door — unless there’s yet another way into Mabel’s apartment?
I have more questions than ever, but after a fitfully engaging fifth episode, Only Murders finds its rhythm again with an alternately high-spirited and devastating episode.
• One more theory: I do not think, as some folks online do, that Oliver’s hot son Will is the killer, but I’m definitely suspicious of the timing of the DNA test. What grade-school science fair project would require DNA testing? Maybe Henry (Will’s son) was actually assigned a family tree, which got Will to thinking about his ancestry, and before you know it, he stumbles upon some evidence that he’s not related to Oliver.
• “Don’t be too good at a job you don’t want.” I know Cinda is full of shit, but this line is brutal and accurate.
• Cinda’s calendar, which Poppy manages, includes brainstorming sessions with a “creativity coach/psychic,” a day with three lunches (nice), and a midday “clitoral stimulation session with Jake” (nicer).
• I’m going to need more info on Charles and Joy’s hookup, especially since it seems to have been part of Charles’s first ho phase.
• This week’s Easter egg: The moon flashes or explodes with glitter, just like “The Mariah” Oliver put in the trash can in Morningside Park.
Only Murders in the Building Recap: A (Glitter) Bombshell