Solving Only Murders In The Building – Series 2, Episode 5

Son Of Sam
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Only Murders In The Building continues – and here’s our spoiler-y sleuthing from the fifth episode of season two, The Tell.

Check out our previous posts about the show for more clues, observations and theories.

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

Are the Arconia podcasters good detectives? They’re excellent TV and the last thing I want is for them to stop, but that’s a different question entirely. I think we can say they’re far from professional, and are almost as likely to spoil their own integrity as that of the evidence.

Sometimes, however, they have a moment of insight, or pull off an especially smart move. This week’s episode, The Tell, gives us a fascinating example of the latter, mixed in with plenty of new squirm-inducing examples of their slip-ups.

The episode’s focus is on Oliver Putnam, and it is narrated (albeit briefly) by his son, Will. It has been structured to contrast Oliver’s attempt to ‘read’ a murder suspect against his apparent inability to notice a huge, life-changing secret that has been standing right before his eyes for literal decades.

Way back in the third episode of season one, How Well Do You Know Your Neighbors?, Oliver dreamt up a theatrical audition as a way of sifting quickly through suspects. The process played as deeply intutive, with imagined Arconia residents rejected one by one from an audition line-up with little more than hunchwork and bias. As Oliver played out his fantasy interactions, he found excuses to dismiss more and more characters to the back line until only Howard Morris remained. After this, he rattled off all of the evidence he thought would support this theory.

While that was hardly clear and critical thinking, Oliver at least attempts to rise above it in the latest episode. The trick to his new technique might slip past many viewers but it was hidden in plain sight.

Oliver is at a party in Mabel’s apartment with Alice Banks, who he considers a key suspect. He instigates Son of Sam, a ‘social deduction’ game played with a deck of cards. As he first lifts up the cards, while brandishing a bowl of pills in the other hand, it’s clear that the Son of Sam card, the lone ‘killer’ card in the deck, is on the bottom. Most cards he deals are taken from the top of the pack, but he ‘bottom deals’ to Alice, forcing the killer role on her. It’s stage magic 101.

Why? Because he can now push Alice into lying and get her to betray her ‘tell’. Or so he believes. It’s a quantum leap from attempting to discern somebody’s tell from nothing more than simple observation but it’s definitely not a foolproof plan, especially because the whole notion of a tell is either, depending on how you look at it, far flimsier or more nuanced than Oliver allows. Still, Oliver’s card trick is a good one.

What’s especially fascinating is that there are multiple levels of deception going on around this game: Alice was certainly dealt the Son of Sam on purpose, no matter how Oliver acts at the end of the round. She can be seen holding the killer card behind her back during the inquisition but by the end of the scene, she has acquired an ‘innocent card’ from somewhere, and by the end of the episode, the Son of Sam will be in her handbag. I didn’t see how or when the mid-game swap occured, or if Mabel played any part in it. The audience are being subjected to sleight of hand just as much as the characters are.

Once Oliver pushes Alice into ripping apart her own story about growing up rich and going to Oxford she goes on to claim she’s the daughter of a plumber from Essex. Her accent doesn’t change and the fact that she’s a fine artist working in a big New York studio doesn’t shift an inch so I still find it a good bit easier to believe her original claims are the truth and the later story is the false persona. This mirrors the transaction with the cards, of course. Sly forces and swaps might well be happening all over the place.

So we know that both Oliver and Alice lie and cheat to pursue their objectives. The outstanding question is what Alice’s objective for lying actually is.

There’s a strong possibility that Alice Banks isn’t her real name. Either way, somebody chose it – the writers or the writers and the character – and those writers very possibly realised that, as I suggested with bold text above, it’s an anagram for back lines. Was this some kind of meta clue that she’s not the season’s chief culprit? Is there such a thing as a meta red herring?

Similarly, Teddy Dimas is a punctuation-free anagram for It’s me, daddy. Surely these aren’t coincidences? It’s certainly not the first time I’ve had occasion to ponder over the show’s many anagrams in this weekly column and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

It does seem highly probable that the writers planned plots around Will Putnam being Teddy Dimas’ progeny way back in season one, at least when giving the characters their names. At the same time, Alec Guinness is an anagram for Genuine Class, Piers Morgan for A Grim Person and Clint Eastwood for Old West Action and those were just wild coincidences… right?

The final scene in The Tell suggests pretty blatantly that Will’s biological father is Teddy Dimas but there might be a couple of clues this isn’t the case, even if one is more outrageous and comedic than the other.

First of all, the DNA results that Will quotes seem slightly implausible. Does anybody on Earth actually have full-on, single source DNA in the way that Will reports a 100% Greek result? Does this indicate that, somehow, there’s either been an error or some kind of subterfuge?

Perhaps Teddy did with Will’s DNA results and identity what Oliver did with Alice’s card in the Son of Sam game, forcing one that he has pre-chosen. Or perhaps it’s an oversight by the writers. Or maybe I simply don’t know enough about DNA sequencing. Okay, I definitely don’t know much about DNA sequencing, but I’m not discounting the other two ideas either.

Secondly, there’s Oliver’s deep-seated love of Greek dips. Is the big reveal actually that Oliver isn’t from Irish stock at all? Will he learn that his identity isn’t what he thought it was? There’s a level on which this is daft comedy stuff, but it could be rich material for a later episode – especially if juxtaposed with Charles, and maybe even Mabel too, learning that their pasts and families are not quite what they had always believed.

I can see a version of this story where the ‘Mabel’s rich aunt’ plot leads us to some real surprises, and definitely one where Charles’ family tree is signifcantly different to the one he always trusted in. Indeed, each episode seems to be taking Charles closer to this revelation.

All said, I think Teddy at least believes he is Will’s father: this would explain his funding of Oliver’s projects when the Putnam family were still together, as well as his suspension of that financial support after Roberta left Oliver and took Will with her.

This episode yielded another key clue – to something, anyway – in the form of the stained matchbook. Like so many other things, the knife Oliver vanished at the end of episode four especially, this is physical evidence that fully competent detectives would treat entirely differently. The podcasters certainly don’t have any ability to run DNA matches themselves, or even check whether a stain is comprised of ketchup, blood, paint or make-up, but they’re not doing themselves any favours by not thinking in anything like those terms.

Of course, we again see the podcasters get snagged on some pretty quick assumptions; this is, if nothing else, a running plot point. The matchbook first shows up when Mabel is looking in the ‘Arcatacomb’ passage below her apartment. “So the killer stabs Bunny here,” says Mabel, pointing to where she was standing and had previously cleaned up blood, “And then leaves through the hole in the bottom of my closet.”

Charles adds, “…and during the escape drops the matchbook” and this story becomes their working model. Yet it’s only one of many that would explain the circumstances, and probably not one of the best.

Was the matchbook Bunny’s own, lost as she fled into Mabel’s apartment? Is it more planted evidence, like the bloody knife in Charles’ knifeblock?

Later, Oliver reviews the CCTV at the Pickle Diner and sees Bunny take a meeting with a mysterious figure in what seems to be a beanie cap. Bunny leaves first, then this other person takes a matchbook on their way out. Because they’re a smoker? The immediate jump is that this person is the killer and the matchbook they take are the one that Mabel found, and I’m sure it’s the one that Oliver was taking in the moment.

In any case, beanie hats now join black boots and shoe-covers on the list of conspicuous props.

Aside from physical clues, are the showmakers having fun with more abstract ones? Does, for example, the selection of the Wizard of Oz tell us anything about where the show is going?

Baum’s story and subsequent adaptations have introduced countless ideas that might be salient to the themes of Only Murders in the Building. Here are a few examples that we might yet see quoted or otherwise invoked as the writers milk every scene for emotional and conceptual value:

  • The idea of ‘the man behind the curtain’ seems pertinent to a mystery, wherein somebody is revealed to be significantly less threatening once hidden machinations are revealed.
  • Flying monkeys, in the sense of minions sent to carry out evil bidding, might explain the large number of suspects moving in and around the Arconia on the night of Bunny’s murder. The notion might also resonate with Cinda’s team, or even the members of the Arconia board.
  • The paradigm of the lion, the tin man and the scarecrow doesn’t fit perfectly onto Mabel, Charles and Oliver but some good writing could find parallels and let’s just say Lucy can be Dorothy, ultimately choosing to go home again when the season is over.
  • The name Alice resonates with Wonderland, which is one dream over from Oz. The idea of a hidden world beneath the surface can mesh very well with the Arconia tunnels, anyway.

Enough of that froofy daydreaming. The core of the show is very much Charles’ arc, and this week he was reunited with Jan. In terms of clues, the most obvious thing their conversation yielded was probably the idea of Bunny’s killer being a ‘storyteller’ or an ‘artist.’

If we take it that Jan actually has some insight, and that the killer and the person planting evidence are either the same person or working together, then this inspires a few obvious suspects.

I was almost entirely convinced during season one that Cinda Canning was going to be revealed as the killer; maybe I was just a year ahead of myself.

The show’s script and editing made sure that we remembered Alice is an artist and there’s obviously Mabel too. If Rose Cooper and Leonora Folger really are one and the same, she earns a place on the list. There’s also Amy Schumer, of course, and the Arconiac podcast fans.

In short, Jan’s pseudo-clue doesn’t help with deduction at all. What it did was move the show dramatically on in that moment. It’s worth remembering – and I’m saying this to myself moreso than anybody else – that season one proved pretty conclusively that this show will always place character and theme in the spotlight before the mechanisms of a puzzle plot.

We’re half way through the series now and I think the last three episodes have been absolutely tremendous. Bravo team. You’re absolutely smashing it.

Some more rogue notes from my sleuthing notepad –

  • The real Son of Sam killer apparently targeted women with long brown hair, which makes a disturbing joke from all of the ‘innocent blonde’ roles in Oliver’s game. That summer saw many women in New York dye their hair in an attempt to escape his attention.

  • Note that while we see Oliver playing Son of Sam in the 1970s in this episode, it’s a clear derivative of Mafia which was created as an exercise for psychology classes in the mid-80s. A version with physical cards came even later than that. This would not the first time Oliver was a visionary ahead of the ages, of course.

  • I’m sure that the final mystery solutions, whatever they are, will tie into Charles’ character arc above all else. As such, I can’t help but be deeply suspicious of Lucy.

  • The absent mothers, from Roberta to Lucy’s mom and beyond, are going to count for a lot in the coming weeks.

  • We still don’t know what the jigsaw motif is about. What is the jigsaw motif about?

  • The Son of Sam game is another way that the tense string between murder as a real-life tragedy and the shenanigans of the podcasters has been plucked. The more you think about it, the more unsettling it is.
  • Teddy Dimas’ plan to get back at Oliver might not have anything to do with Will. Not directly. It might involve heping – bankrolling? – Cinda Canning to produce a podcast that puts Oliver into prison. This would certainly go some way to explain the staging of everything.

  • And if not Cinda, maybe one of her disgruntled assistants? Though they’ve been absent for a whole lot of episodes now so that feels a bit strange…

  • I can’t help but wonder if all of the stuffed animals dotted throughout the show – there are loads! – have anything to do with anything.

More next week, after season 2, episode 6, Performance Review, has premiered.

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