Things start to get unbearably tense and inhumane as pressure builds on the Barber family in Defending Jacob’s fifth episode, “Visitors.” The show takes a number of risks that may pay rich dividends in future episodes — as long as the showrunners remember not to flinch.
New guest stars — including veteran actor J.K. Simmons — and old vendettas surface in Friday’s new episode. And the Barbers head toward what might turn out to be a moral dead end if they want to stop their son, Jacob, from going to prison. Can we say climax?
Defending Jacob: ‘Visitors’ review
“Visitors” begins with the showiest moment that series director Morten Tyldum has yet attempted. While Jacob’s (Jaeden Martell) only friend Sarah (Jordan Alexa Davis) leads the high-school choir in a rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Circle Game,” we see Andy Barber (Chris Evans) driving to see his dad (Simmons) in jail.
The juxtaposition of the angelic voices singing an old folk-pop tune over gorgeous drone shots of Evans driving to jail through the New England wilds is the closest the show has come to modern myth-making in its imagery.
Simmons is an always-welcome face in movies and TV, and here he’s no exception. Playing a caged serial killer who clearly doesn’t have much remorse in his heart, he helps us see that the two Barber men have more in common than hot-blooded Andy would like to admit. Seeing his father also brings the unintended consequence of making Andy more anxious than ever to follow his hunch about other suspects in the murder that Jacob is accused of.
Andy goes so far as to slash someone’s tire to get more time to grill a witness (Ben Taylor) from Jacob’s class. Andy doesn’t like the kid’s testimony — it turns out Jacob was into some really weird, violent pornography — even if it does open up the possibility that there’s more to the story than even he imagined. There’s an ugly truth lying in wait for him, but it may lead to his son’s exoneration. So, onward he plunges.
In the jailhouse
Also in this episode, Laurie (Michelle Dockery) enjoys a rare moment of feeling good about herself and her life. The supermarket scene, scored perfectly by a fake-Tropicália cover of Bob Marley’s “Don’t Worry About a Thing,” serves up a moment simmering with acute middle-class kitsch poetry. Then Laurie realizes the only other woman shopping is Joan Rifkin (Megan Byrne), the mother of the boy Jacob stands accused of killing.
The agonizing seconds as Joan approaches Laurie in the aisle showcase Dockery’s incredible gift for exposing an emotional interior. She’s clearly experiencing a thousand things — and trying to hide a thousand more.
Jacob, however, manages to endure the Barber family’s worst experience of the episode when he uncovers something that makes him question Sarah’s friendship. Even more awful is the way he takes his anger out on her.
A question of ‘innocence’
From the beginning, Defending Jacob flirted with the shades of gray around Jacob’s “innocence.” Though this development rings true considering what we know of how disturbed and sensitive Jacob is, it’s still a huge risk. The show never made the character seem purposely hateable before. Now, they’ve taken away the complication of his guilt — even if he walks, he’s lost the audience.
The audacity of the move is one of a dozen reasons this procedural keeps getting more interesting as it goes. It’ll take a deft maneuver to keep Andy and Laurie from discovering and doing something about what we already know: the full range of Jacob’s upsetting behavior. I for one am excited to see if Defending Jacob can stick the landing.
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Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the director of 25 feature films, and the author of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.