Terry and Joe discuss the most recent episode of Apple TV’s limited series, Shining Girls.
Spoilers follow for episodes 1-3.
Episode 1 “Cutline”: Kirby Mazrachi suspects her attacker from years earlier may be responsible for a recent murder, but she’s challgenged by her shifting reality.
Well Terry, here we are again. We’ve obviously covered several limited series, including The Outsider and Apple TV’s own Lisey’s Story (in podcast form), so I’m excited to tackle another adaptation with you. This time I’m the one who has read the book, though I’ll confess that I only remember broad strokes of Lauren Beukes’ novel The Shining Girls (truth be told: I didn’t love it).
Now we’re here with an eight episode limited series, starring Elisabeth Moss (as our heroine Kirby) and Jamie Bell (as our time traveling villain Harper). This first episode “Cutline” is a bit of a subdued affair, with a stretched-out 55 minute run time and an unhurried pace.
We open in 1964 as Bell’s unnamed man awkwardly interacts with a young girl on the doorstep. It’s brief, but Bell is suitably creepy, particularly as he pulls the wings off of a bee and insinuates to the girl that they’ll meet later.
Flash forward to 1992 (the show is a period drama, which will help to alleviate the elements where technology Kirwould provide assistance in solving the mystery). Kirby (Moss) is a cautious, introverted file clerk at a Chicago newspaper who is planning an escape to Florida at week’s end. It’s clear that Kirby is both running from and investigating her past; over the first hour we learn that she’s a victim of Harper, who attacked her from behind so that she can only recognize his voice, but not his face.
Of course the hook of Shining Girls, which “Cutline” takes nearly its entire runtime to confirm, is that time is malleable. Kirby insists on writing down all kinds of innocuous details of her life, including the plates her mother (Amy Brenneman) bought her and whether her pet Grendel is a cat or a dog. By episode’s end, it’s made clear that these details change, without Kirby’s clear understanding why or how; it’s both why she’s desperate to find her attacker, as well as escape any remnants of her attack.
As Harper plots his next attack on Jinny (Phillipa Soo), an employee at the planetary who he freaks out after a meet/cute, Kirby ends up in the same orbit as a disgraced journalist Dan (Wagner Moura, Narcos) who is investigating a similar murder on a woman named Julia. The pair strike up a tentative, albeit weary alliance: Dan is uncertain if he can trust her intel, while Kirby keeps everyone at arm’s length, including her mother and her work crush Marcus (Chris Chaulk).
Terry, I’m curious about your level of engagement in this methodically paced first episode since you didn’t have the benefit of knowing what’s going on from the book? Is the 1992 setting a turn-on or turn-off? And what do you think of the performances of Moss and Bell so far?
It’s funny, Joe, because right before I started watching the episode I realized that I’ve read at least part of the book. Other than remembering there’s weird things with time, including a time traveling killer, though, I remember nothing about it. So, yeah, I’m at square one regardless.
I have to admit that after watching this first episode, I’m immediately intrigued and hooked to see where it goes. In the back of my mind, I was thinking about time travel but the way the show has already started showing the malleability of time is fascinating because this first episode, at least, takes the ignored woman trope and plays with it.
We’ve seen a lot of films recently where a woman is ignored, seen as “hysterical” or is an unreliable narrator. You and I have both bemoaned recently that this has turned from being an intriguing subgenre in horror that feels pulled from the current social climate we live in to one that doesn’t bring anything new to the table.
In Shining Girls, though, the unreliable narrator comes from someone who is unreliable even to herself and Moss plays the character with intense subtlety to the point that I find Kirby immensely watchable. Intriguingly, I found this episode’s more relaxed pacing really captured my attention in ways it didn’t seem to grab you. Maybe it’s the benefit of not really knowing where the show is going?
I think the pacing works because it does introduce a lot of threads, from the disgraced reporter Dan as you mentioned to Detective Samuels (Brian Boland) who calls on Moss to identify her assaulter to Jinny’s discovery of a wingless bee and her eventual murder by Harper. While it’s establishing the central murder mystery that involves Kirby, the premiere is also layering in Kirby’s unreliable grasp of time and her place in it. At first, her situation seems like a mental one; a kind of Memento story where she has to keep a notebook to keep her memory intact. But Shining Girls quickly dispels that by showing us that things are changing and I think this first episode does a fantastic job of showing how discombobulating and horrifying that is.
The sequence that really stands out to me is when Dan takes Kirby to meet medical examiner, Dr. Iris Laskaris (Hanna Dworkin). Iris has her lay down on one of those metal autopsy tables (horrifying enough!) and while she’s tentatively exploring the scars across Kirby’s stomach, something changes and Iris is replaced by a male doctor, Howard. That juxtaposition creates tension simply by flipping the doctor’s gender, let alone the fact that Kirby can’t keep tabs on what’s actually happening.
This is then followed up by the episode’s final moments when Kirby’s apartment switches from 2B to 3B…and when she goes into her “new” home, it’s much more open and inviting. It’s also importantly missing her mother, who’s been replaced by Marcus. He hugs her and it’s obvious that, because of whatever has changed, she’s now in a relationship with him.
It’s a lot to take in. And I think the methodical pacing allows these characters to be introduced and not feel rushed. That said, if this is the pacing throughout all eight episodes…well, I might have to reassess!
I touched on Moss’ intensely subtle performance, but Bell’s portrayal of Harper both entices and horrifies. The way he interacts with the young girl in the opening of the episode, bringing down her defenses, then snatching a buzzing bee between his fingers and ripping off its wings, is full of malice. He manages to get closer and closer to her under the guise of wanting to hear the bee buzzing under a cup and Bell walks that line of being both a handsome and charismatic “nice guy” and a horrifying monster.
“At first we find its shine and then we take it away” is such a quietly disturbing statement, punctuated by pulling the wings of the bee off. The way he exits the scene, leaving her with a carved figurine and telling her she will take it, “you always do,” is haunting. Is the “you” a reference to her specifically? Or is this his trademark? Does he appear to his victims when they’re kids, gives them something, and then kills them when they’re adults? It’s obvious from the time shift (1964 to 1992) that Harper hasn’t aged. That, combined with Kirby’s unreliable grasp of time, suggests he time travels.
All told, this episode really grabbed my attention and I’m excited to dive into episode two.
Episode 2 “Evergreen”
…which picks up directly where episode one left off, with Kirby in the midst of being hugged by Marcus. After an awkward birthday party for Marcus, where Kirby apparently forgot to pick up a cake and appetizers and her whole office starts piling in, Kirby pulls out her journal to find out she’s married to Marcus and Grendel is her cat.
In this reality, not only does she not live with her mom and is somewhat estranged from her, but her mom is a singer at a spiritual center called The Well. Kirby eventually goes to see her to get some photos and the entire congregation creepily surrounds her, hugging mother and daughter in a prayer circle.
Meanwhile, Dan continues his investigation and meets with medical examiner Dr. Howard to follow up on Kirby’s lead. Shining Girls’ first episode was predicated on the fact that police found the body of Julia (Karen Rodriguez), who was missing and presumed dead. Her body was found stuffed in a sewer pipe and the lacerations on her body were similar to Kirby’s assault. And so Kirby asked Dan if the medical examiners found something that shouldn’t be there in Julia’s body.
In “Evergreen,” Dr. Howard brings Dan to Julia’s body and shows him photographs taken from the crime scene and detritus they discovered around the body. One of the found items was weirdly out of place: a box of radium from some place that was closed in the 50s. Howard passes it off as simple debris that was there long before Julia’s body was stuffed in the pipe, but Dan isn’t convinced. So out comes the decomposed body, cut open for examination. At first it doesn’t seem like anything is out of the ordinary. But Dan turns off the lights and discovers that radium was placed inside Julia, still glowing in the darkness.
But also: I feel like that’s something a seasoned medical examiner would have found at some point?
When Dan confronts Kirby to ask what was put inside her, she takes him to a laundromat and tells him that her attacker left a box of matches from a bar called ‘Bee Happy’ with this exact address. Not only is the laundromat not a bar, but she did some digging and it was never a bar. Which is an interesting little note because I’m now wondering if this isn’t just a series about time travel, but one about different dimensions.
At first, I thought that whenever Kirby’s reality shifted, something in the past was changed due to Harper’s time shifting and that’s why she couldn’t keep things straight. But now I’m wondering if she is like him and is somehow slipping through different dimensions where things have played out differently. It would explain why the laundromat was never a bar…because maybe it was in a different dimension. Multiverses are so “in” right now that that seems plausible.
Intercut throughout Dan and Kirby’s investigations are scenes of Harper stalking Julia, showing up at her place of work, trying to push back a piece of her hair (“don’t touch me!” she tells him) and somehow leaving pictures of her from a time she doesn’t remember in her packed boxes. It’s played as if it’s happening right now, but of course we know it’s in the past. And it’s here that Shining Girls still has me intrigued because of the way it plays with time and perspective. Everything is happening at once, even though it’s obviously happening at different times.
I know you weren’t completely sold on the first episode and I’m wondering, Joe, if that feeling continues into “Evergreen.” As someone who covers white ladies in crisis, how does Kirby stack up so far? What are your thoughts on the brooding camaraderie that’s developing between Don and Kirby? And did you love the horror/home invasion interlude between Julia and Harper, played out through photographs?
The stalking of Julia was very creepy, and much more effective for me than Harper’s attack on Jinny in the first episode. In the former it felt formulaic (something we’ve seen in countless police procedurals), whereas the polaroids documenting events in real time (sans camera) is very unnerving. We’re right there with Julia, pondering the logistics, waiting for the blow to come.
The fact that Harper ends this attack with a phone call instead of physical violence tells us a great deal about his character: while we know he will ultimately kill Julia, for now he’s content to menace her. That means he either draws the murders out because he derives satisfaction from women’s terror…or (and this could be controversial) some part of him loves them.
That’s where the time travel component comes into play. In “Cutline” we saw Harper approach Jinny when she was a young girl. In repeated conversations throughout “Evergreen,” Harper reassures/threatens Julia with carefully worded references to time: he “did and will” know her, he “was and will be” with her in the kitchen. While Kirby rightfully seizes on the answering machine message that confirms there are multiple girls, I kept circling back to the multiverse implications of Harper knowing every little detail of his victims. He knows them because he’s spent an entire life with them. How could a part of you not love someone if you spent a lifetime with them, Terry?
Obviously I’m romanticizing a brutal killer and that’s not my intention; it’s clear he’s extremely dangerous. Harper’s ability to blend in at Julia’s wake, with her grieving friends and family, is classic serial killer behaviour. It’s really icky and vile. It’s also testament to what his plain white good looks allow him to do: go into spaces unchallenged or unquestioned. Which is why it’s nice that Dan winds up grilling him (we’ve seen repeatedly that even though Harper appears non-threatening, most people get the creeps from him fairly quickly).
Alas, Dan’s journalistic inquiry does mean that he’s now on Harper’s radar. Their conversation is also a clever way for Shining Girls to build suspense because, of course, Kirby is just inside the house and could encounter her attacker at any second. Her life is secretly in jeopardy and she doesn’t even know it.
You asked me, Terry, how Kirby fares on the “white ladies in crisis” spectrum and I’d say that she’s playing into many of the tropes of the “woman in peril” film that was popular in <drumroll please> the 90s, which is when this show is set. Not only is she haunted by her past and being stalked by a killer, but her sanity is being questioned by both the police and the men in her life.
Aside from the revelations about Harper, the episode’s biggest contribution is cementing the central relationship between Kirby and Dan. He starts the episode not believing her and demanding that she corroborate her story with “simple questions,” but in what I read as the emotional climax of the episode, he ultimately vouches for her in front of Abby (Erika Alexander), his editor. It’s a mini character arc that’s well-executed, but it’s a vital development that allows Shining Girls to move forward its central protagonists as a bonded pair.
Because it’s clear that shit is going to escalate…
I was intrigued by your mention that “we know it’s the past,” though. I think we might have to let go of strictly binary interpretations of time like past and present. One of my favourite subtle moments in “Evergreen” is how we see Julia’s body on the slab and then suddenly the next scene (re)introduces her as a living, breathing person. I don’t read this as a flashback to the past, though; the show doesn’t use visual signifiers to help us distinguish when we’re changing times…except when it comes to the way that Kirby experiences the world.
We’re only a quarter of the way through this limited series, so we’ll have to continue tracking how time is being presented and manipulated. For now I’m leaning towards a multiverse perspective (like you mentioned) wherein all of this is happening at once. That would explain why Kirby is so confused and why Harper is seemingly all-knowing.
We’ll see if we get any clarity in episode three.
Episode Three “Overnight”
Annnd I have to laugh at myself because “Overnight” only serves to make the time travel elements of the show more complicated.
Just when I thought I had a handle on things (there is indeed a sound effect that accompanies Kirby’s time shift, signified by her longer hair), Shining Girls complicates things exponentially by (re)introducing a still alive Jinny at the planetarium, despite evidence that her keys were found back in 1972.
Ahhhh Terry, what is going on?!
The rest of “Overnight” is amusingly circular. Things begin in media res as Dan awakens from a drunken stupor with an injured arm on the subway home. He collects his keys from a bar, wanders to his car and realizes that someone else was driving it (the seat is in the wrong position and Dan clearly doesn’t recognize the tape in the cassette deck). The mystery of who drove his car isn’t answered in this episode, but we eventually learn that Harper was in Dan’s house – hence the turned down books Dan discovers before he ushers his son Freddy to school.
This is really Dan’s backstory episode, as we learn about his relationship with Freddy, his drug addict ex-wife Gloria, and his battle with alcoholism. We hear from both Abby, as well as Marcus, about why Kirby needs to be mindful of Dan’s intentions (the latter’s comment that Dan will “run right through you to get to nowhere” is damning).
“Overnight” is also a research intensive episode, as we get a lengthy montage of Dan and Kirby identifying seven other victims from the last twenty-five years at the police evidence archives. They also learn that Harper has a “type”: the women are all similar in appearance and age, and they all had tokens left inside them.
Meanwhile, as Dan and Kirby close in on Harper, he’s conducting his own investigation. There’s a new girl, Lisa, he terrifies in a convenience store basement, but the rest of the time Harper is zeroing in on Freddy and Dan in an effort to decipher just how much Dan knows.
As both Dan and Harper get angry, the timeline circles back on itself like an ouroboros: Harper storms out of Dan’s house to spy on him drinking, dancing and doing coke in the bar where the reporter collected his keys. Then we move to the subway where the men have a clandestine encounter after Dan injures his hand.
I’ll confess that the tension of whether Harper will try to kill Dan doesn’t work for me, though. At this point it’s obvious that Dan will survive because of the opening of the episode, so I rolled my eyes at the shot of Harper’s hand near Dan’s back.
More significant is Dan’s drunken slip of the tongue wherein he clues Harper in on the fact that at least one woman has survived. Time to start watching your back, Kirby!
Over to you, Terry: what did you think of the circular narrative, and Kirby’s interaction with Jinny at the planetarium? What do you make of Marcus and Dan’s comments about the other? (Last episode Dan called Marcus a “martyr” who has decency, but no compassion) And considering the series keeps raising the issue of Kirby’s questionable character, do you think that she will be hung out to dry by the paper or the police? Finally, what do you predict for episode four?
This episode was smartly structured, Joe, even though I, too, rolled my eyes at Harper’s will he/won’t he hand maneuver at the end. You wrote about how time isn’t linear/binary back in our discussion of episode two and “Overnight” hones in on that with an episode that ends where it begins. Shining Girls is telling us not to expect a linear narrative and episode three plays with that perspective by re-introducing Jinny, and reminding us about those keys discovered back in 1972. My theory at this point is that Harper collects things from the people he plans to murder and puts them in the bodies of his other victims.
I think this will start to emerge as the series progresses. After the research montage, Dan goes to drink and get chummy with the police–a visible foreshadowing of where the episode will end–and Kirby goes to look through their collected evidence of her assault. She tries to pocket the matchbook for ‘Bee Happy’ but Dan catches it. “He left it inside me. It’s mine,” she says through tears, but Dan makes her return it. I think at some point, the previous owner of that matchbox will be revealed as one of the victims. But the fact that Jinny’s keys were stolen and ended up in 1972 makes me wonder what, exactly, was stolen from Kirby.
And will it end up in Jinny’s body?
Jinny’s murder takes place sometime in the near future because, when she was introduced in “Cutline” the planetarium was still exhibiting ‘Galactic Collisions.’ So I wouldn’t be surprised if, at some point in the next couple episodes, Kirby will learn of her death. She’ll probably also confuse it with the killer covering his tracks, though I still believe her death was fated simply because he took something from her.
I’m also concerned that Harper is going to target Dan and his family because the way he messes around in Dan’s house seems almost like a calling card. We’ve seen Harper torment Julia by leaving things disturbed in her boxes and “Overnight” opens with Dan finding his books put down horizontal in patterns in ways that feel eerily similar. Yes, self-preservation is online with this one, but Harper has an interest in Dan and that’s not just going to go away.
It’s interesting that you bring up the Marcus/Dan dynamic, though, because I feel like we get more information on Dan from this exchange than Marcus. Right now, Marcus is barely a character to me. He was a flirty love interest who, in another dimension or timeline, gets with Kirby…but what do we know about him? Not a whole lot, outside of his profession and whatever Dan says about him. He’s almost cloyingly trusting with Kirby to the point he comes across as a non-entity, giving passive aggressive looks that says he’s not happy about Kirby’s direction even though he won’t say anything about it.
These first three episodes have established that Dan is, in a lot ways, like Kirby: unreliable. “He chases stories, he doesn’t break them,” Marcus says and a lot of the innuendo can also be said about Kirby. His addiction and her inability to keep track of time play interesting foils to each other, since one of the symptoms of addiction can be blacking out and losing track of where you are and what you’ve done (this also plays into the unreliable white female character we’ve seen a lot of recently).
Do I think Kirby could be hung out to dry? Absolutely. Even if she starts to put the time travel/dimension swapping pieces together, who’s going to believe her? And will Dan risk ruining a genuine moment of career comeback over a witness he has repeatedly said is the definition of unreliable? I don’t know, but it seems like the series is purposefully raising those questions.
Alas, my other commitments prevent me from continuing with the show, so it’s up to you to continue exploring this multiple murder investigation in episode four “Attribution.”
Shining Girls airs Fridays on Apple TV