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Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

This Week’s ‘Only Murders in the Building’ Tackles True Crime's Trauma Porn Addiction

Selena Gomez’s Mabel finds her life reduced to clickbait in one of the show’s most gutting episodes yet.

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Screenshot: Hulu

In this week’s Only Murders in the Building, Tina Fey makes a triumphant return as all-star true crime podcaster Cinda Canning, and she’s out for blood. Once a subject of admiration for Selena Gomez, Martin Short, and Steve Martin’s podcasting trio, Cinda takes her podcast framing Mabel, Charles, and Oliver as killers to the next level by interviewing a particularly shitty man from Mabel’s past. Meanwhile, just as Mabel’s relationship with Cara Delevingne’s Alice, a mysterious artist, seems to be heating up, Mabel realizes that Alice has been using their relationship to farm Mabel for artistic inspiration.

It is not a great episode for Mabel! Yet as heavily as “Performance Review” leans into character development, it’s also transparently about infinitely more. The episode is a broad critique of the true crime industry’s heavy reliance on trauma porn for profit at the expense of actual victims. On the heels of all of the controversy surrounding Pam and Tommy—ironically, also a Hulu show—for portraying Pamela Anderson’s experience with cyber-exploitation without her consent, this episode also exposes how this genre excavates and commercializes victims’ pain for clicks, even when victims just want to move on.

This season has so far focused heavily on Mabel’s intense desire to leave behind the haunted house that is her past, which includes the relatively mysterious death of her dad during her childhood, the murders of two of her childhood best friends, and now, her status as a top suspect in a murder case. This week’s episode amounts to what’s essentially her worst nightmare: Her life has been reduced a sensational storyline in Cinda’s true crime podcast, in which Cinda interviews a man who claims Mabel once “snapped” and cut off his finger entirely unprovoked. What actually happened, we learn, is that the man had once been a co-worker of Mabel’s at a Long John Silver’s, repeatedly sexually harassed her, and tripped and cut off his own finger when she finally pushed him away. But of course, the truth is nothing compared to a convenient story, and once again, “Bloody Mabel” and her violent history are hurled under a microscope for public consumption.

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Before Cinda publishes the episode, she and Mabel share a brutal exchange. “To our audience, there is nothing more tantalizing than an unhinged, murderous beauty,” Cinda says.

“So that’s it? You’d rather tell a story that’s tantalizing than the story that’s the truth?” Mabel replies. Cinda then drops the unnerving truth bomb of the episode, inviting audiences to interrogate their enjoyment of podcasts like My Favorite Murder and Serial, or the litany of Ted Bundy documentaries out there: “No, I tell the truth, and the truth is that people don’t want to spend their commutes hearing about run-of-the-mill tragedies. That’s why they listen to me. Because for 52 minutes a week, I can scare and surprise and, yes, arouse them. They trust me to spin a yarn from a pretty knitter in Manhattan all the way to a missing farm girl in Chickasha.”

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As I’ve previously written, Only Murders is streaming amid the hey-day of true crime TikTok and YouTube, led by often-opportunistic, clout-chasing influencers and podcasters who feast on stories of missing white girls, often as these victims’ families grieve and many ask for privacy. When Gabby Petito disappeared last summer—prompting an entire genre of TikToks—the New York Times reported that the most prolific of these TikTokers attracted millions of views to their videos and received influxes of new followers growth.

Trauma porn, spectacle, and the very real pain of very real people (who are quite often women) are the meat of even the most thoughtful true crime content. Cinda’s episode interviewing Mabel’s lying, abusive former co-worker extends from the same well of voyeurism and exploitation as Alice’s freaky art display recreating the most traumatic events of Mabel’s life. Tellingly, Alice tries to explain her art as a project in service of Mabel’s mental health, as Mabel runs away and descends into an anxiety attack. This is often the rationale of true crime or other storytelling projects: to help and raise awareness about victims—whether or not they want that help or awareness.

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The jarring treatment Mabel experiences in this episode as a traumatized woman who wants nothing more than to escape her past is a subtle yet gutting primer in the importance of consent in telling stories about real people, and the devastating toll of telling these stories without their permission. Given Hulu’s extensive participation in the multi-million dollar true crime industrial complex, it’s nothing if not ironic for one of its shows to lean so heavily into this moral lesson, but it’s an important lesson, nonetheless.