Extreme wealth is becoming the narrative preoccupation of our times. The obscenely rich entrepreneur, or sometimes the heir to an immoral fortune, has been all over television in 2023, from Beef to Dead Ringers, Succession to The Fall of the House of Usher to The Morning Show. In A Murder at the End of the World, Clive Owen joins their ranks as “king of tech” Andy Ronson, a billionaire who invites a group of creatives and high-achievers to a retreat in the wilds of Iceland, where they ostensibly talk about the great issues of our time, particularly the climate crisis, and bear witness to what the future might look like. “The facts are hysterical, but they are facts,” says Ronson, at the end of a rousing speech about climate refugees and the mass disappearance of wilderness.
Such unapologetic sincerity is the hallmark of Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij, who are best known for creating The OA, the imaginative sci-fi series that was cruelly axed by Netflix after two seasons before it could wrap up the plot. Here, they narrow their vision – this is a lot less interpretative-dance based than that earlier show – and broaden it, darting between timelines to investigate different murders, while also meditating on AI, robotics, violence against women and abuses of power.
Emma Corrin plays Darby Hart, a 24-year-old “Gen Z Sherlock Holmes” who has written a true-crime book about her past as an amateur sleuth. As a teenager, she and her ex-boyfriend Bill (Harris Dickinson) used their hacking skills to track down a serial killer. Their relationship adds a sweet love story into the mix, despite its unromantic beginnings. In flashback, we see Darby’s origin story, as a Reddit-dwelling loner following in the footsteps of her pathologist father. She is driven to her own investigations as much by ideology as curiosity: there are thousands of unidentified bodies in the US, many of them murder victims, many of them women. There is a sense that she and Bill are not so much trying to solve a mystery as fix the world.
This carries through to the present day. Darby and Bill are no longer a couple, and she is living in New York City, still trying to identify bodies with the help of technology, sleuthing forums and an online community of fellow laptop detectives, while promoting a book she has written about the serial killer case, named The Silver Doe. She receives a summons to a symposium about “technology’s role in ensuring a human future”, hosted and funded by Ronson and his wife, Lee Anderson (played by Marling), a legendary coder who also happens to be one of Darby’s heroes.
Naturally, the show has fun with the excesses of seemingly infinite resources. There is a fetishisation of rare food and drink, a private jet that looks like a library, a luxury hotel built by Ronson as a potential refuge from climate disaster, in the grand tradition of real-life tech bros, who plant their flags in ranches and bunkers where they feel they might protect themselves from the turning of the screws. But Ronson is no buffoon. One of the layers of mystery is working out whether he is trying to change the world for the better, or whether there are more sinister machinations at play. But the murder of the title turns it into a something of a chamber piece, as one of the symposium guests meets an untimely end and Darby gets to work to find out whodunnit.
As with The OA, it works best with the suspension of cynicism. There are snags, and how much they detract from your enjoyment of its central mysteries will depend on how forgiving you feel. It is occasionally bogged down by its own seriousness; the best noir has an arched eyebrow and a curled lip but this is largely wide-eyed and guileless. The first two episodes require wading through a lot of exposition, and the issues are not seamlessly woven in. Characters are prone to speeches about the state of the world, about “rattling democracy” and “mutating viruses”. And the episodes are long – while some are 40 minutes, others sprawl well over the hour mark and it does not always feel justified.
But it is a stylish looker, whether in the hazy, neon-lit motels of Darby and Bill’s past, or in the Ex Machina-style futurism of Ronson’s supposedly climate-proof hotel. Corrin and Dickinson are outstanding and carry the story on their shoulders. It takes on a lot, thematically, but I admire the big swings. This is a tech-centred story and its big appetite for interconnected ideas feels very online. It may not be flawless, but I found myself completely seduced by it.