Since its premiere, the AppleTV+ drama Defending Jacob has felt more like a chore than anything else. Watching it feels like an obligation — to a serious show about difficult topics, to a subscription you already paid for, to your loyal crush on Chris Evans, or any combination of the three. If you’ve made it to the finale, you’re ready to find out if it was all worth it.
Spoiler alert: It’s not.
What a show like Defending Jacob has to do more than most is justify its own existence. Why do we need another show about brutal child murder? These are few and far between for good reason, and if we choose to set out on this difficult journey, we want it to be worth it. Does the shock and trauma give us something of value to take away? Are the characters worth investing in? Does the show have something to say about the justice system or society at large?
Defending Jacob does not. Despite its impressive viewership, the show never does justify its existence and proves consistently inadequate.
The finale underscores what has been a chief problem throughout the series, which is that Defending Jacob does not seem to know where it’s leading or what it’s saying. Each episode introduced clues in favor of both Jacob’s innocence and guilt, yet these only served to toss the audience back and forth, not enrich the mystery overall. The same happens in its final hour. We don’t get a definitive answer to Jacob’s role in the crime, and we watch the Barber family suffer even more gratuitously.
Defending Jacob has unfolded fairly simply. Jacob Barber (Jaeden Martell) is a suspect in the death of his classmate, a case made no easier by his attorney father Andy’s (Evans) proximity to both criminal law and the number one suspect. The Barber family (rounded out by mother Laurie, played by Downton Abbey‘s Michelle Dockery) endures blame, suspicion, and unwanted attention from the press and their community as they fight to win the case and keep their family together.
The show is based on William Landay’s novel of the same name, and as with so many screen adaptations of fiction, the series feels diluted. It often comes off like an amateur crime drama, structured and executed by a fan of the genre who hasn’t quite grasped its nuance. The graffiti on the garage, the murder gene, the memory of Jacob at the bowling alley — all these scenes are just a little too on the nose, yanking us toward what we need to see when we didn’t need to be convinced to look.
Defending Jacob leaves us in an even more horrifying place than where we began.
The finale opens with Jacob declared innocent, thanks to evidence from the late Leonard Patz (Daniel Henshall). The Barbers head home, but their victory is slightly tainted by an encounter with Father O’Leary (William Xifaras), whose is revealed to be the Barbers’ mysterious stalker and an old associate of Billy’s (J.K. Simmons), Andy’s father who was convicted of rape and murder.
O’Leary’s protective demeanor and kindness toward the family shake Andy as much as anything that happened in that court room. This is a man who befriended and protected a murderer before, and even with Jacob’s not-guilty verdict, he might be doing it again.
Both Andy and Laurie have struggled to quell their doubts throughout the proceedings, staying strong for each other and Jacob. Laurie now feels guilty about ever doubting Jacob, and when Andy puts together that his father orchestrated Patz’s death and confession, he keeps it to himself to not burden her.
The Barbers vacation in Mexico, where once again the series (through Andy and Laurie) demands we find comfort in seeing Jacob talk to a girl, as if we weren’t on edge for every single interaction with Sarah (Jordan Alexa Davis). But when Jacob’s new friend goes missing, it dredges back up all the unpleasantness of the murder trial — and the insecurity. This time it’s Andy who is plagued by suspicion, drinking alone on the balcony until he tells Laurie the truth about Leonard’s confession.
Jacob turns out to be innocent in Mexico, but the family is unsettled well after they return. Again Lori bears the disquiet, and we watch as it creeps beyond any previous levels, and again the show illustrates it explicitly in case we weren’t paying attention or just didn’t understand.
“Something changed in Mexico,” Neal (Pablo Schreiber) says at the ominous future trial we’ve seen throughout the season but still haven’t reached, and he could be speaking directly to the camera as much as to Andy on the witness stand. With each passing scene this framing device becomes more disconcerting: Where is Laurie? Where is Jacob? We’ve know Jacob is capable of shockingly violent thought if not action — did he do something to her? Are they okay?
It’s built into the title, but Defending Jacob spent most of its time with the accused and barely any by comparison with the victim’s family. Such scenes make shows like The Killing or Broadchurch difficult, bordering on unwatchable, at times, but they force viewers to face the painful reality for the victims, even if momentarily. On Defending Jacob, Laurie’s entirely inappropriate nighttime visit to the Rifkins comes as a surprise that elicits mixed feelings.
Of course it is more visually striking for Laurie to be at the window right when Ben’s mother (Megan Byrne) breaks a wine glass and squeezes the shards just to feel something, to focus on physical pain rather than overwhelming grief for a second. But it’s also convenient, almost painfully so, in pushing the story forward. That kind of overt imagery and juxtaposition is all over Defending Jacob, and ultimately has far less impact than something as simple as Andy finding Jacob’s baby book in the trash later on. Laurie wasn’t unaware of the Rifkins’ suffering before this, but she made herself compartmentalize it in a way she no longer can.
When Laurie and Jacob get in the car together, it is with overt foreboding that the show once again piles on. As she asks him if he killed Ben, as she presses down on the accelerator, we have trouble even listening to their dialogue as we wait for the inevitable. In the future trial — which will soon become the present — Neal speaks to Andy with suddenly noticeable sympathy. This is for Jacob, he says, to bring him justice. Back in the car, Laurie drives right into a tunnel exterior at upwards of 80 miles per hour before we cut to black.
And that’s how Defending Jacob leaves us in an even more horrifying place than where we began. A child was murdered in episode 1, and in episode 10 his classmate’s mother nearly kills herself and her son because she cannot bear the uncertainty of how everything turned out. Now she’s alive and guiltier than ever, denying it just to stay afloat while her son is on life support. We still don’t know for sure if Jacob is innocent. Without evidence, it’s still possible, which is why Laurie repeatedly shouts at him to tell the truth even when he insists he is.
If nothing else, it is a jarring finale in a show that was otherwise fairly slow and often predictable. If shock and horror are your metrics for a good finale, Defending Jacob meets them. But if your final feelings about this show come from those earlier questions of why we needed it in the first place and if it was all worth it, you’ll have a tougher time deciding if you liked this show or not. Alas, as the show reminds us, we rarely get the answers we want or need.
Defending Jacob is now streaming on Apple TV+.