[This story contains spoilers from the finale of Apple TV+’s Defending Jacob.]
If the central question of Defending Jacob is what happens when your child is accused of a horrific crime, the natural follow-up lingering in the background of every episode is potentially even more important: Did he do it?
The finale of the Apple TV+ declines to answer that question, instead leaving viewers just as in the dark as Andy and Laurie Barber, the parents of the titular character who spend the series defending their eighth-grader against charges that he murdered a classmate. While both District Attorney Andy (Chris Evans) and teacher Laurie (Michelle Dockery) vacillate on their son’s innocence (or lack thereof) throughout the series, the later episodes reveal that both have been complicit in covering up suspicious behavior, and the man who came forward and confessed to the crime was blackmailed into doing so by Andy’s own criminal father.
Distraught after learning about the cover-up, Laurie drives her car into a wall — with Jacob inside. But later, in the hospital, she doesn’t appear to remember what happened, and both she and Jacob will likely recover. Was she trying to kill Jacob or herself? Was it a split-second decision, or did she plan it?
The ending of the series is much more ambiguous than the book — in William Landay’s 2012 novel, the girl Jacob meets on vacation turns up dead, confirming Laurie’s worst suspicions. Jacob dies instantly in the car crash. But in the series, everything’s still up in the air.
“At the end of the day, I’m not super interested in this binary thing of did he do it or didn’t he do it? I think if I’d given you a definitive answer on either one of those, you would have been a little bit frustrated because you’ve already entertained the possibility in both directions,” says creator Mark Bomback. “What I was really interested in trying to create for the viewer was this very subjective experience of what his parents are going through. So all I’m really interested in at the end of the day is: What do Andy and Laurie think he might or might not have done? And I think for each of them, they’re going to always have a lingering doubt.”
Plus, aside from the girl on vacation, there’s another major change: that Andy tells Laurie about his father’s involvement in framing the other suspect.
“In telling her this, he knows he’s potentially destroying his entire [life],” says Bomback. “He finally got everything back. He’s on vacation with his family, they’re living, they escaped. And yet he’s living with this one massive lie, which is, we are indirectly responsible for the murder of another human being, and everything you thought at the end of episode seven about our son is back on the table.”
Says Evans, “I think in our version, everyone copes with shame and guilt differently and I don’t think Laurie has any of the coping mechanisms necessary to process a life of, once she understands that Father O’Leary killed Patz, she’s a part of the lies now. And to not be able to cope with that, I think the act then becomes about Laurie taking her own life as opposed to the murder of a child. I think that’s far more interesting and leaves a lot more to examine in terms of how we are able to survive when we learn harsh realities. Do you need the cleansing of truth or can you compartmentalize and find a balance just being a little bit darker?”
Dockery says that it’s clear Laurie is in “a fog of her own trauma,” and the ambiguity about her decision took a lot of work to calibrate correctly.
“I like that it’s ambiguous, that it could have been premeditated or that she’s trying to put them both out of their misery,” Dockery says. “We did that scene quite a lot in the car because if it was too on the nose, it was too obvious that she was doing something that she thought through. But if I didn’t, if I went too far the other way, it just looks like she’s completely bonkers. So it took it took a lot of time to fine tune that, and I think they’ve done it really well in the edit. And then of course the scene then that follows is open to interpretation. I think it unravels. But it was interesting playing something that is ambiguous, because as actors, sometimes I feel like I like that certainty. Well, what am I playing here? And what do I believe? And sometimes you really have to leave it up to the people around you and take that pressure off yourself, and then it will all unfold onscreen.”
For his part, Evans says he doesn’t think the crash was a hugely premeditated move: “I do believe it’s born of a subconscious choice. I don’t think Laurie had any sort of calculated master plan. It’s the result of such a frayed, eroded sense of you’re just at your wit’s end.”
Whether Laurie remembers her own motivation for the crash is also up in the air, but creator Bomback says it’s much more likely she’s decided to go along with Andy’s version of events — that it was a horrible accident — than the truth that it’s something she purposefully (though potentially subconsciously) did.
“Part of her must know that she was in a horrible place that morning,” Bomback says. “She embraces this lie, you know, it must have been an accident. And what I was interested in is, how do you go forward from there when you know that your son potentially could come out of this thing? And he’s going to look at you and wonder, did you or didn’t you? At the end of this, now he’s going to be the one living with it — did they or didn’t they? I like this tragic notion of we’re in a prison of our own making as we’re leaving these characters. So that’s what I was going for, and it is different than the book. But I think if you read the book and you like the book, hopefully you’ll be a little sideswiped by this in a good way.”