Apple TV+ thriller Shining Girls takes a detour into the past to reveal the origins of serial killer Harper Curtis and the time-traveling house. It involves a broken friendship, a dead elderly couple, and more lies and betrayals.
Harper wasn’t always a maniac traveling through time killing whomever struck his fancy, though. He was once a lowly doughboy with no dreams and a crush. And then, power turned him evil.
Shining Girls recap: ‘Bright’
In this week’s episode, entitled “Bright,” Harper (played by Jamie Bell) is in the trenches of France during World War 1 when he meets Leo (Christopher Denham). Hit with a wave of mustard gas, Harper steals a dying man’s gas mask to survive. Exactly the kind of guy you want discovering the secret to time travel, eh?
After the war, he tries to link up with his sweetheart, Clara (Madeline Brewer, another alum from The Handmaid’s Tale) back in Chicago. She’s more than moved on from Harper, but still agrees to spend time with him. They hang out on a fire escape outside the club she works in, spying on an older woman (Meghan Gerachis) through her window. Then they climb in and find something strange while they’re trying to rob her. A watch. A Casio, from the looks of it.
Harper assaults the old woman and, when she won’t tell him where she got the watch, he kills her. Before he goes, he steals a picture of her husband because it has an address on it. He’s still curious, of course, so he gets Leo — a hometown boy, it turns out — and they hit up the address, dressed in their uniforms so they can pretend to be raising money for the American Legion. Inside the house is money, jewels, china … all the usual riches. But there are other, weirder things, too. Atlases from the 1970s. Dollars that haven’t been minted yet.
The owner of the house (Ulrich Thomsen) is hiding in a closet with a gun. He asks a very revealing question: “Which world war” did Harper fight in?
The time-traveling house
Now there’s no turning Harper away from his goal. He must know what’s happening. The homeowner flees right into traffic, where he’s hit by a car. So there’s nobody around to stop Harper from his time-traveling journey. He takes Clara into the future, and tells her the limitations of his time-traveling powers. He can only go up to a certain date. But they’re about to learn there are hard limits for this thing.
They head to the 1980s and meet a bartender named Sharon (Elisabeth Moss). Leo tells Clara that Harper is not a particularly trustworthy guy. She learns this herself when they get together to film her rehearsal. He tries to seduce Clara, but she says no — and Harper lets something creepy slip.
“Come back here, you always do,” he says.
Turns out Harper’s been sleeping with Clara in other timelines the whole time. That freaks her out and she tries to leave, but he beats her up and overpowers her. The next night, he’s back at the club flirting with Sharon, who isn’t interested.
A diversionary episode
One hallmark of most Apple TV+ shows, regardless of genre, is the late-season diversion episode. We’ll spend an hour with people we’ve never met before, or in places or times unfamiliar to the rest of the series. This isn’t fully that type of thing, because we know Leo and Harper. However, the straightforward arc of seeing the discovery of the time-travel house with Sharon/Kirby as a side character is a rich use of Shining Girls’ time.
First of all, the uncomplicated plotting proves more exciting than the time-travel stuff in previous episodes. We get to see Harper lean into his sociopathy and become the guy we know him as in the show’s regular storyline. It also comes with the added bonus of seeing Harper lose his grip on Clara, and how that was what really set him off. He thinks he’s special because he’s the one whom the house obeys. But really, he’s just the guy who killed the last owner.
… with an interesting premise
I also like the novelty of having Clara experiencing the future and appreciating it. That’s a premise rich with potential. It kind of made me wish Shining Girls started from this vantage point and slowly warped until it was about the last survivor of a bizarre pact to keep a secret about time travel. We could have seen Madeline Brewer and Jamie Bell hit up the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s before becoming disillusioned.
I know that’s not the way it played out in The Shining Girls book. But if this episode, the best of the season so far, is any indication, it would have made for some great TV.
If I have a complaint, it’s that the show has yet to illustrate what it is exactly that Harper sees when he looks at the girls he winds up killing. His introduction to Sharon/Kirby would have been a good opportunity to clue us in. The show is called Shining Girls after all, so why not show us what that shine looks like? But alas, no dice. Maybe that’s being saved for a bigger reveal. Time will tell.
Watch Shining Girls on Apple TV+
New episodes of Shining Girls arrive Fridays on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
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 author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.