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‘A different kind of bleak’: How ‘Defending Jacob’ changed the book’s tragic ending

Michelle Dockery, Jaeden Martell and Chris Evans in “Defending Jacob,” which ended with a twist-filled episode.
Michelle Dockery, Jaeden Martell and Chris Evans in “Defending Jacob,” which ended with a twist-filled episode.
(Apple)

The following story contains spoilers from the eighth and final episode of “Defending Jacob,” “After.”

The finale of Apple TV+'s limited series “Defending Jacob” had more twists and turns than that wet, cold road Michelle Dockery’s character drove.

“We want people to watch it and say, ‘Holy …,’” Morten Tyldum, who directed all eight episodes, told The Times. “And then look at their partner and really talk about the question we’re asking: Is unconditional love bigger than our own morals?”

What happened in the last episode?


The eighth episode, which premiered Friday, begins with a big development: The murder charges that troubled teen Jacob (Jaeden Martell) had been facing all season are suddenly dropped. An area sex offender — who was always the obvious suspect, according to Jacob’s father, Andy (Chris Evans) — has hanged himself, and left behind a written confession: He was the one who killed Jacob’s classmate, Ben.

It must be Jacob’s lucky day, says a brawny “old friend” of Billy (J.K. Simmons), Andy’s estranged father, who is currently serving a life sentence in prison for murder. Unsettled, Andy visits Billy, who indeed arranged for a blackmailed confession and suicide.

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“Andy is at a crossroads where he can do the right thing and come forward with this information, which will mean his son’s arrest again, or he can swallow it,” says series writer and creator Mark Bomback. “He chooses to lie again. While that is completely understandable as a parent, that is the turning point.”

In ‘Defending Jacob,’ based on the book by William Landay, creator Mark Bomback takes on the ‘murder gene.’ We looked into the science behind it.

"You really feel that she's unraveling," recalled director Morten Tyldum of Michelle Dockery's character, Laurie.
“You really feel that she’s unraveling,” said “Defending Jacob” director Morten Tyldum of Michelle Dockery’s character, Laurie.
(Apple)

In an attempt to put this whole ordeal behind them, the family heads to Mexico for a quiet vacation. Jacob immediately befriends a fellow teenager named Hope who, the morning after a party, has mysteriously gone missing.

The police pull Jacob in for questioning, and Jacob’s parents are again filled with confusion about whether their son is a serial killer. Andy then admits to his wife, Laurie (Dockery), that the evidence letting Jacob off the hook for murder was fabricated. And with Hope missing, he might’ve killed again.

The peace Laurie found when the charges against Jacob were dropped is irreversibly disturbed. While driving, she asks her son to tell her the truth. Jacob, afraid of his mother’s gradual speeding on such a rainy day, says, “Fine, I killed him, OK? Whatever you want, just slow down, please.”

This is what Laurie, and the audience, have been waiting to hear, and yet its validity is still in question. “It feels like a confession but, of course, it’s not,” said Bomback. “He just said it to get her to slow down. That’s the crux of the problem Laurie is facing: She’ll never, ever get the truth. It makes you empathize with Laurie, and the torture that causes her to snap.”

Driving even faster now, Laurie says, “I will never know” over and over again — an improvised moment from Dockery in that soundstage, with the machine-created weather conditions and projected landscape moving at full force. “I loved it — you really feel that she’s unraveling,” recalled Tyldum.

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Laurie decides to kill them both by crashing into the side of a tunnel. “This was one of the most critical scenes because you have to believe that a mother is able to kill herself and her own son, that the uncertainty and the guilt becomes too much,” said Tyldum. “If he killed somebody, she believes she’s guilty as well for letting it happen. ‘And now this murderer is walking free and even though it’s my own son, it’s my fault.’”

Chris Evans plays Andy in Apple TV+'s "Defending Jacob."
Chris Evans’ character Andy learns “to own up to everything that he’s been trying to conceal,” said “Defending Jacob” creator Mark Bomback.
(Apple)

How is the show’s finale different from the book’s ending?


This event echoes the ending of the 2012 book on which the show is based. In the novel — which tells the story solely from Andy’s perspective — Hope is eventually found dead, and Laurie never learns of the forced confession.

Convinced that her son killed both teens, she ultimately sacrifices herself in order to save her son’s future victims. This conclusion “gives the audience a climax and a satisfying sense of finality, while also being true to the idea that, as parents, you can’t divorce your own child,” author William Landay explained.

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“Any difficulty or complexity that your child brings into this world becomes a part of your own life. To write an ending that allows Andy and Laurie to slip out of that permanent relationship with Jacob in any way isn’t true to the experience of most parents, who are in a permanent relationship with their children whether they like it or not.”

Onscreen, Hope turns up alive. And no one dies in the crash — as Laurie recovers in the hospital, with Jacob in a coma, Andy has been on the witness stand, asserting that Laurie’s sudden swerve was an accident.

Bomback opted to change the ending because “this felt more true to the story we were telling over these eight hours, whereas in the book, Laurie is in the dark, and [the crash] is more a reaction to the realization that Jacob killed another person and might become a serial killer.

“I was always interested in this idea that you can build your whole life on a foundation that has a lie within it,” Bomback continued. “Andy’s journey has been this challenge to own up to everything that he’s been trying to conceal: He comes clean about who his father is, and he tells Laurie the truth [about the forced confession], even if it means destroying everything he’s been fighting to preserve this whole time. The tragic irony is, he didn’t have to, and Hope is found.”

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Throughout the season, “Laurie has been trying to get to the truth, even if it means destroying herself, while Andy has been trying to protect their son, even if it means lying to himself,” said Bomback.

But since the episode closes with Laurie’s bedside regrets and Andy’s quiet moment in Jacob’s room, “They wind up actually flipping at the end, where Andy seems to be quite aware of what his son might have done, and Laurie is willing to accept a lie to preserve their family and move on.

“I don’t think that our ending is any less bleak than the ending of the book,” Bomback added. “It’s a different kind of bleak but hopefully, one that feels very much in keeping with the story we’ve been telling.”

Landay “never had a problem with the idea of making changes” from the novel. In fact, the onscreen ending is closer to the initial conclusion of the story when he first submitted his manuscript — as he told Bomback.

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“Originally, I wanted an unresolved ending, where Andy, Laurie and Jacob are on the plane home, all three of them knowing what Jacob is, and we simply see them side by side on the plane, and then it cuts to black,” said Landay. “I thought it was true to this idea that parenting goes on after the end of the book and the end of childhood.”

Apple TV+ limited drama ‘Defending Jacob’ stars Chris Evans and Michelle Dockery as the parents of a teenager accused of murdering a classmate.

Jaeden Martell as Jacob in Apple TV+'s "Defending Jacob."
The show never explicitly states whether Jacob (Jaeden Martell) committed murder.
(Apple)

Did Jacob kill Ben? And is Jacob alive?


One similarity between the book and the series that remains intact is how it’s never explicitly stated whether Jacob really did kill Ben. “In the novel, you’re a little more sure Jacob did do it, because of the disappearance of Hope,” said Bomback. “But you don’t have anything conclusive. It’s more just a process of elimination.”

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Since the show has Hope alive, the situation is even muddier. And that’s exactly the point.

“It’s not super important to me whether or not the audience gets a definitive answer about that,” Bomback explained. “You probably are pretty sure he did it, but there’s no real way of knowing, and it’s possible he didn’t.

“I’m more attempting to explore the subjective experience you have of seeing this situation through Andy and Laurie’s eyes and creating the sensation that they have, which is that you will never know. You’re at the mercy of the narrative in the same way that Andy and Laurie are.”

Jacob’s comatose status arguably leaves the story open for a second season. Is Bomback open to a “Defending Jacob” followup?

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“It would have to spring from some idea that hasn’t occurred to me yet that would really feel as compelling as I hope this season has,” he said. “I wouldn’t extend it to another season just to simply spend more time with these characters. I would rather leave that to your imagination. If I have a new narrative that took this as a starting point, I’d be happy to explore it. But it wasn’t written with that intention, and it’s not really something I’m actively working on right now.”


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