Note: This interview contains spoilers for the Defending Jacob season finale.
The case is (mostly) closed: Defending Jacob, Mark Bomback’s adaptation of William Landay’s novel of the same name, might have come to an end, but the doubts that were sown all season remain.
The Apple TV+ series, which was written by Bomback and directed by Morten Tyldum, never really broke the legal-thriller mold. But it did prove to be a powerful showcase for leads Chris Evans, Michelle Dockery, and Jaeden Martell, who all found great depth in characters that could have easily been one-note: the protective father, the concerned mother, and the enigmatic teen. As Andy Barber, Evans set aside the comics-inspired heroics to portray someone desperately in search of a moral compass—not just in an attempt to fix his own past, but to also point his son Jacob (Martell) in the right direction. Tragically, Andy’s undoing stems in part from his inability to see his wife Laurie (Dockery), who has never shied from the truth, as a guide until it’s too late.
But as the finale, titled “After,” amply shows, even Laurie might not be pointing true north. After months of suspicion and disturbing revelations, the Barber family attempts to regroup while on vacation, only to find that they can’t run from their problems. Bomback remains faithful to the novel’s ambiguity, especially at the end, but reverses who is truly in the dark about Jacob’s not-so-final moments. The A.V. Club spoke with Bomback about the lies we tell ourselves, how one of TV’s great pretenders informed Evans’ performance, and rewriting the novel’s ultimate gut punch.
The A.V. Club: You’ve said that you wanted to expand on Laurie’s character in the show. That starts with exploring Laurie and Andy’s different perceptions of their son. Andy is much more euphemistic about what Jacob was like as a child and Laurie just flat-out says he was difficult as a baby. How did you amplify their differences in a way that wasn’t quite as stark in the book?
Mark Bomback: The book is told from Andy’s perspective, so what you’re getting in the book is her sort of piping into his reality. I had to create a lot of Laurie’s character for the show, and in doing so, I did feel like they were going to come at this from very different places. It’s interesting because ultimately she’s someone who is desperate to learn the truth—she’s braver than [Andy] is in many respects. He’s someone who deals with crime on a daily basis for his job, so you would think he would be the bolder one. That was my thinking a lot in terms of those scenes. When you’re married, you’ve formed a team, and these things are like stress tests. This is an extreme one of course—this is a crisis—but your go-to reactions are going to get amplified in these situations. And I know it’s such a weird time to talk about the show and everyone’s living not the similarly. We’re all sort of locked in our homes with our families. But I know that with my wife, when things are good, we’re in a much better place than we might be normally. And when things are bad, we tend to bump heads harder.
AVC: In some ways it feels like Laurie’s work with children is an attempt at a do-over. It’s like she recognizes that something’s gone wrong with Jacob even before the arrest and everything. Is that the case for her?
MB: In my backstory for her, she has a degree in social work and has this executive role where she organizes the volunteers who work with these children. She came to this probably as more of a hands-on person and now does more of the organizational administrative work. But it’s not her job in the book. It was loosely inspired by a place where my wife volunteers very regularly. My mother actually is a psychiatric social worker. I liked the idea that [Laurie’s] someone who spends a lot of time around troubled kids and would think that her barometer is very accurate, who has thought a lot about the potential children have for violence because of where she works. I felt it was important to have her blindsided by this—she probably would never would have thought her son would be capable of anything along these lines. There was also something about that world that’s quite sweet; she really is a maternal figure in that world. When she’s banished from it, I think it amplifies that sense of loss. The only child now she’s interacting with is this child of her own, but she misses the surrogate children that she spends so much time with. So, that was part of it.
AVC: It definitely informs the show overall. We even see this with Andy. Obviously, his law career comes from the book, but this there’s idea that—and maybe it’s a bit much to call the law his surrogate parent—but he definitely got his code from studying the law. It seems like the most reliable place to get that kind of guidance when that was missing at home.
MB: That’s a really astute observation. I’d agree. I think that they’re both people who define themselves to a large measure by their work and they both do noble work. You could argue that Andy’s work has morally gray areas that are just inherent with working with the legal system. But I certainly think he’s very well intentioned and thinks that what he does is good for the world. And I was very interested in how we create these ideas of ourselves, and we really work hard to maintain this identity that we’ve constructed a bit. And this crisis really puts both of these ideas of themselves to the test; it’s an interesting parallel to point out. Andy is an authority figure within this place that he works and he doesn’t take that authority as something to have a power trip about. In fact, he contrasted with other people like the character of [Neal] Logiudice, who seems to get off a little more on the power. Andy really is a great authority figure. So again, it’s interesting to me to watch people like that really have to put themselves through the wringer and decide, “Am I as good a person as I thought I was?”
AVC: The last time we spoke, Morten [Tyldum] mentioned Ibsen’s life lie. What is the life lie for Andy, and what is it for Laurie? What illusions are they both laboring under?
MB: To me, Andy is someone who–this is not a perfect analogy or a comparison, but there was a tiny bit of a Don Draper-ness to him in that he’s someone who has invented this role for himself. He came from a very different background and has concealed this one part of his life, that his father is in jail for rape and murder, and chose a profession that is a reaction to that in many ways. But he also has built a life that’s a reaction to that—that house, that family, that environment. There was stuff that wound up not making it into the final show but that had a little more to do with that. There was this notion that Andy was the guy on the sidelines of the soccer games, who was a little bit outside of the norm and never really felt in lock step with the community.
And I think Chris was playing that, even though it didn’t necessarily always show up in dialogue. This lie was underneath it all. It wasn’t a malicious lie. It was probably something he could’ve told his wife about early on and maybe weathered, but the longer it went on, the more of a lie that it seemed strange not to bring up. If you watch the show very carefully, there’s a lot of little lies he tells along the way, just little things like something as simple as what his father calls, he says, “The credit card company, there was a charge that I didn’t look at.” Lying, in some ways, is his default. And the show is a lot about his journey towards finally doing this somewhat unthinkable thing toward the end of the show, which is coming out with the full truth, even at the risk of destroying everything.
In Laurie’s case, she’s taken this opposite path, where she’s extremely earnest in the way she’s lived her life. It’s been an opposite journey for her; there is very little distance between who she is deep down and who the world perceives her to be. The show is dragging her through Andy’s decisions really, but dragging her toward this moment at the end, where she has a choice: “Should I be brutally honest in a way that I’ve tried to be, or do I embrace this new lie that Andy has pitched me, that we’re never going to say out loud, but we both know what the subtext is to this conversation we’re having?” Tragically, in some way, she chooses the lie. I think you’re going to perceive the story as being a journey for Andy to come over to Laurie’s side, of how to live openly even if it destroys everything, and it winds up being Laurie’s journey to Andy’s darker way of living. To me, that was really the impetus behind a lot of the decisions I made with the end of the whole story. It was just a different journey for those characters.
AVC: What sticks with you the most in the book is that uncertainty, and you found a way to replicate that, both by making certain things clearer and other things less clear. The ending you wrote for the Barber family isn’t a clean slate, but a blank one. Laurie doesn’t remember why she crashed her car with Jacob in it, and instead of dying, Jacob ends up in a coma. How did you go about flipping those expectations while still leaving things unresolved for the parent?
MB: Well, when you literalize something, when you film it and turn it into something you’re experiencing–that experience is different. In a novel, especially one written in the first person, you’re digesting information and you’re doing it so much through the point of view of one character that you’re going to just accept some things. But I found in writing it, my initial take was staying a little closer to the book where Hope is never discovered and it’s more of a Natalee Holloway thing and you think that Jacob probably murdered her. It feels really clear that Jacob must have murdered her when you start to literalize it and film it. And then I had a big problem where I realized the character isn’t that character from the book all the way. Jacob’s a little more… I hate to use the word normal, but he’s not as darkly written as he is in the book. And it’s more plausible that if he did kill Ben Rifkin, it was done in a moment of passion or anger or rage. But if he now kills another person, it’s implying he has a potential to be a serial killer, which isn’t really the character I’d written in the show. So, it didn’t feel true to the character. But it felt true to me that if a girl disappeared, I would think he could have [had something to do with it].
It’s just that the follow-through felt a little problematic and a little hard to swallow. I liked this idea that it sparks this inferno, that Hope’s disappearance brings Andy to a point where he tells Laurie everything, which he doesn’t do in the book. In the book, she is oblivious to everything that happened with his father’s involvement, etc. And in doing so, he knows he’s potentially destroying everything, but he thinks for the first time ever, “I’m going to just come clean.” And then the tragic irony is he didn’t have to—the girl shows up. So, Laurie at the end of episode seven is really at a place of utter despair. She says [of an online post Jacob wrote], “That wasn’t a story, that was a confession.” She completely believes or at least 99% of her believes that Jacob must have done it. The only way she’s pulled back from the abyss is the evidence that Leonard Patz committed suicide and confessed. But when you take that out, she’s right back to where she was. And that’s what I was trying to do in the aftermath, is bring up that sensation again, this question of “Could he have done it?” Now she’s constantly revisiting that moment at the end of episode seven, where all she knows is a story Jacob wrote and there’s no real evidence to the contrary. And she says all along, “We’re all guilty in this.”
AVC: The fact that nothing happened to Hope is another big departure from the book. That’s potentially more evidence for Jacob being just this misunderstood kid, but that’s not ultimately how Laurie sees it. Even though she does have some answers, she still makes the decision to drive them off the road.
MB: She crossed the Rubicon in my opinion, by not going to the police with the information that Andy has told her. She chooses not to say Leonard Patz was murdered. All the stuff that would probably result in at best some kind of retrial, but she doesn’t. But it’s gnawing at her and it’s really what drives her to a moment of what you could argue is temporary insanity. But to get to the thing you were pointing out before about, well, she doesn’t remember. So, does it seem like a bit of a cheat, to have a clean slate where she doesn’t remember? To my mind, she doesn’t remember the details of that crash, but does remember the morning of the crash.
It’s not that she’s lost all memory of how she felt about Jacob up to that point. What she doesn’t remember is, “Did I turn that wheel on purpose or was it truly an accident?” And I think every night she probably will sit there, staring at the wall, saying, “I know I was at the place where I could have tried to kill him. Did I or not?” And yet she’s going to embrace this idea that Andy pitches her, which it was just an accident. It’s not a happy ending; it’s something that’s going to gnaw at her forever. But it’s the only way that she’s going to be able to survive going forward is to force herself to believe, “I couldn’t have done that,” even though a big part of her will always know that she was capable of it at that moment.