More than halfway into A Murder at the End of the World — after multiple suspicious deaths and attempts on her life — Gen Z sleuth Darby Hart (Emma Corrin) finally speaks aloud what viewers have been clued into since the premiere: "I'm starting to feel like this might not be a hotel at all," she says of the high-tech retreat center built by Andy Ronson (Clive Owen), the richest man in the world.
It's not the first time the murder mystery's central figure finds herself behind the eight ball, and it won't be the last. Darby is a skilled hacker, but her inexperience as an investigator proves to be her, and the show's, greatest weakness. For a limited series that rests on the premise that young women shouldn't be underestimated — a theme that's stated outright in early episodes — co-creators, writers, and directors Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij offer little evidence to suggest Darby is the right person to solve this crime, save for her prior success catching a serial murderer she dubbed the "Silver Doe Killer."
At the very least, Darby is wise enough to be wary when she receives an odd text from someone claiming to be Andy Ronson's assistant: She takes a screenshot and posts it on Reddit, asking whether the text is "a joke or a Russian hack." Darby's friends warn her about the "dark sh*t" that comes with consorting with billionaires, but her curiosity gets the better of her, and minutes later, Andy's AI creation Ray (Edoardo Ballerini) is projected into her living room, inviting her to "a symposium to discuss technology's role in ensuring a human future." One private plane ride later, she's checking into an isolated compound in Iceland and discussing the climate crisis over a five-star dinner. Any concerns Darby may have had about Andy's aims or the remote location dissipate upon arrival. She's impressed by Ray's capabilities and eagerly accepts a ring that doubles as a room key and health monitor, without expressing any misgivings about Andy receiving a constant stream of data about his guests.
When one of those guests is found dead — and Darby witnesses their final moments — she springs into action. Andy and his team insist the guest died of an overdose, but Darby suspects foul play; a covert check of the crime scene confirms as much, though she struggles to convince Andy that there's a killer in their midst. With the group of prominent venture capitalists (Raúl Esparza), robotics wizards (Ryan J. Haddad), and tech titans (Joan Chen) equally reluctant to believe the theories of a 24-year-old, no-name author, Darby strikes out on her own, paying no mind to the danger lurking around the corner.
Initially, skirting the line between courage and stupidity pays off with a few big leads, but as the season progresses, Darby's naivete begins to wear. She deems certain guests, like Sian (Alice Braga), an astronaut spearheading Andy's campaign to "colonize the moon," trustworthy based on half-baked loyalty tests, only to be shocked when they reveal their darker sides. Darby's gullibility also leads her to overlook the most obvious suspect until the fifth episode, "Crypt," when she finally realizes that if the killer is an expert hacker, it's probably time to ask a few questions of Andy's wife Lee Andersen (Marling), a coder who wrote a scathing manifesto about misogyny on the internet (and was then doxxed by her male peers until she was forced to go into hiding).
Darby's easily avoidable missteps become particularly apparent when placed alongside flashbacks to her time hunting the Silver Doe Killer with Bill Farah (Harris Dickinson) six years prior. She and Bill first met on a sleuthing forum, and they bonded over their shared interest in unsolved Jane Doe murders across the Midwest. Before long, they took their online relationship into the real world as they set out to connect the murders and unmask the killer, falling in love along the way. Granted, the experience with Bill and the Silver Doe clearly hardened Darby (and people change a lot from age 18 to 24) but the Darby in these flashbacks feels wholly disconnected from the young woman investigating a murder in Iceland. That version of Darby knew who (and who not) to trust and what questions to ask to get to the truth, whereas present-day Darby is so credulous that she fails to recognize obvious traps until it's too late.
Still, A Murder at the End of the World's soft-lit flashbacks serve as its emotional core, and Corrin and Dickinson do their most affecting work in these scenes. While the murder mystery stretches out across hour-plus-long episodes — all seven installments feel bloated, with the longest coming in at a full 75 minutes — Corrin and Dickinson take advantage of their limited screen time together and jolt the show alive with their chemistry. It's in these moments, when their characters come into sharper focus as they battle over Darby's obsession with the case and Bill's concerns about the dangers of technology, that the limited series is most compelling, making it all the more disappointing when Marling and Batmanglij leave them behind and return to the frozen landscape of Iceland and its plodding mystery.
The present-day storyline also suffers from the size of the ensemble cast. The eight guests at the retreat, plus a handful of Andy's trusted employees, are needed to widen the potential victim and suspect pool, but with Darby's investigation taking her down increasingly sinister rabbit holes, there's little room to develop their characters beyond surface-level introductions. As a result, it's not only confusing when they're inevitably drawn into the puzzle — viewers may find themselves asking, "Which guy is that?" — but difficult to care about their connection to Andy, let alone their fates.
As Only Murders in the Building and Rian Johnson's Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, the latter of which shares a plot with A Murder at the End of the World, have made clear, part of the fun of murder mysteries is cheering along as the detective uncovers the truth. When Darby puts her unique skill set and Gen Z perspective to good use, FX's limited series fulfills its end of the bargain, but across the first five episodes, those instances are few and far between. That leaves viewers with an amateur sleuth who fails to convince she can deliver a satisfying resolution, and a show that follows suit.
A Murder at the End of the World premieres Tuesday, November 14 on Hulu. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.