The following article contains spoilers for A Murder at the End of the World S1E1, “Homme Fatale” (written by Brit Marling & Zal Batmanglij and directed by Brit Marling), and S1E2, “The Silver Doe” (written by Brit Marling, Zal Batmanglij, Melanie Marnich & Rebecca Roanhorse and directed by Zal Batmanglij).
Welcome, dear reader, to another installment of Third Day Theories, where we take a water cooler worthy show and deep dive into the theories that have developed three days (approximately) after the episode has aired. This go around, we will be examining the long awaited follow up to The OA from creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, A Murder at the End of the World.
The first two episodes dropped on November 14, with the remaining five episodes planned for one a week through December 19. Given Brit and Zal’s past collaborations, the one thing to expect of this show is that our expectations will be subverted. That’s maybe a hard sell so far, as the first two episodes have played out as a pretty straight forward murder mystery.
That certainly hasn’t stopped the online community from dreaming up all manner of fantastical theories. However, in an interview with Salon, Brit says: “This story is different in a sense that I think ‘OA’ was more overtly metaphysical. […] In this story, I think the way it started to form in our minds, it didn’t need that. It also didn’t want that.” She describes this story as being “more obviously grounded.” Of course, in Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij’s world, that could still leave a lot of wiggle room.
Beginning at the Ending
In that same interview, Brit says that time does become a sort of metaphysical element for this story, as they weave the past and present like a braid. “The present actually reshapes the past as you go back and remember it and every time you remember something, you kind of re-author it, and the memory becomes different, and then that comes in and animates the present in a new way.”
With that in mind, let’s start at the end, as Darby did at her book reading. Here’s my personal theory as to where we are at the end of Episode 2. I believe Bill’s death is a performance art piece, though I do think he is actually dead. This is why his heart was racing at dinner and what he had on his mind talking to Darby outside. He wanted Darby to be there with him when he died, and he also didn’t really want her to try to get someone to save him. That was never part of the plan.
He’s been at the hotel maybe since its inception two years ago. It’s another Artificial Insanity complex, built around this performance. That’s why the ridiculous password on the doorbell cams subnet. It’s a puzzle that was meant to be solved.
And Darby is there to solve it. That’s her contribution to the group. She’s neither a builder nor a non-builder. She would specifically be inclined to see Bill’s death as a murder and be motivated to solve it. She has the skill set to understand and hack the technology. She worships Lee and still loves Bill. Which are two blind spots she’s going to need to overcome.
Who Invited Who?
One of the first minor mysteries we encounter is who invited who to the retreat. There are nine guests, with five invited by Andy and four invited by Lee. David tells Darby that “back in the old days,” Andy made the distinction between “builders” (his invitees presumably) and “non-builders” (Lee’s invitees). David certainly considers himself a builder, and thus one of Andy’s invitees. At the dinner table, Andy introduces three more of his invitees: Oliver, Ziba and Sian. So that’s four down, but who is the last member of Team Andy?
Bill didn’t arrive at the table until after Andy’s little speech, which could explain his being overlooked. Though David was also overlooked. Bill later tells Darby that he guesses Andy invited him for having the useful kind of nerve. Ziba, one of Andy’s confirmed guests, also only came because the opportunity to connect with FANGS was dangled before her. All of this would seem to indicate he was indeed invited by Andy.
However, Bill also says that he came for Lee. And he apparently has a past with her, complete with paparazzi pictures of the two of them “spotted together in NYC.” A trajectory he was likely placed upon by Darby’s telling him of “only the greatest female coder to have ever lived.” He asked Darby at the time if she had ever thought about looking for her. Apparently after he left Darby, Bill did just that.
So, if Bill was invited by Lee, then I would wager that Darby was invited by Andy. How better to shake up whatever Lee and Bill might be up to than to invite his ex to the party? After Andy’s joking remark about Lee’s invitees at dinner, Sian and David think that confirms it was definitely not Andy who invited Darby. And frankly, I just want David, who’s a bit of a jerk, to be wrong at this point.
After Bill enters his room, he almost has a visit from Ziba. As I mentioned earlier, she only came to the retreat to meet FANGS in person, having been rebuffed by him in previous attempts to connect. Before knocking, she listens at the door, hears something, is startled by what she hears, and then scurries off immediately. Was Bill already not alone in his room?
Before the jump scare with the masked figure, the doorbell cam is activated again when the door opens and closes with nobody there. Two thoughts as to who or what that could have been.
It could have been Ray asking to be let in, as he did at Darby’s apartment. Bill puts on his glasses, opens the door to talk to a person that he can see but that does not show up on the camera, and invites him in. A bit of a stretch, since Ray was already present in Darby’s room at the hotel, and really, he doesn’t have to be let in. He’s not a vampire. Pretty sure.
The other possibility is that it was someone too short to be seen by the camera mounted to capture faces at adult eye level. Which brings us to Zoomer.
There’s a lot of theorizing around Zoomer right now. The primary weirdness being his declaration that he is 5 years, 9 months, 20 days, and 27 seconds old. How, er…cute? Andy also waives off Ziba, rather forcefully, from offering Zoomer a bit of her bread. And from these two clues, a great many folks are off to the races to declare that Zoomer is a robot. Oh boy.
OK, there is a little bit more to it than that. We do have Oliver on Andy’s guest list, doing sci-fi level work in robotics. Oliver did not arrive with the other guests who came by plane or vehicle, so maybe he’s been there longer. A lot longer. There is no place setting for Zoomer at the table (and generally speaking, robots do not eat). Also, the boy recites “alternative intelligence” with his father like it has been a mantra drilled into his head. A less insulting A.I. term, if you happen to be one. But is that enough to go on?
Prior to the dinner, there was room service delivered to their room, which Zoomer popped out, snatched up, and ran inside with in a hurry. Looked like that was for him, a very hungry boy. The lack of a place setting could be because he was not originally supposed to be part of the dinner. Andy says his son lobbied very hard to be allowed to join them. It could also be because he ate before, and perhaps he even has allergies or something like that. What says rich white family more than putting your kid on a gluten-free diet?
What Day Is It?
What about the weirdness with his knowing his age down to the second? Well first, let see if he really did. We learn later that April 14, 2017 (Andy’s “04142017” password) is Zoomer’s birthday. So:
- +5 years takes it to April 14, 2022
- +9 months takes it to January 14, 2023
- +20 days takes it to February 3, 2023
Is the dinner happening on February 3? The next day, when Darby is looking at door footage records, the doorbell cams archive folder is time stamped 2023-02-04 11:59 (noon on February 4, 2023) and the files look to be updated every 6 hours. So…Zoomer was right.
OK, so maybe the kid’s a prodigy. He has two brilliant parents, after all, and access to all the resources in the world. Also, he did glance at his watch, likely a smart watch that could have a display showing him his age with such precision. Still, super weird.
The other thing that was delivered with the room service for Zoomer was an oxygen tank for Lee. We can speculate that it was for her, because she is wearing an oxygen backpack at the dinner. Granted, we haven’t actually seen her use an oxygen mask yet. It’s possible the oxygen is for Zoomer, since she shares a room with him, and they walked in together to the dinner. Though the same pack is also present in the paparazzi pictures of her (alone) with Bill.
Zoomer comes to the dinner with his doctor’s kit. Again, like his mother’s backpack, maybe it’s for him, maybe it’s for Lee. Given that someone is using an oxygen tank, he probably knows the doctor routine, and thus as a kid he’s going to play act what he sees. However, when Darby came running in yelling for a doctor, the hotel staffer is not aware of any doctor on site. It’s up to Darby to suggest Sian and find out her room. So, no doctor on site says the oxygen is not for something that is too critical. At least not yet.
Finding a Way Out
A couple more interesting things worth noting with Lee. Darby thinks she got the better of those who doxed her by marrying tech king Andy Ronson. She plays the role of dutiful wife and gracious hostess at the dinner fairly well, but the glimpse of her in her room—the frazzled mother sweeping up her kid’s mess—paints a potentially different picture.
Her toast at the dinner, “To…finding a way out,” has a lot of people wondering if her marriage is as happy as the two make it out to be. Technology was Lee’s life as an up-and-coming coder / hacker, but even before it was turned against her, it was souring on her. The spark that led to her doxing was a manifesto she wrote on how misogyny was destroying the promise of the early internet. Has she really given up that view? Likely the reaction only validated her opinion. Does Andy likewise stand against that misogyny, or is he the pinnacle of it? His amendment to her toast, “together,” might hint at the former, though maybe she needs reminding on that point.
Why Is Bill Here?
Bill is apparently on the guest list because he is both an artist and critical of technology. Darby calls him “one of the most celebrated guerilla artists alive.” One of his more famous works being “Artificial Insanity,” an installation that “took a big swing at Silicon Valley.” Andy apparently liked it and thought Bill had the useful kind of nerve. Others, like Martin and Ziba, obviously think highly of him as well.
At the dinner, Andy says he has two surprises he’s been working on while in isolation over the past few years. The first is Ray, the “alternative intelligence” that can serve as personal assistant, teacher or even therapist. The second was the hotel itself. He built it in this last great area of wilderness, and they are the first guests to stay in it. The implication being that it was built specifically for this retreat.
Bill was one of three guests who did not arrive with the others. His initially empty seat and his late arrival at the dinner table is met with no comment or fanfare from either host. Was he busy doing something? Preparing something for later that night?
When Zoomer is called back to his seat by his father, Bill throws a nervous look toward Lee, and she returns it after Zoomer is seated. A look that seemed to say that they just experienced a close call in that encounter. Bill doesn’t wear his ring, so the hotel cannot monitor things like his heart rate. Maybe for a reason. Then the boy goes and announces to the world that Bill’s heart is racing. Is it just the awkwardness of seeing Darby again for the first time in six years, or anxiety about what is going to go down that night?
When they talk outside, Darby can sense Bill has a lot on his mind. He acknowledges that he really does. He is wrestling with telling her something. He can’t just tell her though; he wants her to come back to his room. To show her something? Maybe the thing that Lee is searching for after his death?
Why Is Darby Here?
Lu Mei says Darby is a child, but she is actually an expert in her field, same as all of the other guests. Zal Batmanglij tells The Guardian that they were struck by this idea that, as a member of Gen Z growing up immersed in technology, Darby would have 10,000 hours logged in being an amateur sleuth by the time she was 23. Between that and seeing 56 prior crime scenes as her father’s daughter / assistant, she is not an amateur sleuth at all. She’s an expert.
However, you only invite a sleuth to your party if you know there’s going to be a murder to be solved. You also want her motivated to solve it. From reading her book, Bill realized her motivation was to make sure no one fell through the cracks. The rush to brush off Bill’s murder as a suicide pushes that button in her. Then Lee gives her permission to do her thing, just don’t get caught. How convenient.
Even more convenient is the ridiculous password on the internal hotel network. Really? A “King of Tech” is going to have his son’s birth date as his password? Let’s also not forget that he is Lee’s son as well, and her skill set makes her just as likely to have helped in the set up of the hotel’s technological infrastructure.
Darby is also an expert in using technology. She immediately understands how to interact with Ray. She engages with him to be better informed for the dinner. She asks him questions while investigating Bill’s room. She gets information from him to help her hack the hotel network. Martin on the other hand uses Ray to perform party tricks and collaborates with him to make a film that is obviously terrible from just the first few lines of dialogue we catch. He claims to understand that Ray is not an artist but rather a tool artists can use. He’s just not doing a good job of that.
Is Bill Really Dead?
Well now here’s a question. Should we believe what we heard and saw? Oliver primed us with his demonstration of deep fakes that technology has already made it so that we can’t trust audio. In the real world, video is rapidly approaching that point as well. We can’t really say where things are in terms of the show yet. Was Darby seeing what she was seeing through the window, or could that have been a view screen?
We started out Episode 2 with Sian performing CPR on Bill, but could that have been a performance? She’s a long-time friend and collaborator of Andy’s. It was also pretty suspect the way Darby was shooed out of the room and once again given drugs to knock her out. The police were supposed to come and investigate, but from the looks of it that investigation amounted to a firm handshake from Mr. Ronson.
Personally, I trust that he is dead because eventually Darby did get to exam his body. This is one of her areas of expertise. However, even if Bill is dead, is he really dead? Some of the more fantastical theories out there right now include the idea of cloning (the “health check” at the plane providing DNA samples) and uploading consciousness (another “alternative” intelligence). I’m not sure I’m buying into any of that yet, but I wouldn’t rule it out yet either.
A couple of quick takes on the rest of the episode:
- Dictionary.com defines “femme fatale” as “an irresistibly attractive woman, especially one who leads men into difficult, dangerous, or disastrous situations; siren.” So then, is a “Homme Fatale” (the Episode 1 title) an attractive man who leads women into difficult, dangerous, or disastrous situations? Is Bill a homme fatale to Darby? She does admit in her book reading that she doesn’t know how to sense danger when danger is closing in.
- “The end of the world” could be a reference to the location in Iceland, the last wilderness. As far away from civilization as they could get. It could be a reference to literal world ending events like climate change. A murder happening in the “end times,” so to speak. Or what if while they are at the retreat, the world is literally ending all around them? Like World War III breaks out. Having had their phones taken away from them, they would not know. Although, since FX has hinted that there could be follow on seasons with Darby, probably that last one is not going to be the case.
- “Finding a way out” is another phrase that could have multiple meanings within the context of the show. The obvious context of the dinner party was a reference to humanity needing to find a way out of the climate crisis corner that we’ve painted ourselves into. Perhaps, in light of Sian’s plans for colonizing the Moon, it’s a way off planet even. In the events of the past, we have Bill and Darby trapped in the killer’s basement with no apparent way out (really bad planning on their part). And then, as mentioned, many are wondering if Lee was making a subtle dig at Andy, expressing a desire to get out of her marriage to him.
- The current working theory for how Bill and Darby survived their encounter with the serial killer at the dismantled stairs is that the killer turned the gun on himself, knowing as they rattled off the list of his victims that the gig was up. This would also explain Bill covered in blood in the bathtub (not his own).
- Darby’s opening line, “I sometimes wonder, would it have been better not to go?” could apply to both the events of the past (going to the serial killer’s house) and the present (going to Andy Ronson’s retreat).
- One cleaver Reddit post points out the similarities between the dinner table scene and The Last Supper painted by Leonardo da Vinci. Bill, of course, ends up in the center as the Jesus figure, having his last meal before he is to be sacrificed for the larger plan. Now granted, there are only 11 other people seated around Bill. However, in Martin’s presentation the next day, he reminds us that Ray is always in the room, even when we do not see him. So that would make 12.
- In the subtitles, Bill’s pseudonym is spelled out in all caps, “FANGS.” So is it an acronym? If so, what does it stand for?
- Darby tells her dad that “the last and only time that I was on a plane, I had a panic attack.” Will we find out what that was all about in a future flashback?
- At the breakfast table, as Darby walks in, one of the weirder tidbits of conversation is between Martin and Lu Mei. Martin says, “You can just call me Martin.” Lu Mei replies, “Martin Luther is my favorite American name.”
- Lu Mei is played by Twin Peaks’ own Joan Chen, in case you missed that, like I did.
- They made a point of showing Martin whimpering in his sleep and clenching his fists. Watch for that to become relevant later.
- Some people are speculating that Bill knew Lee even prior to current events. That he might have even lured Darby via the online sleuthing forum, planted by Lee to bring this young protégé out of hiding. I don’t buy into this theory though. I think Bill’s reaction to Darby telling him about who Lee was and what happened to her, as they sit in the driveway of the killer’s house, seemed legitimate.
- The next level of that thread wonders if Zoomer could even be Bill’s kid, not Andy’s. Given his age of 5 years 9 months played against Bill having left Darby 6 years ago, that kind of lines up if you squint at it just right. Still, not on my top ten list of theories I find compelling. Although, there was that look Bill gave Lee after his examination was over.
- Darby puts her music player on “Shuffle Songs” mode and it just happens to play “No More I Love Yous.” Serendipity, or was her device hacked? If hacked, who would have known to play the exact song needed to bring her to Bill’s side? First thought, naturally, would be Bill. Then again, since the scene we saw was from her book reading, maybe everyone knows that is “their song” to her.
- Bill and Darby meet for the first time in real life at Ray’s Tavern (“The Place for Everyone”). Hard to believe the name “Ray” is there by accident, but what does it mean? Just another instance of the present informing the past?
- Isn’t it interesting that this show debuts on the coattails of the writers’ and actors’ strikes being resolved? Where a key issue being argued was providing artists protection from the impending encroachment of A.I. into their livelihood? Here in the show, we have artists criticizing technology, artists (filmmakers even, how on the nose) collaborating with A.I. badly, and a Gen Z’er expertly using technology because she had her 10,000 hours in by her early 20s.
- Another guest who did not arrive with the others was Oliver, the roboticist. So maybe we can’t rule out the robot boy theory entirely. He also makes a point of demonstrating deep fakes at the dinner table, warning us that we cannot trust what we hear in this show.
- Here’s a wacky thought. The person in the mask is Darby. She’s seeing herself when she went to knock at Bill’s door, with the mask superimposed over her face via AR. There was a weird digitizing effect at the end there.
- Is it a notable coincidence that there was a dish broken and being swept up in Lee’s room and a dish broken and swept up outside Bill’s room? More loops within loops.
- The Ronson logo immediately reminded me of the Methodist “cross and flame” logo. At least, the flame part. Does it mean anything though? Probably not.
- There is a theory forming around the glimpse Darby had of Lee cleaning up the mess in her room and Lee appearing minutes later at the welcome dinner, coifed and dressed perfectly. Could there be two Lees?
In the News
Here I’ll link you to some additional tidbits and interviews from around the internet related to the show.
- FX’s page for A Murder at the End of the World has an informative page with character bios that is worth reading for some background material.
- On the FX Network YouTube channel, they have a super interesting Episode 1 Watch-a-Long that gives all kinds of background info.
- This Instagram post features a page from The Silver Doe.
- There has been an explosion of interviews since the premiere. Here are a few:
It’s hard to pin anything on any of the other guests at the moment, because we know so little about each of them. In typical murder mystery fashion, we are probably going to spend the next couple episodes rolling through all the suspects, learning more about each one as we go. Will we go into full Clue mode, with Bill taking on the role of Mr. Body and every guest having a motive for killing him?
The better question for us theorizers is: just how “grounded” is this show really going to be? Are robots and clones and uploaded consciousnesses within the realm of possibility here? Your head could explode with all the theories.
That’s all for this week. Please let us know any theories you have, on what we’ve seen and what’s to come, in the comments below. Be sure to catch Caemeron Crain’s recaps of Episode 1 and Episode 2 as well.
All images courtesy of FX