Only Murders In The Building continues – and here’s our spoiler-y sleuthing from the ninth and penultimafe episode of season two, Sparring Partners.
Note: This post assumes you have seen Only Murders in the Building up to and including season two, episode nine, or that you’re at least willing to play along as though you have.
A good murder mystery can mislead its audience by spotlighting the wrong question. Take, for example, Murder on the Orient Express, which parades a long list of suspects past the reader and implicitly asks which one of them committed a vicious killing; or this month’s new movie Bodies Bodies Bodies, which challenges the viewer to work out which in its cast of partygoers viciously slashed the throat of a fellow reveller.
Over in Only Murders in the Building, the real question might have been hanging around in plain sight – quite literally. Posters for Cinda Canning’s podcast All Is Not OK in Oklahoma ask loudly Where is Becky Butler? Viewers now know that Becky Butler has been hidden in the spotlight, under the alias of Poppy White, one of Cinda’s assistants.
Poppy made her debut in the fourth episode of the first season, the first time Cinda interacted personally with the Arconia podcasters. But what clues have there been to Poppy’s hidden identity? And how far back do those clues go?
There was no real reason to suspect subterfuge from Poppy after her very first scene. At this point, Poppy facilitates character points and jokes about Cinda, Cinda’s cruelty and the tropes of Serial-like podcasts. Poppy is also one third of a living visual gag, and while her name being Poppy always stood out against her colleagues Cinda and Cindy, but I can’t think of a great third alternative for that set in any case – the hard C in Candy spoils the fun, almost. But did the writers end up with Poppy because of popping candy?
If I’m not mistaken, the next time we see Poppy is at the very end of the first season, while our hero podcasters are being arrested. This is when she makes the ‘Only Murderers' riff that Cinda steals as the (very bad) title for her next podcast. Some viewers were suspicious of Cinda and Poppy from here on out simply because they’re present at the Arconia with no obvious reason to be there.
In truth, there’s nothing in the first season that’s plays like a clue to Poppy’s secret, but the character really does jump out leave an impression. This was no doubt helpful to the showmakers as they started building the plot for year two. This might all be a brilliant example of how a great actor, like Adina Verson, can encourager showmakers to take a once small role and absolutely explode its scale.
As I noted last week, Cindy, Cinda and Poppy made what seems to be a crucial stop off at Mabel Mora’s unconscious during the first episode of season two. Mabel’s knitting dream at first played like a surreal gag with light mythological allusions but, by now, it feels much more like a solid piece of set-up for a handful of later plot points – though it did not, as far as I can deduce, give even the vaguest hint that Poppy might in some way be connected to Becky Butler or lying about her past.
Adina Verson does get a credit for the third episode of the season, The Last Day of Bunny Folger, but so does Cara Delevingne and neither of them obviously appears on screen at any point. Either or both of these actors could be the silhouette who attacks Bunny at her door; meanwhile, neither Tina Fey and Michael Rapaport gets a credit for the episode, which you could read as absolving their characters from suspicion. Personally, I think it’s probably unwise to hang a case on the vagaries of credit negotiations.
The next time Poppy came back, she did so with full force. Episode six, Performance Review, is narrated by the character and it spends a lot of time in her company. As I noted in my post about it, this episode:
wants us to consider that Things Are Not Always As They Seem and, to great emotional effect, the adjunct notion that People Are Not Always Who You Think They Are.
This was, it’s now clear, all crucial to understanding Poppy’s own story.
In retrospect, a lot of key plot elements came into focus during episode six, even in the midst of other sound and fury. I wrote at the time that Detective Kreps was perhaps:
colluding with Cinda or one of her crew
and this now seems to have been proven in Kreps’ bookend scenes for the ninth episode.
Once the show reached episode six and was done hiding clues from us (boooo) it did hit the ground running. The first shot of this episode shows three posters on the wall of Cinda Canning’s office. In the centre is an Only Murderers one; to the right is Knife Girl: The Story of a Child Martyr, which reads like some kind of Lucy-related metaclue; and on the left is one of the Where Is Becky Butler? posters. Quaintly, Poppy-Becky sits down below it. Cute.
We don’t (yet?) know how true to herself that Becky is being in the guise of Poppy, but it seems reasonable to guess she has styled herself to look like Cinda and Cindy deliberately and would have, therefore, adopted an all-round persona to go with the hair, frames and NPR tones. The first scene of Performance Review shows Poppy at least burying her contempt for Cinda, and she may well be wearing another more complete mask too.
The episode’s dialogue is overflowing with hidden resonances – consider, for example, Poppy’s line to Jimmy Russo:
It’s really brave of you to tell your story.
Shortly after this, Poppy’s VO talks about the need for a great mentor and a life-long need to feel as if she’s good at something. If we’re to take that on surface value, or anything close to it, it’s still quite difficult to unravel exactly why Becky would choose to go undercover with the very podcaster who is investigating her disappearance and apparent murder. It’s not the most intuitive plan to achieve… actually, what could it be to achieve? Is there’s something more than ‘country mouse wants to flee to the city’ here?
Easier to fully grasp just now, maybe, is Poppy’s imaginary podcast introduction, delivered just for her own benefit. It was always meaningful, and now seems doubly so:
Our theme this week: the stories we tell ourselves. What are the little fictions that ferry us through life? We tell ourselves we can start over. We tell ourselves ‘This time it will be different.’ We tell ourselves ‘It can’t possibly be true’. But even the most convincing fictions have their faults. The truth always has a way of…
And that’s when a joke brilliantly punctures the mood but brings Poppy’s Cinda situation home.
Just minutes later, Cinda, Poppy and Kreps all appear together in a scene set in Bunny’s apartment, a set up that Mabel immediately finds suspicious. This scene features a joke about the pronunciation of Chickasha that works one way in the moment but maybe stands a little extra chewing when it’s understood that Poppy-Becky actually comes from Chickasha.
In fact, Cinda then makes another joke that, in the style of the show’s regular meta-commentary, seems really quite loaded:
To our audience, there is nothing more tantalizing than an unhinged murderous beauty.
A bit of rewatch-value groundwork for when the killer is revealed to be somebody good looking, right? You can argue amongst yourselves as to which characters that applies to, but I’d certainly say that both Cinda and Poppy qualify. They have to be our prime suspects going into next week’s final episode, surely?
The whole scene in Bunny’s apartment runs head-on at questions of truth in podcasting, which of course tangles up in a brilliant mess of ideas with this week’s Becky Butler reveal: the ‘missing farm girl’ at the heart of one popular series is actually alive and working for the company that made it.
I could spend a long time tracing all of the elements in Performance Review that take on extra dimension in light of Poppy-Becky’s situation, but there’s so many and they’re so eye-catching that you’d be better of going back and watching the episode again, just as I did to write this. Poppy’s final scene, however, is worth singling out for a moment.
During her call with Mabel – the one in which we see all of the snapped pencils on the table – Poppy clearly says of Cinda:
Cinda is a liar and it goes way deeper than dental implants. I mean, you were right, she will do anything to tell a good story… and she’s got her sights on you now, so if you and those old men need my help, please let me know. I know where all the bodies are buried and there lots of bodies… uh, so to speak.
Given that Poppy-Becky is now coming clean to Mabel about her identity at the end of Sparring Partners, the implication seems to be that she’s trustworthy. That Cinda Canning is Bunny’s killer, most likely. That everything she says in the above quote can be taken as truth.
On the other hand, there’s still a whole episode to go, so…
This week’s other big reveal was the location and nature of the Rose Cooper painting, not to mention the confirmation of several long-suspected facts of the painting plot line. Shirley MacLaine came back for what amounts to one long scene with Steve Martin, even if it was chopped up and sprinkled between other action, and despite being so modest – two actors chatting about a couple of canvases, more or less – it was utterly captivating.
Yes, ‘Leonora Folger’ was Rose Cooper, and yes, the painting was hidden in Mrs Gambolini’s cage. These reveals have been expected for a long time now.
Thinking about the whole show and full second season story, it does feel like two plots reached event horizons during episode nine: that of Poppy White and that of the Rose Cooper painting. Structurally, the Poppy-is-Becky story only sprouted in episode six – that is to say, the second half of the season – while the painting plot was much more the focus of the first five episodes. I’ve been waiting a long time to see how they’re connected and, finally, Rose gives us the best lead we’ve had so far, right near the end of this episode, telling Charles that a ‘so pushy’ woman with ‘brown hair and glasses’ had been ‘sniffing around’ a few months previously, seemingly looking for the painting.
We now have confirmation that either Cinda, Cindy or Poppy-Becky has been looking for the painting, and that might help us understand the motive for Bunny’s murder. Perhaps. Anyway, the new information still fits with my theory of thieves in the Arconia and Bunny being stabbed by Lucy accidentally during confusion. Did Poppy or Cinda try to steal the painting and did it lead to Lucy stabbing Bunny in self defense in the dark? Whatever the case, there are lots and lots of gaps to fill – and one more episode in which to fill them.
It can be done! Next week’s episode could be an absolute stormer! It might even save the Amy Schumer and building project subplots from feeling like dead air!
A few extra notes from my sleuthing notepad this week –
- The Chicken Chug logo non-clue is a total swizz because we never got to hear what Mabel did. There’s no fun in having a key clue hidden from the audience. It’s the opposite of fun. The scene where Mabel connects the dots could have delivered one of the most triumphant and satisfying beats in the entire show but, instead, it felt like a dismal cheat. Not seeding clues early enough has been one of this show’s biggest problems – and I’m very disappointed that it’s getting worse.
- Is there an innocent person in prison for killing Becky Butler?
- They tried and almost got away with the jigsaw puzzle clue – ie. that Becky Butler appears on pieces in the gift Alice gave to Mabel. Setting this up properly with a specific, real-life moment for this painting to call back to would have been delightful.
- Savage ’56 on the back of the painting suggests that Bunny’s final words, Savage 14, might indicate that the painting was copied in 2014. But… um… why would she be giving clues like The Riddler? And how could it matter what year the painting was forged in?
- I’m not sure why Charles decided to open the watch, not at all, but Rose Cooper’s address being inside is plausible and worked well. We really needed something, probably something in the painting, to motivate him opening the watch, however.
- Martin Short earns his plaudits and then some this week. It’s obvious that he’s lying about the DNA results from moment one, and it’s heartbreaking. At the same time, he smashes his jokes too – especially the final line.
- Cinda would have been a slam-dunk killer reveal in season one. If she’s revealed as the killer in season two – which I’m still sceptical of, mind you – it’s going to feel late, and be nothing like as good a fit.
- Does the timeline of the opening scene suggest Kreps was mucking about with evidence before he met Cinda? Is this a structural clue to indicate Poppy is his ‘smartest woman alive’ and the actual ‘Criminal Mastermind’? Or is it freefloating, train-of-thought editing?
- Does the bit with Mabel remembering to record a bit of the podcast tell us she’s more or less likely to have recorded her fight with Kreps.
- With either Poppy or Cinda probably behind Bunny’s murder and making money from it through the podcast, will they be subject to the so-called Son of Sam Law, which prevents murderers from profiting through publicity of their crimes? Bunny’s estate/heirs profiting from the podcast would be a nice pay-off, as well as a callback to the Son of Sam business earlier in the season.
I’ll be back one more time next week, after the season finale, season 2, episode 10, I Know Who Did It, has premiered.
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