‘Defending Jacob’ miniseries review: An absorbing legal and family drama

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Defending Jacob miniseries review: Michelle Dockery (Laurie Barber), Jaeden Martell (Jacob Barber) and Chris Evans (Andy Barber) in Apple TV+'s Defending Jacob
Michelle Dockery (Laurie Barber), Jaeden Martell (Jacob Barber) and Chris Evans (Andy Barber) in Apple TV+’s Defending Jacob

Synopsis

Assistant district attorney Andy Barber (Chris Evans), his wife Laurie (Michelle Dockery) and teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) are living an idyllic and well-respected life in Newton, a small town in Massachusetts, when Jacob is accused of the murder of his classmate Ben Rifkin. The drama series explores the hidden secrets within their perfect family, and what happens when this earthshaking turn of events starts to crack that facade. Based on the book of the same name by William Landay.

Defending Jacob review in a nutshell

It’s a moody legal and family drama full of twists, turns and secrets that keep you hooked and guessing.

Would I recommend you to watch it?

Are you a fan of Chris Evans? It’s his star vehicle, and he’s great in it as a father torn between his sworn duty to the law and his love for his family. So’s the whole supporting cast actually, especially Michelle Dockery and Jaeden Martell. You’re never sure if Jacob is innocent or guilty, and the series isn’t interested in answering that question for us. What it’s interested in is exploring how Andy and Laurie deal with their doubts of Jacob’s innocence and with their well-respected family becoming the pariahs of the town. (Andy, who isn’t really close to anyone, brushes it off; Laurie, the sociable one, doesn’t handle it well.) Ultimately, the ways they each choose to deal with it results in a stunning conclusion.

If you like true crime stories, mysteries and procedural dramas like Law & Order, you’ll like this too.

Click here to jump to the bottom for where you can watch Defending Jacob.

Otherwise, continue reading for a full, spoiler-filled review of the miniseries.

Defending Jacob miniseries review (FULL OF SPOILERS! I tell you how it ends and break down the ending!)

I mentioned previously that I’ve wanted to watch Defending Jacob since I heard Chris Evans signed up for it. Happily, it didn’t disappoint.

It’s a curious case about a boy who’s suspected of the murder of his classmate, and the toil it takes on his previously well-respected family as the town shuns them. Andy had been the Assistant District Attorney in charge of the case until Jacob emerged as a suspect, and Laurie is put on leave of absence from her job as a supervisor in a children’s home.

Making matters complicated is the fact that Andy’s father William “Billy” Barber (a menacing J.K. Simmons) was sentenced to life imprisonment for raping and murdering a 19-year-old girl when Andy was six, and Andy has kept it secret from Laurie and Jacob until now. Even so, he reluctantly reveals it only because it might come out in connection to the case. Laurie and Jacob (but especially Laurie) are understandably shocked. Also, the prosecutor for the trial is Neal Logiudice, Andy’s rival at the DA’s office who’s jealous of Andy’s success, and played to perfection by Pablo Schreiber at his smarmiest.

The murder investigation leaves us piqued, as we’re never sure who’s the actual murderer. It’s a toss-up between Jacob and Leonard Patz, a pedophile; but every time we think it might be Leonard Patz, we discover something about Jacob that makes him look guilty, and every time we think it might be Jacob, Leonard Patz does something suspicious.

The show, though, isn’t interested in answering the question for us. It instead focuses on how Andy and Laurie love their son, yet deal with being parents to a boy who might be a murderer. Andy deals with it by insisting on Jacob’s innocence at every turn. Laurie has doubts and turns the blame inwards when Andy refuses to entertain the possibility of Jacob having done it.

Chris Evans shows off his chops as a leading man here (not that I had any doubts that he was one). The show starts off with Andy at a grand jury proceeding a few months after the trial, and jumps between the present and a flashback to the events during the investigation and trial. Chris as Andy is defeated and tired in the grand jury proceeding (his look there reminds me of when he played a drug addicted lawyer in Puncture), and as the series progresses to its conclusion, we find out how this formerly loving father and husband with a successful career became so broken.

Michelle Dockery is great too. Her Laurie is a mother who not only loves her son, but also empathises with the parents of the murdered boy, and therefore unable to overlook her doubts of Jacob’s innocence. She starts off the series as a warm and social woman with plenty of friends, but those friends cut her off once Jacob becomes a suspect, leaving her with no one to turn to when she starts to doubt her son’s innocence and slowly unravels because of it. She does talk to Dr. Vogel, the biological therapist hired by their lawyer to see if Jacob has genetic traits that could reduce his sentence, should he be convicted, but when Dr. Vogel’s report shows that Jacob has a lack of empathy and other traits that could point to him as being a murderer, she becomes even more convinced that Jacob might be guilty.

So, is Jacob actually guilty?

Like I said, we don’t know. Jaeden Martell, who was Chris’ co-star in Knives Out, plays Jacob as an enigmatic and reticent teenager hiding lots of secrets, leaving you guessing as to his guilt or innocence. In fact, when he first met them, Jaeden asked the showrunners if Jacob was guilty, and director Morten Tyldum told him they didn’t know either, and let him choose how he wanted to play it. He says that while he “made the decision early on [on whether Jacob is guilty or not]”, he “definitely was going back and forth [in his performance], thinking about both sides”, which of course makes things more ambiguous.

…the thing about the show is that, regardless of whether he did or not, the story wouldn’t change and him, as a character, wouldn’t really change. It would be the same and he would have the same reactions. You would be just as hurt, if your dad asked you if you killed a boy or not, whether you did it or not. You would have the same reaction, and you’d be hurt by it. So, in a sense, it’s the same story, whether he did it or not.

Jaeden Martell in an interview with Collider on Defending Jacob

Breaking down the shocking ending

In the last episode, Jacob’s charges are dropped when the police find Leonard Patz hung himself with a written confession. BUT, we later find out that Billy Barber had orchestrated Leonard Patz’s death by asking a hired thug to force Leonard Patz into writing a confession under gunpoint before strangling him to death. When Andy finds out, he’s shocked as not only has a man been killed so that Jacob can walk free, he no longer knows if Jacob is innocent. He keeps it from Laurie, but later when they’re on holiday, a girl that Jacob was hanging out with goes missing, and the police suspect Jacob is involved in her disappearance.

Laurie, who had been convinced that Jacob was Ben’s murderer after it was revealed that Jacob wrote a graphic story about Ben’s murder, was relieved when Leonard Patz was found to be guilty, but now her doubts are reawoken. When she finds Andy drunk that night, he confesses to her that Leonard Patz was framed, which rocks her world again. Though the missing girl is eventually found, when they return from their holiday, Laurie cannot let it go. While driving Jacob to a haircut, she questions him directly if he killed Ben Rifkin, but finding herself unable to believe him no matter what he says and feeling wrecked by the fact that she’ll never know for sure what’s the truth, she deliberately crashes the car that both of them are in.

Here’s when we find out that the grand jury proceeding that was the framing device for the show is not to clear up any doubts remaining from Jacob’s murder trial, but to see if Laurie deliberately crashed the car and tried to kill herself and Jacob, and if so, to bring it up to a higher court to put her on trial. Logiudice has been asking Andy to recount Jacob’s trial to determine why Laurie might suddenly try to kill herself and her son.

The series spends quite several episodes talking about the murder gene and the history of violence in the family, since Andy’s father is in prison for raping and murdering someone. Yet in the end, Dr. Vogel dismisses it because the so-called murder gene isn’t passed down from the father, but from the mother. Though Jacob turns out to not have it, it’s ironic that in the end it was Laurie who tried to kill the both of them.

For the entire period leading up to the trial, Andy’s convinced of Jacob’s innocence. He loves his son unconditionally and is willing to chalk up whatever odd occurrences there are in Jacob’s behaviour to Jacob being a normal kid. However, he does highly suspect and even unethical things that make us wonder if Andy is just in denial, because he was “so desperate to be normal, for all of [them] to be normal”, as Laurie accuses him of at one point. He deliberately throws away Jacob’s knife in another neighbour’s garbage bin, and leaves after making sure that the garbage truck picks it up, so the knife can’t be taken into evidence. He also neglects to ask Jacob about his interest in “cutter” porn, despite having plenty of chances to do so the day after he found out about Jacob’s violent obsession. It seems like he just didn’t want to find out that he could be wrong about his son.

Though Andy has spent his whole life distancing himself from his father, the both of them aren’t so dissimilar after all. While Andy was willing to do whatever it takes to protect Jacob from going to jail, including deluding himself, it turns out that Billy was even more willing to do whatever it takes to ensure his grandson doesn’t go to jail, including hiring a thug to kill and frame Leonard Patz.

But in the end, because he loves Laurie too, even though he knows that it might have been premeditated murder because he saw that she threw Jacob’s baby photos away before they went out and then refused to pick up his calls, he insists that the car crash was an accident, and therefore doesn’t provide “justice” to Jacob. When he visits Laurie in the hospital, Laurie says she can’t remember the events clearly, and Andy reassures her that it was an accident while looking like he doesn’t believe himself, but that it’s the story he’s going to stick to anyway. Both are alive, though Jacob’s in a coma, but the doctors say he’s showing positive signs that he’s waking up.

The sad thing was that Laurie had been happy again, and they were all preparing to start afresh in a new place. Andy wasn’t going to tell her about Leonard Patz being framed, but he did so because he was wrecked with guilt and doubt about Jacob’s innocence with a second person in connection to him possibly being dead. And when the girl was found, he didn’t have to after all.

The series ends with Andy alone in his house, sitting morosely on Jacob’s bed while holding a glass of whiskey.

Differences between the book and the TV series (Spoilers for the novel! Skip ahead if you still want to read the book.)

I didn’t read the book, but from the articles that I’ve read about the differences, the missing girl on their holiday winds up dead, and there are hints that Jacob killed her. Andy never tells Laurie about Leonard Patz’s forced confession, and Laurie crashes the car because she realises that her son might be a serial killer, so she sacrifices herself to stop her son from killing someone else, and they both die.

I saw some viewers’ comments where they hated the ending, because they liked the concreteness of knowing that Jacob was a serial killer, whereas they felt this ending was left open just because the showrunners wanted to make a sequel. (There are no plans as of yet, by the way, nor do I think a sequel is necessary.)

However, writer Mark Bomback says he changed the ending of the novel because he felt it was unrealistic for Jacob to kill again after six months and expect to get away with it, and confirming Jacob’s guilt wasn’t the story he was interested in telling. I actually like this ending more, with both Laurie and Jacob still alive, because I think it’s too sad to think of Andy being left alone. Bomback says it’s no less devastating, because when Jacob wakes up, they’ll always be wondering if Laurie deliberately tried to kill him, but I can take that.

The sad thing was that Laurie had been happy again, and they were all preparing to start afresh in a new place. Andy wasn’t going to tell her about Leonard Patz being framed, but he did so because he was wrecked with guilt and doubt about Jacob’s innocence with a second person in connection to him possibly being dead. And when the girl was found, he didn’t have to after all.

Marvel Cinematic Universe references

By the way, I’m not sure if these were deliberate, but since Chris Evans is best known for being Captain America, there were several references to the MCU that I couldn’t help but pick up.

  • In the pilot episode, Andy wakes Jacob up for school with AC/DC’s “Back in Black”, which is most famously used in Iron Man‘s opening scene.
  • In episode 4, Andy says he’ll do “Whatever it takes” to protect Jacob and get him exonerated, which is from Steve’s rousing speech before the Avengers travel through time (and the highlight of the second Endgame trailer).
  • In episode 5, Laurie thinks about celebrating the 4th of July, which is Cap’s birthday.
  • In episode 7, Jacob says “bullshit” and Andy tells him “Enough with the swearing, it’s like every other word with you.” Which brings to mind Cap saying “Language!” in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Where to watch Defending Jacob

Since Defending Jacob is commissioned by Apple specifically for their streaming service, it’s only available on Apple TV+.

Should you sign up for Apple TV+?

To be frank, Apple TV+ doesn’t have a lot of content right now, as compared to other streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu and Disney+. While you can rent/purchase shows from Apple TV, these shows don’t belong to Apple and therefore aren’t available with your Apple TV+ subscription.

An Apple TV+ subscription costs US$4.99/mth (or S$6.98/mth in Singapore), which I think is too high a price for its paltry content. While it has supposedly good shows like The Morning Show starring Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carell, and Amazing Stories, which is produced by Steven Spielberg, I’m not particularly interested in them.

If, like me, you’re only interested in Defending Jacob, Apple TV+ is offering a one week free trial where you can binge watch the entire series (which is 6h 42mins only), and end your free trial after that. If you’re interested in more shows, you could even possibly finish all the Apple TV+ shows that you want to watch within that week, or even one month, if your aim is to save money on your subscription.

However, Apple is offering a free one year subscription to Apple TV+ if you purchase an iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, Apple TV or Mac. Your subscription can be shared with up to five other family members in a Family Sharing group. You just need to activate your subscription within three months after activating your device. This is a limited time promo, though Apple doesn’t state when it’ll end.

Alternatively, if you’re a college student and you sign on to the Apple Music Student Plan, it also comes with a free subscription to Apple TV+.

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