“A Murder at the End of the World” courts these comparisons with an eye toward frustrating them. (It even includes the billionaire, played by Clive Owen.) The seven-episode series, two episodes of which will drop Tuesday, is a chilly, melancholic spin on a genre that can sometimes make death downright cozy and detection a game.
Owen plays Andy Ronson, a mash-up of Jeff Bezos (who owns The Washington Post) and Elon Musk who is plagued with an unspecified illness. It’s at his behest — or rather, at the behest of his AI creation, a helpful assistant-type named Ray (Edoardo Ballerini) — that our sleuth, a reclusive young hacker named Darby Hart (Emma Corrin), travels to the high-tech compound he’s been building in Iceland. Ronson’s reasons for wanting Darby there are unclear; she’s only 24, and her biggest achievement is writing a memoir. Darby’s reasons are simpler: Ronson is married to her hero, a brilliant hacker named Lee Andersen (Brit Marling) who disappeared years earlier after getting doxed and harassed. She reappeared as Ronson’s wife, but appears to do little more than tend their son Zoomer (Kellan Tetlow).
There’s an old theory that whodunits are pleasurable because they mend a rip in the social fabric by restoring the world to order through logic. “A Murder at the End of the World” shreds that idea. Set in the snowy, unforgiving beauty of Iceland in winter, this show’s narrative background is no less bleak: Ronson’s guests have been summoned to discuss the end of the world, and to be shown how the rich are preparing. An unexpected death upsets Ronson’s smooth operation, and as conditions devolve, the apocalypse they’ve been discussing in mostly abstract terms starts to creep closer.
Darby, our lens into this rarefied world, learned a lot about dead bodies from her father (Neal Huff), a forensic pathologist, and spent her youth collaborating with like-minded detectives on Reddit and other forums trying to identify Jane Does that seem like homicides. Fans of the form will note that this is a little bit backward: Whereas murder mysteries tend to feature detectives working the cases people bring them, Darby started with nameless bodies and tried to turn their mute unwitnessed suffering into cases.
She’s not perfect, however. As crises mount in Ronson’s compound, we learn through flashbacks that Darby started to get a little too charmed by incongruous details about certain cadavers that suggested a serial killer at work. She met a fellow hacker and sleuth named Bill Farrah (Harris Dickinson) in the course of these online investigations, and Bill — whose suspicion of technology eventually leads him to abandon it and become an artist — becomes the conscience of the series, in effect. He recoils when Darby’s passion to understand the killer starts to seem laced with giddiness and something like respect.
The series toggles between past and present, often through the somewhat clumsy device of Hart’s memoir about tracking down the killer with Bill. This two-timeline structure is — I want to be clear, without spoiling anything — a total bummer. It’s also, despite some gimmickry, interesting: The high-tech sterility of Ronson’s luxe hotel contrasts weirdly with the motels Bill and Darby stay in, which look and feel the opposite of sterile (you can practically smell them). The road trip the broke couple goes on serves as an analog counterweight to the present-day story, where everything is digitized, and where characters with considerable power, including a Chinese “smart city” architect (Joan Chen) and a famous astronaut (Alice Braga) are stuck. That sense of paralysis is as conceptual as it is concrete; it is clear, as Ronson and his hand-selected guests talk, that no “solution” to climate change will emerge from these elitist conclaves. (And that many of those present don’t even understand that to be the assignment.)
Corrin, who played Princess Diana in “The Crown,” is very good here. Darby’s intelligence is believable but not infallible, her mistakes are interesting, and she has enough gravitas to nail a young person’s exasperated understanding of the ways she is being condescended to. Dickinson is a revelation. Bill is, at least on paper, a type. But the actor plays him with a kind, tortured inarticulacy (as he struggles through layers of conscience) that renders him wildly specific.
Parts of the present-day story are thin. There are too many characters to adequately define and develop, and so many competing themes that the series starts to reproduce some of the same shallow, wheel-spinning discourse Ronson’s “luminaries” regale him with at dinner. As a whodunnit, however, “A Murder at the End of the World” holds its own — all while enacting some heart-rending correctives to the genre’s bloodthirsty tendencies. It takes guts to couch your jeremiad against the gamification of death in a murder mystery. All I can say, having seen the full season, is that Marling and Batmanglij had their reasons. And they work.
A Murder at the End of the World (seven episodes) streams Nov. 14 on FX on Hulu. New episodes will stream weekly.