Toward the end of “A Murder at the End of the World,” Ziba (Pegah Ferydoni), one of the guests staying at a billionaire’s Icelandic bunker, sums up the horror of the A.I. technology that the tech giant whose retreat they’re attending has created. Ray, the name given to the humanized smart computer overseeing every guest’s whim, is “an us, without feeling.” The line is not simply meant to highlight the danger of the soullessness of artificial intelligence— how, as many critics of theChat GPT era would say, advanced technology can never replicate our ineffable humanity, no matter how impressively it spits things out of its data churner.
The real terror is the “us” part. If A.I. takes our data and reflects ourselves back to us, it is a mirror of an often disfigured society.
Countless films and TV shows have reckoned with the idea of advanced tech gone haywire — artificial intelligence becoming Frankenstein’s monster in a dystopian world. But “A Murder at the End of the World,” the new FX limited series from filmmaking duo Brit Marling (who also stars in the show) and Zac Batmanglij (the pair created the weird and wonderful show “The OA”), is the first great show to reckon with those ideas in a post-A.I.-generator world, a time when these technological bogeymen fears are less speculative than they are predictive.
And yet what makes the show speak to fears truer to the core of any future, dystopian or not, is not its concern with any particular technology, but the more abstract ugliness of humanity itself.
Half of the show exists in a distant past in which Darby (Emma Corrin), a hacker who, as a coroner’s daughter, grew up examining dead bodies, teams up with Bill (Harris Dickinson), another hacker she met online, to find a serial killer that leaves silver jewelry on the women he’s murdered.
The pair fall in love as they team up, but become estranged for reasons we aren’t quite sure of after they finally confront the killer in the premiere. But they meet again years later after they’re both invited to Iceland for a mysterious retreat hosted by Andy, a tech billionaire (Clive Owen) who’s married to a legendary hacker (Marling) that went off the grid years ago. Andy has gathered a small group of visionary minds, aided by the emerging tech that is Ray, to help consider the future for our planet as it faces the realities of the impending climate apocalypse. Soon enough though, people begin to turn up dead at the retreat, and Darby is caught in a cat and mouse game with the killer.
One wouldn’t be alone in thinking that all sounds like a lot for a seven-episode miniseries. And yet, the strikingly ambitious work manages to grab onto an armful of genres — it’s a small-town true crime drama, a whodunnit murder mystery and a sci-fi parable with scope — and deftly coheres it all into a bracing, cinematic and propulsive thriller.
For most of the series, we aren’t quite sure what exactly is the thematic tissue connecting the flashbacks and the present murder mystery, except for the fact that it traces the former relationship between Bill and Darby. But Marling and Batmanglij, who co-wrote the series together and split up directing duties, have such tight control over their vision — immersive set pieces, a compelling score and a good sense of pacing — that it keeps us drawn in the entire way. (There’s what you might consider a tamer, but also perhaps more confident and sturdier, sensibility here from Marling and Batmanglij compared to the fascinating, if unruly “The OA,” which was dismayingly canceled after two seasons on Netflix.)
Of course, they’re helped along the way by a strong ensemble cast: Corrin and Dickinson have a remarkable, affecting chemistry, and Owen is superb as the inscrutable billionaire whose inner monster eventually boils over his carefully controlled veneer.
As Darby slowly makes her way through various leads, and we uncover more of her past with Bill, the show’s final stretch somewhat connects the dots of both storylines. We see the various ways the “invisible sickness” manifests: in a culture that produces the kind of femicide that is so common among serial killers; in the control of a powerful and abusive man who will possess every inch of a woman’s life; in that same kind of power-hungry, myopic view of humanity that produces invasive technology without realizing its repercussions; in the technology we use everyday that exploits our worst impulses and feeds it back to us.
The payoff binding all these big ideas is not exactly a perfect landing, but the series itself doesn’t care to make too big of a statement about that anyway. It’s a show that, for all its puzzle pieces, is undergirded by the emotionality of its characters, particularly in how that works within Darby and Bill’s complicated love story.
Yet, by the end Darby ironically becomes the most inscrutable piece to the show as its protagonist — but it’s also part of the reason why she pushes Bill away. She’ll go to the end of the world to solve a mystery, but she can’t quite figure out how to be there in the room with someone who loves her.
“A Murder at the End of the World” premieres Tuesday, Nov. 14, on Hulu. New episodes air Tuesdays through Dec. 19.
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