Over the past couple of months, Shining Girls has shown us, in rude and anxiety-ridden detail, exactly how life hasn’t been kind to newspaper archivist Kirby Mazrachi (Elisabeth Moss). When we first meet her in 1992 Chicago, she says she chose her new name because it “sounded fun.” But I convince myself it’s because Kirby’s Dream Land came out that very same year. This is probably the last glib, carefree thought I have about Kirby for the rest of the series.
Apple’s adaptation of Lauren Beukes’ genre-bending crime thriller, for the most part, elevates the novel with some welcome changes. There are no titular “shining girls” — at least not in the way the book danced around rather iffy views about the precocious specialness of the very normal everyday women who are murdered. This all comes from the unhinged male antagonist but still feels like an awkward precursor to gender essentialist ideas where these women are inherently “brimming with potential,” where their worth is anchored to men (or, in this case, one man). Beukes is a gifted and accomplished writer, but at times her treatment of gender — particularly the transphobic ideas in her novel Afterland — comes off as naive. (And, in the case of Afterland, painfully shortsighted and deeply harmful to already vulnerable trans women; Beukes has since posted a Twitter apology.)
In the novel, time-traveling serial killer Harper Curtis is fixated on “shining girls”: ordinary women with bright futures who need to die so he can keep using his powers. The powers come from a mysterious old house that lets him pop in and out of time between the 1920s and the 1990s; through the house, Harper chooses talismanic objects that are connected to the women and stalks them across time like a sociopathic deadbeat magician. Originally a Depression-era nobody, he settles easily into this surreal limbo as a time-traveling, woman-murdering nobody until one of his victims, Kirby, survives. The world literally changes around her — not just the details of her job or her personal life — but banal minutiae from her favorite sandwich down to the objects on her desk. It’s a heavy-handed but largely well-crafted (occasionally confusing) exploration of trauma that extends to the characters and their interpersonal relationships — sort of like a deeply unchill strand game that nobody asked for.
The series does a much more coherent job at examining gendered violence than the novel’s somewhat restrictive portrayal of women, not just by removing the “shining” conceit but also in how showrunner Silka Luisa chose to reframe its characters. Kirby is front and center, a necessary anchoring point in a fluid reality that constantly shifts and warps and pushes her out of her own life. Moss delivers a reliably steely-eyed performance with strong supporting turns from Wagner Moura (who plays washed-up reporter Dan Velazquez) and Chris Chalk (who plays Moss’ co-worker / husband Marcus).
But the real star of the show is Jamie Bell, who makes a greasy, cunning, spectacularly mediocre Harper Curtis. I can’t say enough mean, shitty things about Bell’s Harper because he’s so fantastically repugnant. He’s a beady-eyed grasping little rat man, an everyman opportunist with an easy slouch and a hard gaze. His whole thing of “taking what you’re owed” is born out of wartime desperation from WWI, and when he comes back to civilian life, this new hunger never leaves him. It’s almost too predictable when it turns out that he became a psychopath who cloaks his sickness in post-war opportunism and a relentless, bottomless appetite for more. Harper isn’t an apex carnivore — he’s a lone hyena who’s smart enough to adapt but too greedy to stop himself from his worst impulses.
The thing about Harper is he could be anyone. Shining Girls, in this sense, is not an easy show for people who are familiar with this type of abuser, for people who have suffered the sort of violence and psychological mind games that breed in these grounds. As someone who has dealt with my share of violence as well as an online stalker, Bell gives off that same telltale predatory glint that characterizes so many of these men. They can’t help themselves; they’re just playing around, and they’re doing it because they can. They’re never sorry, because they don’t have to be — nor should they be. While Luisa never tries to soften Harper or force us to sympathize with him, it’s almost too predictable that Harper’s supervillain origin story is one in which he’s spurned by a woman.
The fact that we meet Kirby amid the birth of ‘90s riot grrrl culture is a smart choice that serves the show well, at least for an older millennial like myself who has palpable memories connected to the movement. Beukes did an incredible amount of research on the city’s history for the book, a meticulous approach that carried over to show production. (The curation of old Bikini Kill and Os Mutantes band shirts was great.) The riot grrrl movement was a mostly white subculture born from the punk scene, and the DIY philosophy of these subcultures here is a critical part of Kirby’s character. And while a bunch of establishment characters clearly think Kirby is unreliable (including, of course, the cops), Luisa pulls off some messy but interesting parallels between the perception of mental illness (or unwellness, or hysteria, or speculation, whatever you want to call it) and the idea of radical self-action.
In removing the “chosen ones” aspect from the story, a cursory interpretation of the show might say that Harper is simply performing senseless violence: he’s picking random girls, stalking them across different decades, and brutally murdering them while leaving behind bits of evidence as in-jokes for himself to indulge in. But, through this specific lens of riot grrrl politics, Shining Girls isn’t a regular show about “senseless” violence — certainly not in the way we throw around that term today. It’s about how righteous, radical, complicated anger wells up to meet a supposedly unstoppable force. It’s about expanding the basic dictionary definition of violence to something transformative and potentially restorative. We see this happen in the way Kirby tries to “radicalize” Jinny, another of Harper’s victims who doesn’t understand what’s happening, and in the way she uses live music gigs as a vehicle for freedom and expression.
Unfortunately, in the face of all this sweaty, righteous momentum, some of the show’s loftier aspirations fall flat. The astronomical / two stellar bodies theory that Jinny uses to theorize about Harper and Kirby’s relationship feels undercooked, like the show is pushing some kind of inevitability angle that undercuts its message about the intimacy of gender-based violence. Well into the penultimate episode, “Offset,” which I found particularly frustrating, I’m still not sure if the show knows what it wants to do with all of these astrophysical metaphors.
The whole rewriting reality bit at the end, where everyone is safe (albeit mind-wiped), feels weird but understandable as the logical outcome of Kirby’s drive for restitution. And when she finally kicks Harper out of the house, I was filled with dread — not at the prospect of Kirby taking control of a time-traveling house but at the fear that Apple will order another season of the show when it should end naturally right here. For all its flaws and messy experimentation, Shining Girls is a bold adaptation that revived an ancient anger in me that I’m deeply grateful for in 2022. I’m also glad that Kirby got to end the season with a good jacket and a better wig. She deserved that.
Shining Girls is streaming on Apple TV Plus now.