Agatha Christie’s play The Mousetrap opened in London’s West End in November of 1952. The play is an archetypal Christie mystery: A group of intimates and strangers, gathered in an isolated location, react to a recent shocking murder, all while a keen-witted detective tries to figure out which of them is the culprit. It’s a timeless setup for a reason. The pressure-cooker atmosphere—the close-quarters psychological combat, the small resentments and simmering tensions, even the physical discomfort of sharing space for that long—turns ordinary murder mysteries into devilish social experiments. The Mousetrap, in part because of this recipe, had the longest opening run of any play in history. For nearly 70 years, it ran uninterrupted, breaking off only when the Covid-19 pandemic shut down theaters in 2020.
It’s ironic that The Mousetrap, the ultimate lockdown drama, couldn’t withstand the lockdown itself—especially since isolated, ensemble-cast murder mysteries like it have had a minor renaissance in the pandemic era. Mike White’s The White Lotus, a study of wealthy tourists going mad on vacation, became a surprise hit in 2021. The second installment of Kenneth Branagh’s actual Agatha Christie franchise, Death on the Nile, was a streaming sensation in 2022 (and has been quickly followed up this year by A Haunting in Venice). Rian Johnson offered his own spin on an Agatha Christie mystery in 2022’s arch Glass Onion. Since 2020, M. Night Shyamalan has released two separate films with ensemble casts trapped in life-or-death puzzles at isolated holiday destinations.
None of these works is about Covid in a straightforward way. Rather, they are pandemic dramas in the sense that they offer an uncanny mirror image of the lockdown experience. The claustrophobic security of the quarantine “pod,” the unsettling rise of “surveillance” testing, the very idea of other people as potential vectors of death to be eyed suspiciously—the pandemic era lent eerie specificity and depth to the conventional outlines of the Mousetrap plot. These narratives appear newly perceptive about a world transformed socially, culturally, and economically by an invisible, omnipresent threat.
This month, FX releases its own Mousetrap. A Murder at the End of the World, if you can believe it, features a group of intimates and strangers, gathered in an isolated location, reacting to a recent shocking murder, all while a keen-witted detective tries to figure out which of them is the culprit. It is, in many ways, a familiar pressure cooker. It also happens to be, so far, the best work of isolation TV I’ve yet seen, an epic of pandemic-era dreams and compromises.
Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling’s difficult, delirious two-season Netflix series The OA was one of the unheralded masterpieces of streaming television. At once a kidnapping thriller, a metaphysical heist serial, and a cult melodrama, the show played with the space afforded by streaming, stretching run times and hopping across genres with revelatory ease. A Murder at the End of the World, the first show Batmanglij and Marling have made since The OA’s cancellation, is rather more conventionally structured in comparison, though it displays the same beguiling mix of philosophical earnestness and tender wit.
The series begins with hacker and amateur detective Darby Hart (The Crown’s Emma Corrin) at a bookstore reading for her debut true-crime book, The Silver Doe. That opening reading sets up two timelines that A Murder will alternate between every episode. The first tells the story of her book: In her late teens, Hart stumbles upon a series of interconnected Jane Doe murders—her father is a coroner and trained her in the family business of forensic crime scene investigation. She then begins to put the pieces together alongside Bill (Harris Dickinson), another young, punky amateur detective, whom she meets online. The two eventually fall in love, but the psychic strain of the investigation drives them apart just as they appear to solve the mystery. What precisely becomes of those lovestruck kids—their relationship, but also that teenage feeling that animates their gumshoe adventures—is itself one of the show’s slowly unraveling mysteries.
The other half of the show takes place in the present. In this timeline, Darby has replaced her high school bangs with an edgy pink pixie cut and her childhood farmhouse with a postindustrial loft apartment. Her book has caught the eye of an Elon Musk–style tech billionaire named Andy Ronson (Clive Owen) and his wife, Lee Anderson (Marling). They invite her to a kind of pop-up think-tank retreat with a handful of artists, scientists, financiers, and inventors in a remote, UFO-shaped private hotel in the glaciers of Iceland. They have also invited Bill—who is now a successful Banksy-like conceptual artist going by the name Fangs. The twists come fast and free after that reveal. There are tense, telling looks between guests; stumbled-upon scenes of secret strife; and, of course, a couple of unfathomable murders.
As Darby works to figure out what’s going on in Iceland, the show intercuts her youthful exploits with Bill on the trail of those lost Jane Does. There is real romance and chemistry between Corrin and Dickinson, and the show wisely spends lots of time with their courtship in flashback. What could easily have been shortened to a few repeated scenes of the couple tousling or falling asleep on a gingham picnic blanket becomes a full-fledged parallel plot, with shades of Terrence Malick’s Badlands. It’s to Batmanglij and Marling’s credit that they don’t abandon that romance to the intrigues of the Icelandic noir, and it’s to the spellbinding Corrin’s credit that they can play so many different versions and eras of the same character, Darby’s sharp eyes hardening but not dulling over time.
The whole thing plays out as a True Detective in the style of Michael Clayton—a prestige whodunit fused with a startling comedy about the nearly occult style of corporate rot. The characters often speak with ethereal poetry, as if they’re mediums channeling spirit voices from beyond the veil. Lee, for instance, telling Darby that the hotel’s security cameras are wireless, and thus hackable, says, “Footage of every door’s camera is flying invisibly through the air, through your body, through my body right now.” The slicing modern lines, grisly crime scenes, and snow-slicked plains of this series might tempt some to see an icy void at its core, but Batmanglij and Marling are romantics. Their Icelandic sublime is animated by terror and awe, ghastly magic and wonder in every sheer cliff and Wi-Fi router.
Viewed as a pandemic drama, A Murder at the End of the World is more than its depictions of isolation, surveillance, paranoia, and FaceTime. One of the show’s repeated emphases is on the space and imaginative freedom that isolation can bring. One of the retreat-goers asks, in a moment of TED talk profundity, “when we have the space to contemplate the radical future of humanity, where will that take us?” The show’s dark, disappointed answer is that it often brings us up against our own limitations. Instead of liberating ourselves of the norms that govern our minds and imaginations, we work to stabilize and reinforce them. Without spoiling, it’s fair to say that when we eventually see Ronson’s vision of “the radical future of humanity,” it looks a lot like humanity’s extractive, exploitative, VC-funded present.
The show is filled with case studies in the danger and allure of capitulation and compromise. Lee was once a rogue hacker, now playing trophy wife for a bloviating billionaire; an acclaimed young filmmaker who’s a guest at the hotel sells his soul to collaborate with AI on his latest script; even Darby seems uncharacteristically impressed by Ronson’s wizardly tricks at first. In fact, one of the show’s funniest, knottiest bits is Darby’s budding partnership with Ronson’s generative AI Ray, who’s accessible via voice command in nearly every scene. They have a sort of gothic meet-cute in Darby’s cavernous loft that ends with Ray delivering a genuinely sweet, disarming monologue about Lisa Simpson. By the third episode, Ray is Watson to Darby’s Sherlock, a confidant who provides her with a bottomless source of information and an invaluable sounding board in a lonely place. It’s enough to make us forget that Ray is everywhere, with everyone, part and parcel of whatever evil Darby’s trying to uncover.
That easy slide into complacency and credulity—even for our unflappable kid sleuth—is at the heart of whatever pandemic-era profundity this show has to offer. A Murder at the End of the World isn’t merely a restaging of our lockdown dramas, it’s a sometimes laughably broad, sometimes surgical dissection of the squandered social opportunities of the Covid era.
Rachel Greenwald Smith wrote, in her 2021 book, On Compromise, “The pandemic is revolutionary, even if it is brutally so. It makes the impossible possible.” For a few months there, a society built around a spirit of mutual care and responsibility seemed possible. Yet this radical vision of the future collapsed as soon as it could, swallowed up by the uncompromising demand for “essential” workers, the fatigue of all that earnestly performed empathy, and the sucking maw of conspiracy. Ronson’s insistence on continuing his hollow Ideas Festival—and the group’s ready compliance with that, even after a member of the party is murdered—is all the pandemic allegory the show needs. Who ever let a little death get in the way of an in-person meeting or a new way to make money?
It’s hard, it seems, to make art that responds to cataclysmic world events in real time. Many of the most direct attempts to represent the strange rituals and anxieties of the pandemic fell flat. The long-running series that didn’t ignore the pandemic tended to their Covid storylines with the same commitment of people who wore masks under their noses; numerous films and series tried to utilize the Zoom grid to thudding effect; a handful of horror filmmakers used the pandemic as a way to contrive new slasher scenarios. But, by and large, nothing transcendent has come out of these quickie attempts to represent the upheaval of recent years.
Some of the best, most searching and even cathartic works of art about contemporary cataclysms—Spike Lee’s 2002 25th Hour and Claire Messud’s 2006 novel, The Emperor’s Children, come to mind—render those events obliquely, or even not at all. The White Lotus and Hercule Poirot and Benoit Blanc, for all their frivolity, told us more about the social experience of the pandemic than any number of Very Special Episodes about ventilators or anti-vaxxers.
These series are not just distant shadow plays of our anxieties. Streaming TV is a medium we live with intimately, paced to the rhythms of our days; the things we choose to watch and the way we choose to watch them are expressive, not in a creative way, but in an almost confessional one. In the mousetrap or at the end of the world, anyone can be guilty, everyone can be guilty. There’s beauty and terror, and there are meetings, long hikes, video calls, and PowerPoint presentations and human beings delivering food at your door in the cold. The bodies keep piling up anyway, and we ask ourselves: “Whodunit?”