Nothing sets up a better murder mystery than a group of people isolated from the rest of the world. In A Murder at the End of the World, the Disney+ series that premiered on November 14, this remote location is a luxury hotel in Iceland. A millionaire invites a select group of people to a retreat. One of the guests is Darby, a young hacker and crime writer who spends much of her downtime investigating unsolved cases, having accompanied her father, an examining magistrate, to crime scenes. She accepts the invitation as she is curious to meet the host’s wife, another reputed hacker whom she admires. Shortly after arriving, one of the guests dies under suspicious circumstances.
After the 2019 finale of the disturbing sci-fi/fantasy The OA, creators Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij have considered a change of pace and found a way to bring together diverse characters from different backgrounds and with very different ways of thinking. “If you bring them together and start killing them off, the story emerges,” Batmanglij tells EL PAÍS.
Marling explains that they also wanted to change the perspective on women in crime dramas: “When we want to write about strong women, we think the only way to do it is for them to be killers or to apply force through domination or violence. Darby is proof that a young woman can be strong and that strength lies in her intellect and empathy.”
“Another idea I had in mind when I wrote this was not to perpetuate the image of women as victims,” Marling adds. “Usually when you see a murder mystery, the starting point is a crime scene with a young woman who is dead, beautiful, sometimes naked or scantily clad and covered in blood. It’s a very powerful image and one that pushes the narrative. It is presented in a way that eroticizes the death of women. Then the detective has to identify with the killer in order to imagine the dark psychosis that drove him to murder. We wanted to take a young woman, of the age that usually makes her the victim, and turn her into the protagonist, going to crime scenes with her, and giving her a different relationship with the victim because she is closer to her than to the psychology of the killer.”
Darby is not the only element that differentiates A Murder at the End of the World from the classic crime mystery. Woven in to the plot is a love story set in a very different time and space — U.S. motels surrounded by dust and sand. “We wanted to intertwine two genres. There’s the classic whodunit, but also Darby’s story, which is really a love story and a road trip as she and Bill [played by Harris Dickinson] travel through the west of the U.S., two amateur detectives dealing with a cold case. It’s about what happens to them as they take that trip together. The whodunit makes the love story on that road trip more tense, and the love story adds weight and emotion to the mystery. That sort of cross-pollination was very interesting.”
Both storylines center around Darby, played by Emma Corrin who has definitely evolved as an actress since she took the role of the young Diana Spencer in The Crown. “When you see Emma play Diana, you expect a certain person, but when you meet her you see that she is a totally different person. She is someone who can change even on a molecular level. It’s as if Emma inhabits Darby,” says Batmanglij.
The plot unravels in a near future that allows hotel guests to have a highly advanced personal virtual assistant. Artificial intelligence as described by the retreat’s host — Clive Owen — is a theme that comes up repeatedly in the series. Batmanglij is hopeful about the application humans can make of these technological advances. “We ourselves owe a lot to technology regarding our careers,” he says. “And a new generation of filmmakers is going to be able to make great movies from their own bedroom because of artificial intelligence. But while I think it’s exciting, it’s also very scary. I feel both the thrill and the terror of it.”
Besides writing and producing the series, Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij split the direction of the seven episodes. Marling was in charge of the first three, making her responsible for establishing its aesthetic and tone. “It was important to me to create a sense of mystery very early on — the sense that something is waiting in the shadows,” says Marling, who also plays the wife of the host in Iceland. “I also wanted to establish a pattern that defined how we move back and forth between the past and the present. I had very specific color references for the bits shot in Iceland, just using blues, pinks, reds and whites. The white of the snow, the blue of the ice, the pink of Darby’s cheeks and hair. When we go back to the past, we know we are there because the colors are so different. There is the toasted sienna, the blue of the sky and the yellows and oranges of the desert.”
Having worked together since they met in college, Marling and Batmanglij have applied their creativity to both film and television. “Brit and I create a world and we do so before we share it with other people,” says Batmanglij. “There are a lot of ideas that are not able to get off the ground because people doubt themselves too soon, so there is no room for creativity and innovation. I think fear is what keeps a lot of people from taking risks. When I work with Brit, that fear disappears, and we just play. Replacing fear with play is what makes us original.”
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