Breakout Apple TV+ series Defending Jacob comes to a gutsy and strong conclusion by leaving its characters, and its audience, in the lurch. This is the smartest decision the show’s creators could have made.
The limited series’ ending, which premieres Friday, shifts everything we’ve seen so far into an entirely new light. It likely will haunt you for some time to come.
Spoiler alert: Details about “After,” the final episode of Defending Jacob, follow.
Defending Jacob: ‘After’ review
For weeks, audiences have watched Defending Jacob and seen what looked like Andy Barber (played by Chris Evans) testifying in his son’s murder trial. His son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell), stood accused of killing a bully at his high school. The teen looked like the best suspect, until out of the woodwork fell credibly accused sex offender Leonard Patz (Daniel Henshall).
Something about Leonard’s confession (and subsequent suicide) felt too tidy, even for Andy, who fought hard to see his son exonerated. Barber felt like his son was finally free, but his conscience got the better of him, and he started to do some investigating.
As Barber starts to let doubt creep into his mind, his wife, Laurie (Michelle Dockery), and Jacob want to resume their lives, to regain some sense of the ordinary. It doesn’t take long before the strain on their trust shows itself to be irreparable.
They take a trip to Mexico, and when a young girl goes missing, everyone assumes Jacob killed her. Andy confesses to Laurie that he thinks his dad (J.K. Simmons) asked a contract killer to off Patz and get him to write the false confession. The girl comes back, but Laurie’s trust never returns.
The defense rests
Defending Jacob had a number of intelligent conceits for a show with so narrow a focus, but the last switch in time and perspective is a real gut-punch. Suddenly we see in a very real and violent fashion how once you have your trust shattered, you can’t ever fully repair it.
Through eight episodes, we watched members of the Barber family wrestle in their own ways with Jacob’s murder trial and his guilt. However, the verdict was always only ever really going to be in Laurie and Andy’s hands. They’re the ones who created Jacob — and they’re the ones who have to live with what they’ve done.
Evans fumbles a bit in his big emotional scene. But Dockery makes up for it, her searching eyes hoping something will relieve her of the burden of her suspicions, and how responsible she feels for what her community and family have been through.
Dark and darker
This is a profoundly dark show (it ends with a song by The National on the soundtrack, if that’s any indication). But it’s a worthwhile exercise in watching something that looks perfect from the outside unravel from the inside.
Defending Jacob ends the only way it possibly could, which is a sad but likely necessary comment on how we handle public opinion and guilt in America. Someone was always going to wonder about Jacob Barber. Now, at least, they won’t have to fear him.
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.