[The following story contains spoilers from the season two finale of Only Murders in the Building.]
Only Murders in the Building showrunner John Hoffman doesn’t have a five-season plan.
In fact, he envies writers who know exactly how long they want their series to run and where they want their characters to end up. For Hoffman, each season is a brand new journey, and he’s excited to keep the show going for as long as Hulu — and his stars — will have him.
“I think there’s great variety [in terms of the stories that can be told],” Hoffman tells The Hollywood Reporter. “I know there have been funny discussions about how many murders can there be in one building, but I think that’s a fun challenge.”
Only Murders season two followed Charles (Steve Martin), Mabel (Selena Gomez) and Oliver (Martin Short) as they try to get to the bottom of who killed Bunny Folger (Jayne Houdyshell) in the season one finale. Over the course of the season, the trio faced multiple setbacks and followed threads that often led them (and viewers) to a dead end — for lack of a better phrase. And that’s exactly what Hoffman wanted.
“We wanted a real rollercoaster ride,” he says. “There was so much across this season, so many things were threads that were sort of, ‘How are they gonna pull this back around?’ How can we tie it all together? We want to hide, until the end, as much as we can.”
In the final episode of season two, Charles, Mabel and Oliver host a “Killer Reveal Party,” luring Tina Fey’s Cinda Canning and Adina Verson’s Poppy to the party with the false notion that Mabel will be admitting to Bunny’s murder on a live video. The three of them slowly start to explain their findings, with some help from a few Arconia residents.
First, they accuse Cinda of the murder, explaining that she needed a new idea for a podcast, so she created the circumstances for one. Then, when Mabel realizes Cinda didn’t do it, she points the finger at Alice (Cara Delevingne), who responds by trying to kill Mabel only to stab Charles when he pushes Mabel out of the way.
After Charles fakes his death and Mabel pretends she solved the case, Cinda praises Mabel for her detective skills, offers her a job at her podcast and even tells her she could have her own show — much to Poppy’s dismay, as she’s been trying to advance her podcast career under Cinda for years. Eventually, the trio and Cinda back Poppy into a corner, revealing that Poppy’s the murderer and that Poppy’s actually Becky Butler, the girl who went missing in Cinda’s season one podcast All Is Not OK in Oklahoma.
In a recent conversation with THR, Hoffman expands on Poppy’s big reveal, the upcoming third season of Only Murders and how it feels to be a part of the final stretch of Steve Martin’s career.
So let’s dive into the big reveal: Poppy is actually Becky Butler, and she’s behind Bunny’s murder. How long have you known you wanted to make her story much bigger than it initially seemed?
If I’m being honest, I was excited about Adina Verson. We first saw Adina when she auditioned for the role of Cinda Canning, actually. We had many people coming in. The dream was always Tina Fey, but we didn’t expect that our dream would come true, truthfully, and then, when it did, it was so thrilling. But we had these wonderful auditions for that part. One of the most wonderful auditions was Adina’s, and I thought, “Oh, we’ve gotta find a place for her.” So, we created Poppy for Adina, and then as we got to know her a little bit more, I just felt excited.
I like sort of finding people that maybe people haven’t seen as much, and then sort of letting them shine a bit, and I felt like maybe that could happen, much like it did last year for James Caverly, who played Theo, or any of our characters. There’s so many: Ryan Broussard playing Will. It’s exciting to see people step forward, and this one was, as far as the actor Adina goes, that was where I started thinking I would love to see her do more. As far as the character, for Poppy, that came pretty quickly, too, that season two would send her around a plan that she had hatched, and that might go crazy.
Adina’s so brilliant, I think, both just funny and relatable and heartbreaking in ways and just a force.
What were the conversations like behind the scenes about Poppy’s reveal?
It was very detailed. With everyone in the show and the characters in the show, within our writers’ room, we have these discussions about what you have to do in a very sort of true crime podcasters’ way. No character goes without examination around the case. So, when we started focusing on Poppy as the potential killer of Bunny Folger, it required a lot of deep digging and imagining what the whole story was and what it could be. I always understood that because of where we ended season one with Bunny’s death, that season two was gonna have to be very connected to season one, narratively.
So, we had to make sense of certain things that happened in season one but also it became very exciting once we landed on this notion of tying in that first podcast All Is Not OK in Oklahoma, the one that brought our trio together, actually having resonance with what happened here at the end of season one and then into season two. So all of that and the tie-ins that started to happen that felt very exciting to reveal and unveil in the last couple of episodes. It also provided this sort of basis for a motive for Poppy. If she had been involved in a podcast where she was, in some way, helping to orchestrate what they said happened, she’s doubling down on that here in this season and hoping that it works as well as the first one did but hoping also that she would have some acknowledgment from Cinda and some advancement in her career that she’s been longing for.
Then the other part of it: There’s a lot of track that you have to maybe sort of like point to that we couldn’t share, but we point to it in the finale, I think. For instance, the Rose Cooper story of the artist of the painting, played by Shirley MacLaine, once we understand that story, about a woman who had to disappear herself in order to gain great success in her art. The fact that Poppy might have been aware of that story or become aware of that story; she brings it to Cinda as a potential story for the podcast, and there’s a relationship between those two stories. Poppy disappeared herself to find success from Oklahoma. So, all of that felt in line with motive with desire and kind of a brilliant researcher’s mind, as Poppy’s got.
Did you have any reservations about tying season two to season one as much as you did?
I didn’t really, no, ’cause I think we had laid enough groundwork in season two that it felt pretty independent. I don’t know. We’ll find out if people feel lost in that way, but I think the idea that the revelation that happens at the end of episode nine in season two — where Poppy shares with Mabel that she is Becky Butler — all of that has been so ingrained in the storytelling in our show. I think we were reminding people about that story throughout the season in subtle ways. So, hopefully, it was connected.
How are you hoping fans will react to the big Poppy reveal and to the season in general?
The challenge with making a mystery is that you want to keep alive the possibility of surprising people, of satisfying people in some way. It’s always tricky. There’s a bit of a play in the finale here where, at one point, it looks like Alice (Cara Delevingne) is the killer. In the writers’ room, we knew we were doing that with a purpose, knowing that, if that were the case, it might feel a little disappointing for the viewer because we made Alice make some moves throughout the season that were dubious, to say the least. I’d hoped that in that moment, it would feel like “Oh my God, it’s Alice,” because certainly of what happens with Charles. It feels like that’s where we were going, and I liked being able to sort of play with that feeling of disappointment only to feel the thrill of “Oh, my God, it isn’t her.”
I certainly fell for it. I was all over the place, following every single breadcrumb.
That’s what we were hoping. We wanted a real roller-coaster ride. There was so much across this season, so many things were threads that were sort of, “How are they gonna pull this back around?” How can we tie it all together? We want to hide, until the end, as much as we can, what the truth of the story is, and what the truth of the motive was, and the truth of what was happening, but there are scenes throughout the season. The plan and design that we sort of work on here in the writers’ room is to sort of have it all make sense, imperfect sense. Nothing is perfect, and there will always be certain loose ends and certain things that are random, and I think it’s OK to have certain things that are random and not tied into the explanation because that’s kind of what happens when you’re doing an investigation anyway.
In general, we were excited to share the big picture story and how it might make some sense in a fun way but also in a way that puts our trio in the driver’s seat, and that’s what really excites me, as much as they felt lost, struggling with their internal stories throughout the season, and feeling distracted from the case and the podcast and everything else. I was very excited that in episode nine — where the emotional stories come full circle for pretty much all of the main characters — and in the finale that we have a feast of watching our trio be really good at this and to nail the person in a way that we didn’t see coming and makes us feel very admiring of how they pulled that sucker off.
When you first began the series with Steve Martin, what were your hopes for it?
Steve had one requirement. He said, “I just wanna know that you’re OK with every single season, we know exactly who did it, and it feels like a satisfying ending, that we don’t leave something ambiguous, and that we don’t leave something to continue over from season to season, that each season feels like it’s a complete story. Then we kick into something else in some unusual way.” So, that was a big picture plan, and there were very few requirements he had, but I was delighted by that one. The challenge of it felt nice and something that felt how to do it in our own way, with our own sort of tone and everything else. So, I think the challenge has always been the mystery side of it.
The hope was that our audience for the show would fall in love with these three main people and that they would feel a certain kinship because they were all amateurs at this at the beginning of it, and well-intentioned and afraid and lonely and isolated in their lives and sort of coming forward. So that whole thing marrying up with “Will our audience like a show that does this mystery thing with its own quirky comedic tone as well? And all the leaps we are taking story-wise?” You just hope, and so it’s been lovely to feel there’s been a nice embrace for the show this way.
How long do you envision Only Murders in the Building running? Do you have an endgame in mind?
God, I wish. I mean, really, every time any other showrunner I’ve heard say something about “I have an exact picture of how the show ends,” I’m always so jealous, because I’m like, “Really? I have no idea. I don’t have an ending in my mind.” But I told Steve when this idea was first brought to me by Dan Fogelman and Jess Rosenthal and Steve’s idea, I was like, “I had ideas coming out of my head about this one little idea that just kept going and going and going,” and that’s been the way it’s been. So, I feel bullish on many seasons ahead, if we’re so lucky, and as long as they’ll have us and as long as we can keep doing it, I think there’s great variety [in terms of the stories that can be told]. I know there have been funny discussions about how many murders can there be in one building, but I think that’s a fun challenge, too. So, I’m very excited. I think these characters are endlessly fascinating. I love the world we’ve created within New York.
Being a lover of New York, I appreciate the world you’ve created.
We’re going deep now for season three into a very particular New York.
Speaking of, what can you tease about season three?
I would only say this show has always had a touch of theatricality to the way it tells its stories. If season one was a little more focused on the emotional storyline for Mabel and Tim Kono, and season two was a little more emotionally connected to Charles and his relationship with his father and himself, I’m very excited to both lean into the theatrical side of New York City and also into Oliver and his world.
In that same vein, you’ve had a lot of great cameos in the show. Who would be your dream guest star?
Wow. That’s a big question, and I only want to say hang tight ’cause it might just come true.
In a recent THR cover story, Steve Martin reveals he’s contemplating retirement and that Only Murders might be his big, final hurrah. Hows does it feel to be a part of that?
Right from the beginning when I realized this is who was going to be involved in the show, I was thrilled and excited. I couldn’t focus on it not going well but underneath everything was, “I have to live up to this incredible group that’s around the show.” So, there was a lot of pressure that way and hope and fear about all of it. But the fact that they’re happy doing it, and they love it as much as I do, and now it feels like it’s really connecting with people, it’s beyond a dream. I feel, particularly with Steve, since it all kind of began the two of us talking about how this could go, that it’s very moving to me, all of it. I would never have predicted this. I would never have predicted feeling like this lovely friendship with Steve. He’s very particular about what he does and what he’s interested in doing, and he has a big life beyond this, but I think he’s particularly happy and surprised by all of it, to have this lovely moment about the show. Honestly, I feel every time I see him doing it, I feel he’s doing the best work of his career, with this show, so I’m delighted by that.
Without really knowing how long the show will run, do you have an idea of how you could keep Steve Martin around a bit longer if he is contemplating retirement?
It’s odd now that he’s starting to talk about “This might be the last thing I do,” because when people see the finale, and there’s that turn that happens when Alice stabs him, I think people might wonder for a moment, “How are they gonna do the show without Steve?” So, that part of it, I don’t foresee a way in which we do the show without Steve or any of them, frankly. They’re all so tied into each other. So, I just love that. All of our actors seem very tireless and very energized, happy to be there, and that’s the way I want to keep it.
Once the show does come to an end — in two years or five or 10 — would you ever consider a spinoff?
I could see a lot of versions of potential for that, absolutely. There is something endlessly fascinating about a great mystery. That’s been proven, and we’re in the tradition of it, and I like the tradition of it. I also like playing with the forms. I love a New York story. I love an unexpected way in which to come at that story. So, if we have various murders in various buildings, you never know, with various characters. I could certainly see various ways we can continue this.