Apple TV+ crime drama Defending Jacob nears its climax in Episode 6. The writers crank up the tension and the danger in ways that finally take the series out of the ordinary and into the more obviously fictional and generic.
Thankfully, director Morten Tyldum knows how to handle a flagrant crime show incident without it seeming more overblown than the series can handle. (Spoiler alert: Some key plot details will follow.)
Defending Jacob: ‘Wishful Thinking’ review
In Friday’s episode, titled “Wishful Thinking,” distressed dad/D.A. Andy Barber (played by Chris Evans) has a breakthrough as he tries to figure out who’s guilty of the murder his son stands accused of committing. Someone he pegged as his possible star witness, jobless hood Matt McGrath (Hale Lytle), finally comes forward to testify. Seems he’d been paid by Andy’s favorite suspect, Leonard Patz (Daniel Henshall), for sexual encounters in the past — and he mentioned the victim by name.
It’s not enough to convict Leonard, but Andy’s just happy he’s got the police back on the trail after focusing all their efforts on his son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell), for weeks on end. Of course, he also finds out that Jacob has been secretly using a new social media account that makes him look sociopathic. So Andy’s grateful for the new evidence, even if he’s no longer convinced his kid is totally innocent.
Enter a mystery man
Something else startling has started to hound the Barbers during their daily life — and it’s not even just that Andy’s serial killer father Bloody Bill (J.K. Simmons) has finally been linked to the family in the media. No, Andy and his wife Laurie (Michelle Dockery) have a run-in with a mysterious man (William Xifaras), who drives an old Lincoln and parks it on their street at night to watch them. Laurie notices the car while out for a run, and flees through backyards to get home without being tailed. Andy tries to menace the driver, but he drives off. Someone is having them followed and Andy doesn’t feel like it’s without warrant, even if he won’t say so.
Running from the guns
Defending Jacob’s greatest strength so far has perhaps been the way it toys with our allegiances and suspicions. In a show where a handsome lawyer dad tries to prove his son innocent of a murder, it’s easy to want to root for justice. However, six episodes in, there’s no longer a clear moral center to pin our hopes to. Now we’re mostly invested in seeing how thoroughly things unravel.
There’s a scene where Andy and Laurie take Jacob out for dinner. Afterward, their son says he’s grateful that things feel normal again. But between the man in the Lincoln, a murderous grandparent in prison calling home, a whole town suspicious of the boy who watches psychotic porn and slut-shames his friends, nothing could ever be normal for this family. Or could it?
This is not normal
That’s the exciting turn Defending Jacob made very subtly across the season so far. The search for the real killer turned into the search for secrets the family kept hidden from each other and their community. “We are normal!” Andy yells at his wife during a psych evaluation when told Jacob doesn’t seem to exhibit empathy for the dead boy. “This is normal!?” counters Laurie.
That’s been where the show’s headed all along. A dissection of hypocritical upper-middle-class Massachusetts liberal families was a nice bargain for the price of a true-crime show.
Watch on: Apple TV+ (subscription required)
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.