“Defending Jacob” reached its explosive conclusion this week, which began with Jacob (Jaeden Martell) being set free after Leonard Patz (Daniel Henshall) was found dead in an apparent suicide. Patz left behind a note taking full responsibility for Ben’s (Liam Kilbreth) death, clearing Jacob’s name.
But questions lingered about Patz’s death and Jacob’s guilt. According to Martell, not even the show’s creative team knows if his character was ultimately the murderer.
“When I met with [director] Morten [Tyldum] and [creator] Mark [Bomback] for the first time, I asked if Jacob was guilty,” Martell tells Variety. “Morton told me that I had the freedom to decide if he did it and I wasn’t supposed to tell anybody once I decided. So not even Morton and Mark know. They essentially said whether or not he did it, they were going to approach the show the same way.”
But whether or not Jacob did it weighed heavily on his family, changing dynamics and instigating controversial actions.
Jacob’s father Andy (Chris Evans) eventually learned that his father (J.K. Simmons) arranged for O’Leary (William Xifaras) to look out for Andy and the family, with O’Leary coercing Patz into signing a confession before he strangled him to death. His father did this to prevent Jacob from spending his life in prison like him. Andy was furious, as he believed Jacob would have been cleared by the trial without Patz’s confession.
Andy was torn about whether he should reveal this information to his family, which was returning to something approaching a normal life now that the trial was over.
On whether or not it was difficult to play those pre-trial and post-trial moments differently, Martell says the experience allowed him to get to know his character better.
“It was like shooting an eight-hour movie because it was shot out of order,” he says. “So it was really difficult to remember where these characters were at the time. I think that added to getting to know the characters. For me as an actor I was able to see this whole cycle of him growing and changing, from being happy and loving with his family to the point where he reached the bottom. It definitely made it difficult with their being so many emotional stages, but it also made it more interesting as an emotional experience.”
The Barbers decided to take a trip to a Mexican resort to get out of town for a while. They enjoyed their time there, with Jacob even meeting a girl his own age who recognized him but wanted to spend time with him regardless. The young couple planned to attend a party on the beach one night, and his parents were surprised when they returned to their room to find that Jacob was already back. He said that he and the girl argued and he left early.
The next day, the authorities wanted to speak to Jacob. The girl he was seeing never returned to her room. The events led Andy, in a night of drunken guilt, to confess to Laurie (Michelle Dockery) that Patz’s confession was not genuine. She was shocked, convinced that her son is a murderer. The girl was eventually found alive, having been drugged and kidnaped by another partygoer.
Still, Laurie’s doubts remained. Unable to shake the feeling that her son was a killer and determined to get to the truth no matter what, she demanded answers from him while driving. As she emotionally spun out, she began to drive faster, and Jacob did tell her he killed Ben — saying he would say anything she wants to hear to get her to stop the car. With nothing left, Laurie crashed the car.
“For her character, it felt like she reached the bottom and she can’t take it anymore,” Martell says. “She needs to know, and if she can’t know then she has to end it. It was crazy and also helpful being in the car with her. Michelle is such an incredible actor so being in the presence of that was amazing. I feel like this scene was when my decision of whether or not he did it was the most important, where I felt the weight of that decision. The scene wouldn’t have changed whether he did it or not, but internally it was such an odd experience going through that.”
It was finally revealed that Andy’s time in front of the grand jury throughout the series had been part of the attempt to bring charges against Laurie for the crash. Andy refused to implicate his wife, maintaining that it had to be an accident.
Andy went to the hospital, where both Laurie and Jacob were patients. Laurie did not seem to remember anything leading up to the crash, while Jacob was in a coma. Ultimately, though, the series ended on Andy alone in the Barber home, thinking back on all that has happened. So in the end, was there justice?
“It’s left open ended on purpose,” Martell says. “I think that in the end no one is innocent and no one is guilty. Even Chris’ character makes some pretty difficult choices. Jacob’s grandfather also does some terrible things. I think that everything happened for a reason.”