Inside the explosive finale of ‘The Girl Before,’ the TV show that captivated Britain
Warning: This story contains major spoilers from “The Girl Before” on HBO Max.
As those who’ve binged “The Girl Before” now know: The nice guy did it.
In the HBO Max miniseries’ twisting, turning finale, the psychological thriller reveals its killer by playing out the action over parallel timelines. Premiering Thursday, the series, based on JP Delaney’s 2016 novel, spends three episodes building up our suspicion of Edward (David Oyelowo), an architect who will go to extremes to control everything in his life. But it turns out that Simon (Ben Hardy) killed his girlfriend Emma (Jessica Plummer) when they were the previous tenants of Edward’s austere house. When Jane (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the current inhabitant, comes to this realization, it results in a showdown — which ends as Ben tumbles down the same staircase where Emma died.
While the explosive conclusion adheres pretty closely to what’s in the novel, Delaney — the creator of the series — was open to making whatever changes served the story. In fact, the writer, who co-wrote the series with Marissa Lestrade, wanted to take advantage of an opportunity to deepen his characters and tighten the screws of the plot.
“When writers do get involved in adapting their own books, often it’s because they want to control the material and they want it to stay true to the book,” Delaney says. “I went into it knowing that it would be miserable for me if instead of making it a positive collaboration, I was just trying to say, ‘No, that’s not in the book.’ So my guiding principle was that I would have to have a very good reason to say, ‘No, I don’t think that works.’”
The complete guide to home viewing
Get Screen Gab for everything about the TV shows and streaming movies everyone’s talking about.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.
All four of the unsettling series’ episodes were helmed by Lisa Brühlmann, who, along with Lestrade, brought a female perspective to Delaney’s story. Mbatha-Raw, as associate producer, also weighed in on Jane’s journey. It was important for everyone involved that the aspects of trauma felt grounded and authentic and that the moments of action felt tense but didn’t exploit women. The team worked with a trauma consultant, Roxana Parra Sepulveda, and partnered with Sands, a U.K. charity, to learn more about stillbirth — a trauma Jane suffered before the events of the series and continues to grieve throughout the episodes.
Together, these measures ensured that the climactic moment in Episode 4, when Jane realizes who killed Emma, felt as true as possible.
“I think it’s an unusual show, because in many ways it’s quite over the top and quite melodramatic,” Delaney notes. “It builds to this hugely over-the-top finale with Simon and Joy Division playing and him breaking plates in this pristine house. [It was] about mixing those moments of huge melodrama with character details that make it all very authentic so that you justify it. The last thing you want when you’re going full psycho like that is for the audience to be saying, ‘Hang on. That wouldn’t happen that way.’”
The final episode required the writers to tie up numerous loose ends: Who killed Emma? Who actually raped Emma? Will Jane have Edward’s baby? And will Edward continue to repeat his pattern of control? To achieve all of this, Delaney and Brühlmann elected to cut and condense several elements of the book. The scene where Simon kills Emma on the stairs is very similar to the novel, but it was important to Brühlmann that it not feel gratuitous.
“What we didn’t want is the image, again, of a dead woman being exposed like it’s nothing,” the director says, adding that she wanted to avoid showing a dead woman on the floor. “It’s a fine line, like how much violence against women do we want to show? And how do we want to show it? You can’t avoid it, because it’s in the script. She has to fall down the stairs, and she has to die — that’s the story — but at the same time, you can choose some of the elements. Like, for example, the fight before she gets pushed down. How violent is that fight? How long does it take? That’s why we decided, ‘This has to be a rather short sequence.’”
Both Emma’s and Simon’s deaths, falling down steep set of stairs after loosing hold of a necklace, are consistent with the novel. When Delaney was adapting the scenes, he assumed that the team would eventually find something better than the necklace, but everyone liked the visual impact of the identical deaths. For Brühlmann, the reveal of Simon as the killer also forces the viewer to reflect on his behavior in previous episodes.
“In a way, it is obvious who the killer is,” Brühlmann says. “It’s not a super big surprise, which I also think is earned. How you meet this killer is you just think he’s this super cute guy, and that maybe happens often in domestic violence. And he did have the red flags. I think when you look back, it’s clear that it has to be him, because his behavior is not only sweet — it’s not OK how he [possesses] her.”
For Delaney, who notes that “apparently the nice guys of this world are also dangerous,” the killer couldn’t be the person you suspected at the beginning: Edward. The writers amped up some of the secondary characters, like DI James Clarke and Emma’s boss Saul, as red herrings to draw the eye away from Simon.
“I always think it’s not quite as rewarding for the audience if the journey they think they’re going on right at the beginning turns out to be the journey they’re going on,” Delaney says. “If you look at something like ‘The Undoing,’ there was a little bit of controversy there because the guy you thought was being set up in Episode 1 as the killer really was the killer.”
The actor, once known for romantic comedies, has taken on darker roles of late — including as a potentially dangerous version of himself in HBO’s “The Undoing.”
The most significant cut to the finale, which also affected the prior episodes, was the removal of a plotline where Jane becomes pregnant with a baby who has Down’s syndrome. At the end of the novel, it’s implied that she may have purposefully gotten pregnant, and when she elects to have the baby, Edward is dismayed.
“The point I was trying to make there is that her idea of perfection is very different to his,” Delaney says. “To him, this imperfection would be something that was very hard to take. As the father of a child with a genetic syndrome myself, I wanted to keep that. It was one of the hardest things to take out. But it wasn’t something you could throw in right at the end — you had to have the subplot that led up to it to treat it with respect.”
Instead, at the very end of the series, Jane is a new mother with a new job, having broken her cycle of grief, and she gets postmortem justice for Emma as Saul is arrested in her rape. Edward, meanwhile, goes to therapy — something that is not in the novel. Whether he’s able to break his own cycle remains unclear.
“Even though there is a coda ending of another tenant in the house, I very much wanted it not to feel like there was another woman being victimized by Edward,” Mbatha-Raw says. “It’s left more ambiguous than that. We’re not saying that Edward is going to be a completely changed man but at least that he is acknowledging his issues and doing some self-work. Which I thought was important rather than relegating him to this two-dimensional place of a good guy or a bad guy. He’s a human man who needs to do some work on himself. That, to me, was an interesting addition and I think enriches the ending for the characters and the potential for their futures.”
Delaney adds, “I wanted to keep that ambiguity, but equally I had some really good discussions with Gugu about how, for her character to reach resolution, you don’t want to feel Edward has won in some way. You have to have a sense that Jane has won and I think does absolutely come across in that incredible scene where she sweeps her baby up in her arms.”
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.