Solving Only Murders In The Building – season 3, episodes 1 and 2

Only Murders In the Building season 3
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Only Murders In The Building is back, and we’ve been working our way through the clues of episodes 1 and 2. Spoilers!

It’s that most beautiful time of year again. The magical season where the weather starts to mellow, the evenings stretch out languorously, and some poor soul dies suddenly and violently at the Arconia.

And just like last this time last year, I’ll be here at Film Stories weekly, checking in with updates on the unfolding case. Only Murders in the Building is definitely my favourite TV show of the moment and I just can’t help but blissfully overthink it. We all need a hobby, right?

There are spoilers ahead, as well as an attempt to get ahead and prefigure some spoilers for the story overall. You have been warned, but also welcomed. From this point on, nothing is off the table for discussion.

The third series of Only Murders premiered with a pair of episodes, The Show Must… and The Beat Goes On. That’s plenty of time to firmly establish this year’s new mystery, and even spend some quality time with the victim, but even still, the show finds relatively little time for the majority of its new characters. They’re all in the “We’ll get to that” margin for now.

With one conspicuous exception. Loretta Durkin, as played by Meryl Streep, is a long-time actress finally getting her big break on Broadway. Whether she’s the murderer, a future victim or simply tangled up in somebody else’s mess, Loretta is clearly positioned to be fundamental to the story we’re being told. In fact, she’s precisely where it begins, and that can’t help but influence how the audience will interpret things.

The season’s opening scene is a flashback to 1962 and, it seems, a crucial turning point in the life of young Loretta. She’s so enchanted by a a trip to the theatre and a performance of Richard Rodgers’ No Strings that her life will never be the same again. The bug has taken a bite so deep and vicious that it will continue to itch throughout six decades of dead-end auditions and sullied dreams. Loretta has a dream.

As a melancholy love affair between a model and a novelist, No Strings seems like it might run parallel to one of this year’s Only Murders plots. It certainly provides echoes to the nascent romance between Loretta, the actress, and Oliver Putnam, the director. Could the actress, like the model, attempt to restore the director’s confidence, like the writer’s? And could this all end to them ultimately parting, terribly sadly and with a promise of ‘no strings’?

Well, yes. I think so. In fact, I’m fairly confident that’s exactly what’s happening here. I’m not so sure Loretta Durkin is a prime suspect for murderer when she has such a big dramatic purpose elsewhere in the story, though these threads might cross – see the first season plot, in which the killer was (in a somewhat half-threaded fashion?) revealed to be Charles’ new lover, Jan.

The other new character to take so obviously a central role so far is Ben Glenroy, the murder victim. He is the celebrity actor first introduced at the end of the last season, as played by Paul Rudd.

One of the key scenes in episode pulls off a very cunning trick. We believe Ben Glenroy is dead but, it turns out, he was actually resuscitated at the hospital. He returns resurrected, bursts into the very inappropriate ‘wrap party’ filled with his colleagues and associates, and goes around dishing out big slices of insincere pseudo-apology.

In some respects it feels like a twin to the Son of Sam scene last year, in which Oliver played a ‘hidden role’ card game to try and fish out some clues.

The first clever in Ben’s big scene here is how it throws the spotlight onto several suspects in turn, giving a little weight to their characters while sowing the seeds of possible motives in all sorts of directions. The second clever thing is how it fleshes out Ben as a wonderful choice of victim. The third, I think, is how it might be working as a huge, oily-black smokescreen.

Which brings me to my first Big Theory of the series: Ben Glenroy was killed by his brother Dickie.

As Ben circles the room, from Kimber to Ty, to Jonathan, to Donna Demeo and her son Cliff, to Bobo, to KT, to Loretta and finally to Charles, the camera catches each in turn. But the shots are carefully staged to show us Ben’s brother, Dickie – there but out of focus, ignored and neglected. Underappreciated by Ben, of course, but also under-considered by the audience. He’s absolutely there in this ‘laying out of the suspects’ sequence but treated as if he is not. He doesn’t even get this rubbish kind of apology.

Why might Dickie have killed Ben? Well, they probably don’t have a great relationship – who does Ben have a great relationship with? And being the assistant to your big-star egomaniac brother is probably quite hurtful. There might even be a reason it’s especially hurtful.

A flashback in the second episode reveals the story of how Charles Haden-Savage had the eight-year-old Ben fired from his TV show, Brazzos. There’s a good chance that this became the formative moment in the young Ben’s life – it certainly rhymes very well with the first scene’s account of how Loretta’s entire destiny was changed at a similar age. These might be the two backstory pillars on which the entire plot rests. Parallels make meaning in stories, they’re usually where the storytellers are trying to guide your eyes – ironically enough like converging lines in a picture.

Or maybe pint-sized Ben was a true prodigy of brat behaviour, and getting himself fired from Brazzos also meant Dickie was fired too. It’s not impossible to imagine Dickie was Ben’s stand-in or even photo double – as young brothers they’d likely have looked very similar. So has Dickie harboured a grudge since then, one that Ben has kept stoking for decades and which, with the arrival of Charles on the scene, recently erupted into fratricidal intent?

Maybe. Or maybe not.

Ignoring the on-stage death for now, and looking only at Ben’s fall into the lift shaft, there are several clues that could indicate Charles was really the intended victim.

Do note that Ben says to Charles, in the confrontational flashback, “I was supporting my mom and my brother.” Perhaps this is the key. Perhaps Charles destroyed their lives. Perhaps the ruination (or death?) of Ben’s mother is behind his consistently bad attitude, and also the motive for Dickie to take revenge? This can then end up providing contrast to Mabel’s plotline. It could be a very satisfying emotional background to everything that’s going on.

In low light, or a blind panic, the two actors might look very similar from behind when wearing their costumes of trenchcoats and hats. We know Ben was clutching a rattle-pattern handkerchief, and also that Charles had been sent one of these. So was Dickie trying to kill Charles and he pushed his brother instead? That could make for an amusing ‘actor’s double kills actor’s lookalike’ payoff. Or, you know, the distinct colours of the trenchcoats might render this a complete red herring. Perhaps the existence of Sazz Pataki will come around to confuse all of this even further.

So that’s my first half-baked theory: Dickie wanted to kill Charles and killed Ben instead.

Do remember that Dickie is responsible for Ben’s food, helping to avoid unhealthy choices. Fatal allergens too, perhaps? This could mean he knew exactly what to put in the smoke to really impact Ben. Or, seeing as a stomach pump was the solution, perhaps he’d fed him something nasty earlier. Anyway, it seems like choking, gasping for air and the death rattle could be a big part of what’s going on here – it’s the name of the play within the show, after all.

Here are the other notes from my notepad, looking at other potential clues, suspects, storylines and easter eggs.

  • Who is Dickie talking to on the phone? What, if anything, does this have to do with him showing Ben the phone at the wrap party?
  • Dickie is ‘hidden in plain sight’ but he’s not the only one. Tobert, the documentarian, makes some fuss about how he’s going to fade away into the background. I think he’s a touch conspicuous about this, but it’s a good reminder to look at who we’re not really looking at.
  • Also, Tobert? Tobert? How do you get a name like that? You’re caught with a roughly handwritten letter made out To Bert and you improvise a lie in order to keep it? Wild name. I hope it means something.
  • Talking of names that might just end up being part of typological head games, there’s KT. So if we hear about any mysterious character called Kendra or Kylie or, I don’t know, Kaia, let’s not forget that she might actually be KT. And if anybody writes ’11 20′ down on a secret note it might not be the time, but a code for K, the 11th letter of the alphabet, and T, the 20th. Somebody around here has read a lot of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and, this time, I don’t mean Mabel Mora.
  • Cobro is the Spanish word for a payment. If blackmail, paying off an assassin or buying illicit goods come into the picture there’s lots of scope for misunderstanding.
  • Somebody else who gets the spotlight for the moment but doesn’t seem like a suspect at all – which is why I’d absolutely love her to be the killer – is Ben Glenroy’s co-star in Girl Cop. Caitlin Hammond is credited only as the character, not the actress playing the character, but what if an older version of this character is moving somewhere in the story, maybe quite unrecognisable? Okay, a whimsical idea, but something it would have been fun to do. They’re not going to tell us Loretta is Girl Cop, are they? Are they? No, I should think not.
  • What were the scripts we saw Loretta working with in the flashbacks? Oh, for a 4k TV. Somebody please tell me she’s highlighting a page of Girl Cop. Make my dreams come true.

  • Another come-and-go character is Maxine, the critic. She has a living relationship with Oliver and it’s not a friendly one but, as much I’d like to consider a character this marginally placed in the narrative as a suspect, I don’t see any work being done that could help that feel fair.
  • When Oliver steps up on stage to speak with Loretta at her audience, he asks “Where have you been?” We’ve been primed to interpret these words in a certain way by the narration but there’s definitely a double meaning here. Is it that Loretta has been acting in Girl Cop, perhaps under another name? No, even though I’d love that. There’s a sense of “Where have you been all my life” romance to the phrasing. As much as this series will be about murders, and the various ways they can all happen in the same building, it’s also about its characters and this time, it seems, especially Mabel and Oliver looking to understand themselves, their place in their social structures, and their purpose.
  • Is the entire plot with Greg nothing but a detour? I wish I’d had a better look at his doctored pictures. It would be a lovely bit of business to have his ‘photoshop’ work cover up real clues.
  • And how disappointing to just have the police turn up and get Charles and Mabel out of there.
  • Tobert’s documentary is bound to contain some juicy material. Also, if Tobert never says another line in the whole series then I’ll die of joy.
  • Poor Lucy was Newted out of the plot. Just waved away in the first scene. One should never underestimate the effect of an actors’ contract on the shape of a TV show, whether it’s Lucy disappearing like this, or Loretta sitting out episode two.
  • Charles warned Ben to stay away from ‘her’ and we don’t really know who that is. So it’s essentially meaningless. So far.
  • Lots of work to get a ‘murder in the building’ with Ben dying twice. Or maybe the location isn’t the only disqualifying factor. Maybe the showmakers really did break the formula, just not in the way we expected, and Ben simply fell into the lift shaft. I can see him suffering from one of his mysterious, possibly psychosomatic, allergies, coughing into his Death Rattle handkerchief and walking blindly into the long drop to his death.
  • We don’t know how long he’d been on the top of the elevator but the blood just starting to drip on Charles at the point our trio step inside raises some questions.
  • What’s an actor like Ben Glenroy doing in a production like Death Rattle anyway? The answer to this is going to be instrumental, mark my words, whether it matches with the theories already explored in this post or something else altogether.
  • With up to two murder attempts we have extra scope for motives and murderers. Could there be two separate murder plots entwined here?
  • But maybe there’s not even one murder attempt. If Ben fell into the elevator shaft by accident that’s one discounted, what if the other was a publicity stunt, co-ordinated with one or both of the producers? Ben collapses, releases the blood from a capsule in his mouth? Or maybe he just fainted from stage fright? There might not be any murders, as well as one of them not even happening in the building. No Murders in Any Buildings.
  • Talking of The Producers, could a few plot points be on loan from Mel Brooks? There’s a poignant awfulness to the notion that, hiding somewhere further down the plot, a revelation is coming that will break Oliver: the play is supposed to fail. That might explain… well, everything about the play, in fact.
  • I’d like to think we’ve had the core clues already. This was definitely not the case in the first series and, if memory serves, the second either. But this year, please can the show work better as a fair play mystery as well as being a brilliant comedy and super-compelling drama, love letter to New York and stylistic triumph? It’d be nice!
  • The Christopher Wren reference is especially neat when you know there’s a character in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap by that name. An architect with secrets, in fact!
  • There’s a Richard II poster seen briefly. In Shakespeare’s play, the Henry IV-to-be rounds up all of Richard’s enemies to help overthrow him. Has somebody tried similar with Ben, perhaps?
  • Was Loretta literally Ben and Dickie’s nanny, many years ago? Much like Charles had forgotten him, had he forgotten a victim of his own cruelty and meanness?

And that’s just for starters. I’ll be back here very soon for Only Murders in the Building's next episode, Grab your Hankies.

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