This Friday, AppleTV+ debuted the first three episodes of its new series, Shining Girls. The show is based on Lauren Beukes’ 2013 novel The Shining Girls, which revolves around a reporter (Kirby) hunting down a serial killer (Harper) who tried and failed to kill her. Her task is made exponentially more difficult due to the killer operating from a house that allows him to travel through time. Both the book and this adaptation are set primarily in the early 1990s.
We already did a general overview of the entire series (or potentially the first season) a couple of weeks ago. This time, we’ll be breaking down and reviewing each episode. That means the recap portion of this review and all the ones following it will be filled with spoilers.
These reviews will also contain what we hope is helpful analysis to guide you through the series’ occasionally vague/obscure clues. Along the way, we’ll streamline and map out parts of the series’ fractured timeline for the sake of clarity.
The episode opens in 1964, where a young Kirby Mazrachi is sitting on the stoop in front of her home. The girl has captured a bee underneath a coffee cup, which she attempts to calm while playing with a replica circus she constructed.
A man named Harper Curtis approaches and asks if he can sit due to his knee hurting after it rained. When Kirby points out it hasn’t rained recently, Harper agrees that it hasn’t where they are — at least not yet. He then begins asking about the circus she built. The conversation seems friendly enough until Harper inquires about the trapped bee and scoots closer to listen to it.
As Kirby grows visibly uncomfortable, he lifts the cup, catches the insect mid-flight, and holds it captive in front of her face. While staring at the distressed creature, Harper makes a declaration that will reverberate throughout the series:
“At first, we find its shine…and then we take it away.”
Kirby’s unease turns to fear as he calmly plucks the bee’s wings before dropping it to the ground. He then hands the terrified girl a wooden pegasus and asks her to hold onto it until he returns. Kirby tries to reject the gift, but Harper confidently responds that she’ll accept it anyway.
She always does.
We then jump forward to 1992, where an adult Kirby is writing down seemingly mundane notes about her life in a journal, including that she owns a cat named Grendel.
After saying goodbye to her mom (who she lives with), Kirby heads to her job as an archivist with the Chicago Sun-Times. It’s also her last week working there before moving to Florida. Once Kirby arrives, we notice that she checks some of the items from her notebook to make sure they’re still on her desk. One of these is a Godzilla coffee mug, which she uses to catch water from a leaky overhead pipe.
After making rounds through the office, Kirby returns to find that her coffee mug is still catching water, but now features the Chicago Bulls’ logo. More alarmingly, there’s someone else working at her desk. When she asks why he’s there, the man responds that her desk is on the other side of the room. Sure enough, the desk he points to has all of her items on it, including the Godzilla mug.
As Kirby tries to orient herself, she’s interrupted by another employee saying that someone named Shawn Lynsky has been tying up the phone lines trying to reach her.
Elsewhere, reporter Dan Velasquez walks through the watery aftermath of a massive pipe breach. He bypasses the city workers and heads down into the sewers, where he notices a large contingent of police officers. A detective (Ronnie Samuels) attempts to claim it’s only a leak, but Dan isn’t buying it and asks whose body they found. Realizing he isn’t going to fool this reporter, Samuels assures Dan they’ll let him know once they’ve got an ID.
Later, Dan pleads with his editor (Abby) to let him work on the story. While he’s arguing his case, another reporter (Bertie) walks in and asks why Dan was talking with Samuels, who’s his police source. Abby follows up by pointing out that the area where the pipe burst is technically part of Bertie’s beat.
Dan hesitantly reveals that the police found the body of a woman named Julia Madrigal, who went missing two years ago. Bertie offers to take over the assignment, but Abby decides to let Dan continue running with it.
What’s in a Name?
Kirby goes to visit Detective Lynsky, who asks how she decided on her new name. He also complains that her mother (Rachel) won’t return his calls. Kirby responds that she probably wouldn’t after not contacting her for six years.
*Side Note: We’ll learn Kirby’s real name later on in the series.
After arriving at his desk, Lynsky explains that they found the body of a woman named Julia Madrigal in the city’s pipes. There were similarities between the wounds they found on her body and the wounds Kirby suffered from an assault by an unknown assailant six years ago. Lynsky also reveals that they have a suspect in custody before presenting Kirby with some photos and asking her to identify her attacker.
Unfortunately, she never got a good look at the man. The only thing she remembers about him is what his voice sounded like when he called her a whore.
That night, Kirby comes home and hears that her mom has brought home a man. Based on her reaction, this appears to be a frequent occurrence. She goes into her own room and lays down. On her nightstand, we see the pegasus Harper gave Kirby when she was a child.
Elsewhere, we see Harper knocking down the back door from inside a house. As this action is occurring, Kirby is awakened by the door to her bedroom being knocked in. Instead of Harper bursting through, however, it’s an adorable pitbull who’s all types of happy to see her.
When Kirby looks at the dog’s collar, she sees that his name is Grendel.
Dan meets detective Samuels at a bar. After revealing how he got his information on Julia Madrigal (a trusted medical examiner named Iris), Samuels tells the reporter that they have a suspect for her murder: A severely mentally ill man named Pawel Banik.
Madrigal was a social worker and Banik was one of her cases. He’d been questioned two years ago and even confessed, but wasn’t charged. In exchange for the information, Samuels wants Dan to print a story that puts pressure on the city to bring the case to trial now that Julia’s body has been found.
Instead of playing ball, Dan chastises Samuels for questioning a mentally ill man without a lawyer present. Samuels responds by revealing that he looked into Dan’s past, which includes charges for domestic violence and drug possession. After countering that he pled out for treatment, Dan steadfastly refuses to do the police’s dirty work for them.
Samuels leaves in a huff while Dan stays to have a drink before returning to work.
Back at the Sun-Times, Kirby is looking at an old article about Julia’s disappearance when she’s approached by a photographer named Marcus. Despite their interaction being fairly brief, it’s clear the two are hesitantly interested in each other.
The pair’s flirting is interrupted when someone sees the articles Kirby pulled and mistakenly calls Dan over to retrieve them. Since Dan didn’t ask for them, he assumes it was Bertie attempting to poach his story, which Kirby falsely confirms to hide what she was doing.
Later, Kirby goes by Dan’s desk and swipes his notes, which reveal that Julia was sliced open the same way she was six years ago.
Kirby also finds Banik’s address and decides to pay him a visit. She’s greeted by the man’s mother, who she identifies herself as an employee of the Sun-Times (technically true). The woman says they’ve already spoken to reporters that day, but still insists that Kirby come in to speak with her son. Instead of Julia’s killer, she finds a mentally ill man who’s caring for a baby of his own. He also vehemently insists that he didn’t harm the social worker.
What truly convinces Kirby of Banik’s innocence, however, is that he doesn’t sound anything like the man who attacked her.
As she’s leaving the house, Kirby is stopped by Dan, who was about to do a follow-up interview of his own. He takes her to a diner so they can discuss their situation, which he incorrectly assumes is Kirby trying to poach her way into a job as a reporter. He also spoke with Bertie and knows she isn’t helping him.
Kirby initially plays things close to the vest, responding that the paper can’t fire her anyway since she’s leaving next week to live with a cousin in Florida. After a while, she reveals her disproven theory/hope that the man who murdered Julia was the same one who nearly killed her six years ago. They were both sliced open in almost the exact same manner, but her attacker did not sound anything like Banik, who had a distinct Russian accent.
Dan asks what she would’ve done if Banik had turned out to be the same man, to which Kirby has no answer.
Later, Dan takes Kirby to see Iris, his medical examiner source/friend. It takes a bit of convincing, but she nervously agrees to let Iris examine her scars to see if they match Julia’s.
During the examination, Kirby reveals some key information about when she was attacked:
- She was attacked from behind while walking her dog.
- The attacker shoved something in her mouth so she couldn’t call for help.
- He was interrupted at one point by someone walking nearby.
Iris notices some tearing near the bottom of the incision and asks if anything was taken out of her. Kirby responds that some of her intestines were removed. She also pointedly asks if anything was left inside Julia Madrigal.
After not receiving an answer, Kirby looks up and is shocked to find a completely unfamiliar man examining her. As she begins to panic and asks what happened to Iris, Dan runs in and explains that the man’s name is Howard. He’s a medical examiner who Kirby just met and even gave permission to examine her.
Kirby looks at the wall, sees Howard’s credentials, and realizes her reality has shifted once again. She then storms out of the room, leaving both men completely confused.
*Side Note: The events from this part of the episode are presented as if they happen concurrently with Kirby and Dan’s stories. That is definitely not the case — something I don’t mind revealing since the first three episodes of ‘Shining Girls’ are being released concurrently.
An astronomer named Jin-Sook Gwasun (Jinny) heads to her job at the Adler Planetarium carrying a red umbrella to shield her from the rain. As she and her coworker (Gary Negland) talk, they notice a dead bee laying on her desk. When neither one of them can figure out why it’s there, Gary mentions that ancient Egyptians thought bees carried messages from the heavens.
Jinny points out that this particular bee doesn’t have any wings before scooping it into the trash.
That evening, the sky appears to be clear of that morning’s rain clouds, allowing Jinny to smoke a cigarette on the building’s roof. After she lights up, the exterior door closes and locks unexpectedly, trapping her outside. Moments before it begins to rain again, she notices her umbrella sitting on the ledge (which she didn’t bring with her) and uses it to stay dry.
The next day, Gary asks Jinny to lunch and gets rejected. As he leaves, she notices her red umbrella hanging on a rack inside the office. She also decides to eat lunch on her own while watching an afternoon show inside the planetarium. The presentation ends with a note about how it only takes one star to change the course of history billions of years into the future.
As the audience begins to file out, a man who Jinny’s never met before (Harper) sits down behind her. He awkwardly tries to strike up a conversation, which she politely deflects before he casually drops her name.
*Side Note: This really shouldn’t have been a scary moment since Jinny is WEARING A FREAKING NAME TAGE, but whatever.
Upon seeing her surprise, Harper says he hoped she’d recognize him. When Jinny insists she doesn’t know him, Harper chuckles and responds “No…not today.” He then apologizes for making Jinny nervous and steps aside so she can leave.
That evening (?), Harper watches from a distance as Jinny speaks with guests at a major/formal event. When someone alerts Jinny that there’s an issue with the telescope, he gets there before her, places an unidentified object inside the observatory, and hides.
Once she arrives and begins working on the telescope, Harper reveals himself before brutally murdering her with a knife. Afterward, he slices her open in the same manner that Kirby and Julia were.
*Side Note: We’ll now return to the Kirby/Dan timeline, which is about to get considerably stranger.
Kirby arrives home to find her mother singing and petting Grendel (the pitbull). She tries to explain how reality keeps shifting ever since the attack, but Rachel interprets this as a symptom of Kirby’s trauma. She also tells her daughter that moving to Florida won’t fix things.
The next day, Kirby finds Dan typing a story that implicates Pawel Banik in Julia’s murder. He knows it isn’t solid, but it’s the only thing he’s got and a deadline is looming. When Dan isn’t swayed by Kirby’s insistence that he keep digging, she tells him to ask Howard (the medical examiner) if they found anything inside Julia.
*Side Note: Although she hasn’t stated it outright yet, Kirby’s attacker also left something inside of her.
Dan is skeptical, but ends up telling Abby that he’s pursuing an alternate suspect in the Julia Madrigal case based on an unnamed source. He admits that the source’s credibility is still up in the air, but the information may point to a serial killer who’s still operating in the Chicago area.
Kirby arrives home that evening to find that her key doesn’t work. After demanding that Rachel let her in, a completely unfamiliar man answers the door. A quick glance inside reveals that the apartment looks completely different from how she left it that day.
Kirby then checks her driver’s license, which lists her home address as being one floor up. She goes upstairs and tries her key, which opens the door to a completely unfamiliar home. She’s also greeted by Grendel, who’s a cat again, along with Marcus, who is now her husband.
From an atmospheric standpoint, Shining Girls‘ premiere episode is fantastic. From its unnerving opening to the mind-bending final scene, it’s clear we’re in for a tense and engaging ride.
Unfortunately, the murder mystery behind Shining Girls‘ narrative isn’t very well-established yet. We know Harper’s a creep, but we don’t know who Julia Madrigal is or why he killed her — or why he tried to kill Kirby. We also have no clue how Jinny’s murder is related aside from Harper’s involvement. Add in the whole “shifting reality” aspect, and it’s a good thing Apple decided to release two more episodes to go along with this one.
Fortunately, “Cutline” makes up for these shortcomings with some truly outstanding character work. Kirby is appropriately confused and terrified of how the world keeps changing around her, but heroically determined to press on when a path toward identifying her attacker appears. The episode also recognizes the traumatic aftereffects of her attack without making it her entire personality.
At first glance, Dan appears to be constructed almost entirely of old-school news reporter tropes. Thankfully, Wagner Moura imbues the character with a distinct persona along with an edge that’s further revealed as the series continues.
And then you have Harper, who makes every second he’s on-screen feel more uncomfortable than the last. Despite there being a supernatural element to his character (which we’ve barely touched on thus far), it’s his camouflage as an ordinary/unremarkable person that really churns your stomach. Even after emerging from the shadows, he retreats into a void that’s barely worth remembering — like the weird guy at the grocery store who asks if you have any coupons he could borrow.
It’s quite a different story once he’s decided to kill someone, which will be explored in horrifying detail during the next episode.
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