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Only Murders in the Building Uses Brilliant Writing for Great Female Antagonists

'Only Murders in the Building' stars Selena Gomez, Martin Short, and Steve Martin.

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In a scene in Only Murders in the Building, Oliver Putnam describes a murder mystery as, “Oh, my God, the twists and turns of this are unbelievable. It’s like a rainbow crafted by a drunken leprechaun.” With this cheeky dialogue, the show is also describing itself.

While it might have only taken home three Creative Arts Emmys this year (it was nominated under 17 categories), Only Murders in the Building has been all the rage for its exquisite, and frankly delicious, writing. Its biggest win, in that aspect, is the way it constructed its antagonists.

'Only Murders in the Building' stars Selena Gomez, Martin Short, and Steve Martin.

Selena Gomez, Martin Short, and Steve Martin in Only Murders in the Building.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

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When it comes to creating female villains, cinema has a tendency to rely on stereotypes – she killed to protect her husband/ child, it was an accident, she had to, she’s “unstable”.

For the longest time, it seemed like pop culture was shying away from creating female characters who embraced true evil; perhaps because it challenged the sexist notion of a woman being demure and motherly.

Only Murders in the Building flipped that over its head.

The show, created by Steve Martin and John Hoffman, is two seasons old and has set the audience up for a third season with a cliffhanger (featuring a surprising cameo).

The first two seasons told stories of two different murders – both close to home in different ways, both begging to be investigated by our team of sleuths, (Selena Gomez as Mabel Mora, Martin Short as Oliver Putnam, and Martin as Charles Haden-Savage).

'Only Murders in the Building' stars Selena Gomez, Martin Short, and Steve Martin.

Selena Gomez, Martin Short, and Steve Martin in Only Murders in the Building.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

The first murder puts the spotlight on several people around the building but it is a tiny detail, that anybody who doesn’t play a bassoon would miss, that blew the case wide open. It is revealed that Jan (Amy Ryan) was behind the murder and at the face of it, it seems like a cut-and-dry crime of passion.

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But it’s more. By giving Jan a romantic interest that is front-and-center on the show, the audience gets an insight into the crime that goes beyond ‘passion’ and the idea of a ‘jilted lover’. It humanises her without making her empathetic to the audience (she did after all kill someone).

The second season also revolves around a murder in the Arconia and takes the audience through the same twists and turns as the brilliant writing of season 1. There are several red herrings and most of them amount to nothing but the show keeps its best resolutions for the final episode.

'Only Murders in the Building' stars Selena Gomez, Martin Short, and Steve Martin.

A still from Only Murders in the Building.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

Many times, crime shows will use the argument, “That’s a lot of work; there’s no way a woman could’ve pulled that off,” and you might find yourself using that argument too. It’s not your fault; it’s what you’ve been led to think after years and years of the excuse being used on TV.

By keeping the killer mostly in the shadows, the show keeps this ambiguity alive.

This time, it’s not a crime of passion, it’s one of ambition. There’s a person willing to go to any lengths for success, to make their dreams come true. This time too, the show gives the criminal a human backstory, which is bound to tug at your heartstrings.

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The women in the show aren’t acting on a ‘feminine protective instinct’ or just on whims and fancies, or to sit in waiting to be rescued from themselves by men. Their motivations don't exist to serve another person and can often just be selfish and unreasonable.

'Only Murders in the Building' stars Selena Gomez, Martin Short, and Steve Martin.

Amy Ryan as Jan in Only Murders in the Building.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

Even Mabel Mora, the show’s lead, is not perfect. Neither is Charles, nor is Oliver. The show paints all its characters in different shades of gray – you’re not meant to find out who the killer is but instead slowly weed out who it couldn’t be because everybody is a suspect.

'Only Murders in the Building' stars Selena Gomez, Martin Short, and Steve Martin.

A still from Only Murders in the Building.

(Photo Courtesy: YouTube)

However, it is the expertise of a show like Only Murders in the Building that makes a distinction between, ‘side with the killer’ and ‘understand your killer beyond their motive’.

It doesn’t matter that the killers are women (not to ignore the way gender does come into play in their trauma) – but the show is not afraid to let its female characters be flawed.

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