Solving Only Murders In The Building – season 2, episodes 1 and 2

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Only Murders In The Building returns – and here’s our spoiler-y sleuthing from the first two episodes of season two.

Note: This post assumes you have seen Only Murders in the Building up to and including the end of season two, episode two, or that you’re at least willing to play along as though you have.

After an imaginative, richly detailed and endlessly amusing first season, I’m thrilled to see John Hoffman and Steve Martin’s witty murder mystery back for a new case. Or, perhaps not quite a new case: this second run is focused on the murder of Bunny Folger, a character who first appeared as a bloody corpse in the flashforward sequence that opened the very first episode. In some respect, we’re finally getting around to the original mystery.

In retrospect, it’s especially odd that the first episode of a new show opened with a teaser for its second season, and it still feels like a little bit of a cheat to open with a teasing glimpse of what will later be a different kind of tease. The choice was perhaps intended to get the show off the blocks with a bit of a bang, despite the cost. Still, it was a delight to get to the end of the first season and return to those scenes in order to have it confirmed that the story was far from over.

The narrative cheating continues in the first episode of season two. We return to the fateful night when a viciously stabbed Bunny died in the apartment of our heroine, Mabel Mora, but the details have been retroactively tweaked a little. Mabel now remembers – perhaps plausibly, perhaps with a little too much contrivance to feel entirely smooth – that Bunny said a few words before she died. Slightly awkwardly, Mabel remembers the words in two separate stages, at first recalling that Bunny said (apparently) ‘Fourteen’, and later that she also said ‘Savage.’

Much more successful is the puzzling reveal that, even while Bunny has a knitting needle embedded in her chest, she has actually been stabbed eight times with a knife. A knife that is now tantalisingly missing. This ret-con works because it doesn’t require any new material to be stitched into pre-existing scenes in order to work, it’s simply a new angle on those already-released moments. Great!

The words ‘Fourteen’ and ‘Savage’ are likely to come around plenty in the remaining episodes. Several fine murder mysteries have made hay with a murder victim’s final words, all the way from the word RACHE scrawled on the wall in the first Sherlock Holmes’ novel, A Study in Scarlet, through ‘Why didn’t they ask Evans?’ in Agatha Christie’s novel of the same name, and finally on to modern examples like one in Knives Out. There can be lots of fun in trying to decode what these messages mean and why they have been passed along, even if some lesser examples have verged on the Two Ronnies’ Four Candles sketch.

My hunch is that the ‘Fourteen’ Mabel thinks she heard from Bunny was actually an attempt to say either ‘Four teens’ or ‘For Tina.’ Of course, Bunny’s other dying word was Savage, which would be the surname of both protagonist’s Charles and his father, while Charles also lives on the fourteenth floor of The Arconia. If only we’d actually heard Bunny say these things last year, so they wouldn’t feel so rudely injected.

Talking of which: it was great to have Mabel’s “down to the bone” voiceover from the beginning of the series contextualised as part of the Only Murders podcast. The opening monologues always felt like podcast excerpts, now we know that’s right, and they can be used against the characters. What a great beat.

It’s not just ‘dying words’, there’s fun with many more cozy mystery tropes throughout these new episodes. At the most stylised end of the range is Mrs Gambolini, Bunny’s pet parrot. The bird speaks in Bunny’s voice, repeats some of what it has heard and, ultimately, seems to be claiming it knows who the killer is. My hunch is that it’s going to repeat Bunny’s theory of who killed Tom Kono – it’s essentially a tape recorder with feathers – but we’ll see. This might just be the sort of show where a parrot can autonomously form new sentences.

Another secret in Bunny’s apartment is a hidden elevator, tucked away Narnia-style behind the furs in her closet. This was built by her grandfather, Archibald Carter, architect of The Arconia. I guess Carter was powerful enough that his builders looked the other way and let him build this pervert’s contraption.

This secret elevator builds on the hidden doors in the first series to make the building seem labyrinthine and almost fantastically packed with secrets. I expect we’ll have a lot of fun with the elevator later in the story – we may even get to reconcile the numbers on its panel with what we already know about the layout of The Arconia. There’s also a good chance that it was through this elevator that the dying Bunny gained entry to Mabel’s aunt’s apartment; it may also explain why she was there, a question that has been little considered so far.

The big secret in Bunny’s apartment, however, is her painting, the central MacGuffin of this season’s first episodes. Allegedly painted by one Rose Cooper, who of course died in suspicious circumstances in decades past, and seemingly depicting a liaison between Charles’ father, Mr Savage, and a woman of dubious identity, the painting appears to move around with a will of its own – appearing in Charles’ apartment, then later vanishing from where our heroic trio dump it in order to appear in Amy Schumer’s Sting’s apartment. It even makes a sneaky appearance in the animated opening titles of season two’s first episode.

When it comes to the painting appearing on Charles’ wall, the how is definitely a puzzle but so is the why. The showmakers may yet try to pass off the sudden manifestation as a warning of some kind, but I’m hoping for a genius surprise that justifies such a crazy action as hanging a painting in somebody’s apartment. I’ll even be delighted with Charles being framed (the show’s pun, not mine) if the logic of it all adds up.

To flesh out the stakes of the painting plot, Leonora Folger, as played by the irrepressible Shirley MacLaine, arrives to lay claim to the canvas. She also stirs the plot by announcing that the painting is a forgery (she may well be lying, remember) and that she slept with Charles’ father, perhaps meaning that Bunny is Charles’ step-sister. Will this factor into some kind of inheritance plot? I wouldn’t say no. It’s also not entirely unlikely that Leonora Folger is either the woman in the painting, the artist Rose Cooper or both, but we don’t seem to have any evidence to lock either of those ideas in place just yet.

Not coincidentally to this painting-based plotline, Mabel finds herself pursued by Alice Banks, a supposed member of a local art collective. Looking carefully at Alice’s scenes she may well not be what she says she is, and what she asks of Mabel seems to have been duplicitous too. There’s a key moment in which she gives Mabel an axe to destroy a sculpture, apparently recording it all on video. Is Alice just looking to get Mabel’s prints on the axe? Will Mabel try to protest her innocence by referring to the video recording, only to find out that Alice wasn’t recording at all? Or will the recording be part of some kind of blackmail scheme – that being the principle reason anybody ever records anything in a mystery story like this? I’m going to have fun finding out!

If Alice does have some kind of ulterior motive – and it’s borderline impossible to imagine she doesn’t – what might it be? I’m expecting something to do with Mabel’s aunt’s apartment, most likely the mural Mabel has painted – or at least the wall she has painted it on. It seems like Mabel came to Alice’s attention through her online posts about her mural. What might these posts have unwittingly also included? There are several residents of the Arconia depicted but in a very stylised form. Mural Oliver has what seems to be a specific painting in his room, at least as painted by Mabel (it sneaks into his window in a way reminiscent of the ‘easter egg’ in Charles’ Window in the episode one titles), so I’m curious if that’s important. How the Rose Cooper painting does or doesn’t tie in is still up in the air.

Also, I don’t know if the character was named before or after the actress was cast but there’s something alphabetical in Alice Banks (Cara Delevingne) that gets my Agatha Christie f-antenna twitching.

After Oliver scours Bunny’s apartment for papers he finds a card sent to Bunny with the message ‘I want that painting’ inside. It’s interpreted on screen as a threat, so maybe all we should do is look at the handwriting and see if we can’t match it to anybody else’s later. I wonder, however, if it’s not a threat, but the acceptance of an offer. Was Bunny maybe offering to sell the painting (perhaps one in a series of forgeries?) and this note was sent by somebody agreeing to buy it? If so, I’d bet on the not being from Teddy Dimas – which could also mean the handwriting loose ends from last year, including the poisoning plot on Winnie and the note on Jan’s door, will finally be resolved.

There are certainly some other clues in this episode that I don’t know what to do with yet. Howard’s black eye is front and centre, but the showmakers did a good job of showing Ursula throwing out something mysterious without bringing attention to it – the emphasis of this moment was on the scene’s suspense, making it a great place to hide a clue. Ursula’s Gut Milk plot is still blowing in the wind, though maybe it will become an important part of this second season. My hunch has been that Winnie was never deliberately poisoned but simply drank some Gut Milk. Also, I believed that the GM on the note in the last series was eventually going to tie into Ursula, though I now think that ship has probably sailed and it’s just a minor coincidence.

Obvious suspects, of course, are all over the place. The big ones I haven’t mentioned are, as yet, quite unsupported by evidence while remaining nicely visible. There’s new board president Nina Lin; Bunny’s friend Uma Heller; Lester the doorman; even Cinda Canning and her mini-me cohort.

I was quite convinced Cinda was the killer last year, and am still disappointed with the Jan plotline, so I’m trying to not get my hopes up too much for a huge reversal, but there’s no reason to think that Canning and colleagues should be above suspicion.

What a rollicking start to the season. Only Murders is back! There are a lot of new clues in play (including plenty I haven’t even mentioned, like Charles’ watch for example!) and several intriguing new puzzles. Perhaps the best thing, of course, is that they all facilitate the show’s best qualities: its characters and their fizzing chemistry. Always stronger on theme and character than perfectly-tooled mystery plotting, Only Murders in the Building has so far managed to deliver a pretty good mystery as part of a truly great, unmissable show. Long live the Arconia and all those who sleuth in her.

The big, bold notes on my sleuthing notepad –

  • Is ‘Fourteen’ really ‘Four teens’ or ‘For Tina’?
  • Two jokes about callbacks – the rule of three says a third is coming
  • Does Alice want Mabel’s fingerprints on the axe?
  • Was the note to Bunny an agreement to buy a painting?
  • What was Ursual throwing away?
  • What explains the numbering in the elevator not matching what we know about the Arconia?
  • What good reason is there to hang the painting in Charles’ apartment?

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