Defending Jacob writer dissects that shocking finale reveal
Warning: This article contains major spoilers for the final episode of Defending Jacob.
On its surface, Defending Jacob looks a lot like your traditional whodunnit. Over the course of its eight episodes, the AppleTV+ limited series carefully doles out many of the hallmarks of a standard murder mystery, from red herrings and tense trials to more than a few shocking twists. At first, the premise seems like a simple murder investigation: A local Massachusetts boy named Ben Rifkin is found stabbed in a suburban park, and assistant district attorney Andy Barber (Chris Evans) takes up the case. But what starts as a cut-and-dry procedural soon turns personal, as Andy's own son, Jacob (Jaeden Martell), is arrested and charged with the murder. It's up to Andy and his wife, Laurie (Michelle Dockery), to protect their son from a firestorm of media attention, combative prosecutors, and neighborhood gossip—all while privately questioning whether their own child could be capable of the unthinkable.
And as the final episode reveals, Defending Jacob never definitively weighs in on Jacob's guilt or innocence. Instead, the show leaves it maddeningly ambiguous all the way until the final frame—and that, series writer Mark Bomback tells EW, is the point.
"In a purely storytelling way, I'm not sure a definitive answer one way or the other would have been necessarily any more satisfying," says Bomback, who adapted the show from William Landay's 2012 novel. "What I was most interested in, just as someone doing the writing, was really creating this subjective experience on the viewers' part with the parents. What I wanted to leave you with is the same sensation the parents have, which is, 'We'll never really know.'"
Jacob's trial ends with a declaration of innocence, after a pedophile named Leonard Patz (Daniel Henshall) hangs himself and confesses to Ben's murder in a suicide note. Ultimately, however, Andy learns that Patz's confession was coerced, and Andy's father (J.K. Simmons)—who himself is incarcerated for a decades-old murder—ordered an accomplice to frame and murder Patz, all to protect the youngest Barber.
Andy carries the knowledge that his son may not be innocent all the way until the Barbers go on vacation in an attempt to destress after the trial. When a young girl named Hope goes missing under mysterious circumstances, Andy can't help but wonder whether Jacob might be involved—again. Andy has kept his feelings bottled inside for years, whether protecting Jacob throughout his trial or lying about his father's incarceration, but the disappearance of Hope is the thing that finally breaks him, and he tells Laurie the truth about Patz. Hope is eventually found safe and sound, but the damage has been done.
"He's doing the right thing for the very first time in the story by being completely honest with her, even at the risk of destroying everything that he's just saved," Bomback explains. "That to me was a really interesting and tragic moment that nevertheless felt like a moment of growth for the character. And then of course, the tragic irony is, Hope is found and he really never needed to tell [Laurie] any of this. He could have lived with this burden of guilt in the same way that he's lived with this other lie for so long and gone on to live a more or less contented life, but he doesn't."
The revelation that Hope is alive and well is also a deviation from Landay's book, which suggests that Jacob murdered her. For Bomback, he says he wanted to write Jacob as a far more sympathetic, normal teen and as less of a psychopath-in-waiting, so he chose to focus the show primarily on Ben Rifkin's murder instead of Hope's.
"The book has one or two clues that suggest that Jacob might've done something to [Hope], and then we're really talking about someone who was a burgeoning serial killer," Bomback says. "He finally got away with this one crime, and now he's going to quickly, within the matter of six months, kill somebody else. It sort of strained credibility, especially in the way that I had written the character."
Questions of Jacob's guilt drive Laurie to a breaking point, culminating with a tense confrontation between mother and son in the car. As Laurie begs Jacob to tell her the truth, she pushes the car to go faster and faster, ultimately crashing and seriously injuring them both.
It's another change from Landay's original novel: In the book, Jacob dies in the crash. For Bomback, it was far more interesting—and devastating—for Jacob to survive and be left unconscious. When Laurie wakes up in the hospital, she insists that the crash was an accident, but Andy isn't so sure.
And once again, the Barbers find themselves wondering how well they really know each other.
"Now we have this new thing that they're both going to live with, which is: 'When [Jacob] wakes up, what will he think? Will he think that I tried to kill him or not?'" Bomback says. "In fact, he's going to now be having the same doubts about his mom that she's been harboring about him throughout the entire story."