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Spoiler Warning: Proceed at your own risk if you haven’t watched “Only Murders in the Building” Season 2, Episode 7 — “Flipping the Pieces.”
In many ways, “Only Murders in the Building” is centered around Mabel Mora’s (Selena Gomez) proximity to death and relationship with tragedy. The series begins with a shot of her and her bloodied white turtleneck framing a gruesome murder, circles back around to the death of her two friends Zoe and Tim Kono and doubles back again to the inaugural season’s opening scene.
For showrunner and co-creator John Hoffman, the character’s perseverance amid personal turmoil is what drives the show’s central tension, especially in Season 2, and helps color her budding friendships with Charles (Steve Martin) and Oliver (Martin Short). In the second season’s seventh episode, this is all laid bare: Viewers finally unlock Mabel’s motivations and past traumas in tandem with her, flipping over the puzzle pieces of her life as she zeroes in on her understanding of memory and pain.
“I think she’s brave and she’s got these two guys with her and somehow she feels some safety that’s growing through Season 2, to share some of this with them,” Hoffman told TheWrap. “But she’s also nervous too. She still doesn’t know them that well. Can she trust them enough? Can she sort it out on her own?”
In the aptly titled “Flipping the Pieces,” Mabel deals with the highly publicized aftermath of a subway encounter with Bunny’s murderer. She wakes up — of all places — in Theo’s (James Caverly) apartment, and he helps her attempt to track down the killer’s identity. The episode unfolds through flashbacks of Mabel’s childhood relationship with her late father (portrayed by Mark Consuelos) and an emotional, if unexpected, connection with Theo, the last person with whom she cares to interact.
Read on for TheWrap’s Q&A with Hoffman, where he discussed how director of photography Chris Teague, who directed episodes 7 and 8, crafted that puzzle scene, why he couldn’t “walk away” from the Season 1 “bad guys” Theo and Teddy (Nathan Lane), how Consuelos got involved and what’s next after that citywide blackout.
TheWrap: Episode 7 is huge for Mabel’s character development — we get into her backstory, her issues around memory and trauma with her father. How much of that was planned for her journey back in Season 1, and what were those conversations like in the writers room?
John Hoffman: That’s a great question. We have been building a bit towards this from the beginning. In Episode 1 of Season 1, why we start there, it’s not what you think. And she’s trying to sort out this traumatic moment, and then that leads to the next traumatic moment of seeing her friend on the floor. And then the next traumatic moment is quite, quite a mountain of things that are coming at her in Season 1. [What] I love about the character is she so bravely still keeps moving forward toward it, to sort of grapple with it and then, of course at the end of Season 2, there we are back again at the beginning of Season 1.
So then when we get to Season 2, she’s in shock for a good chunk at the beginning and trying to sort out through the memories that are coming in flashes. And so we knew all along this was going to be something we’d have to understand and know what’s going on with her. Within our show, there’s always odd humor in the midst of pain, in the midst of trauma and tragedy. That’s, for me, where I find a great leveler for the kind of humor I love when it’s both awkward and in situations that you wouldn’t typically or shouldn’t be laughing — a laugh at a funeral or a laugh at a church are my favorite kinds of laughs in some way because everyone’s defenses are down. And we’re dealing with something in a mutual way that feels, at the very nature of it, bigger and life-and-death and all of those things come up. So I think there’s an opportunity in those moments to find humor and connection.
So in that way, I think she’s brave and she’s got these two guys with her and somehow she feels some safety that’s growing through Season 2, to share some of this with them. But she’s also nervous too. She still doesn’t know them that well. Can she trust them enough? Can she sort it out on her own? And what I love about Episode 7 is that the most unexpected person for her is the person who helps her sort out what’s going on. And I find the sort of centerpiece scene of that episode — flipping the pieces — to be where we have this moment between Theo, and who Mabel has no interest at the beginning of getting to know further, she has very strong feelings about what happened and what he did, and rightly so. But there is a perspective that he brings for her about what his own experience with a traumatic event was, and the intention behind it was not what Mabel was assuming.
And so they have this shared feeling of the questions that are in their heads about traumatic events that they’ve had in their lives that they can’t answer. And that’s a deeply painful thing on top of the trauma for [Theo of], I don’t know if Zoe pulled away or if I pushed her, and I’m right on the edge of that. And that’s where she’s sitting with all of those memories that begin with her own father and thinking about ‘What were those months and days like before my last one with my father, and was I lying to myself, was I protecting myself? Am I still doing that with these moments that happen?’ And really getting deep in it, but the person who opens them up for her is the last person she’d expect but someone who has shared experience in similar ways with her.
I wanted to ask about Theo — it’s a big episode for him as well, in terms of, as you said, sharing these emotional moments with someone you wouldn’t expect. How do you balance his redemptive arc and define him outside of that one terrible (if accidental) deed?
I think in “The Boy From 6B,” the Season 1 episode that dealt with that, decisions had to be made quickly about what then would reverberate for the better part of a decade, for his young life. And, in many ways, terrible events, tragic events, I’m interested in dimensionalizing the events so we know that there’s human beings at the center of all of it, the victim, the perpetrator, the accused, and what kind of awful human moments can happen as a result of trying to protect your son and trying to protect your interests in that moment.
I guess the thing that sort of was an open question from that episode in Season 1 was, I didn’t want to just walk away from Teddy and Theo and say, ‘Well, they’re the bad guys in Season 1 in certain ways, and let’s not deal with them.’ We wanted to see, what’s the fallout? What is the temperature of that relationship between them at this moment?
I can’t believe the performances that these two gentlemen give — Nathan and James are extraordinary. I knew it always of Nathan, because he’s unbelievable and has always been, but James was new to me. Once we saw how extraordinary he is as an actor and how great they are together, it was just: We have to know more, and how best can we ground this in our world and in our story?
Mabel connecting up with Theo just felt like, ‘Oh, there’s a really interesting mix we don’t see coming.’ And it has to be grounded in a real story sense. They’re delightfully funny together too, and they have a growing appreciation for the situations that neither of them really knew about, and now there’s an opportunity to help each other. So that all felt very right from the beginning.
You mentioned that the cornerstone of this episode is the puzzle scene. Can you break down that scene from how you imagined it in the script to the filming process?
It was a great experience, I’ll have to tell you. Episodes 7 and 8 were directed by our brilliant director of photography for the last two seasons, Chris Teague. And he just is one of the big centers of what has made the show feel and look in the way that it does — just a great craftsman and a great artist. So we gave Chris this moment that he was looking forward to to direct, and so you have this great dialogue happening and this great mind behind how to bring to the screen in a cinematic way some very deep, emotional, contextual ideas and how to execute them, so I give full credit to Chris for so many of the ideas visually that were happening around that puzzle and around being able to convey the inner life and the inner excavation that’s happening for Mabel.
Just clever, I didn’t know anything about how — like he was showing me tests of those puzzle pieces flying up, and it was like ‘How? What? In our half-hour comedy?’ That was thrilling. That’s what I always look for. I try to make this as visual a show and as connective thematically to the visuals and create a cinematic universe for our show that feels both big in scale in New York and intimate and personal. I’m so proud of him because it’s his first directing foray, and I feel those two episodes have got real Chris Teague signatures right out of the gate.
Switching gears, how did Mark Consuelos’ casting come about?
It’s exciting to imagine any family members coming into our central trio. Mark had worked with [‘Only Murders’ EPs] Dan Fogelman and Jess Rosenthal [on Fox’s short-lived baseball drama ‘Pitch’], and they had been singing his praises for many, many months. I’ve always been a fan of Mark’s and they were leaning into the depth he brings as an actor, and so it felt completely right. He was in Michigan with his son when I had my first conversation with Mark about the part. Although he was coming to work not with our big headlining trio, in this case — it was a very intimate story, personal to Mabel’s story — I just loved the way he responded to it and immediately felt a connection to it. He was so excited to come, and he was just wonderful.
‘Only Murders’ is heavily influenced by its setting in the Arconia and New York City as a whole. How did that factor into the episode’s mass blackout cliffhanger and the reveal of Lucy’s photo?
Yeah, so exciting! The episodes that are happening always have to be landing at the right moment for the stories we’re wanting to tell, and so matching that up, so it all feels organic. The opportunity of a blackout in New York City and what that does — a revealing episode while the lights are out, was intriguing to me. And at this moment in Episode 8 we have an opportunity where everything stops in certain ways because it has to, but that provides a great opportunity of connection, which is what the show is all about.
We have an opportunity to explore characters in the building that we haven’t really been able to spend time with. Each time we craft an episode of “Only Murders,’ I always tell the writers’ room, ‘I want to feel like I’m holding this episode in my hand.’ And I can look at it and say, ‘Here, this is why we’re doing this particular episode right now.’ There was an opportunity to stop and to explore all these residents, and how they interact and what their hearts are about a little bit more. But also to drive a mystery with intensity because of what happens at the end of [Episode] 7, finding that picture of Lucy and sharing it in that moment right before the lights go out and the terror that is involved underneath about that while also how do we even navigate finding her, getting her with the lights off and putting them in the stew of that and feeling like we’re hitting a climax of the season in this certain way.