“Shining Girls,” created by Silka Luisa, is based on Lauren Beukes’s novel of the same name (well, the novel is called “The Shining Girls,” so they’re almost the same). The first episode of the show was screened at the 2022 SXSW Film Festival (which I was lucky enough to watch), and it ended on an insanely tantalizing note. Now, after waiting for over a month, I’ve got a little more context to what happens in that first episode, why is Elisabeth Moss in a messy situation again (“Us,” “The Invisible Man,” “Shirley,” “The Handmaid’s Tale,” she has a trend going on here), and more. So, let’s get cracking, shall we?
Major Spoilers for “Shining Girls”
Episode 1: Recap And Ending
“Shining Girls” Episode 1 opens in 1964, where a young girl (Maizie Landfear) is playing with a little makeshift toy set while telling a bee she has trapped to stay quiet. She’s approached by Harper (Jamie Bell), who initially makes small talk with her but then proceeds to de-wing the bee and give her a Pegasus. Harper asks the girl if she can hold onto it until he comes back. The girl says that she doesn’t want it. Harper tells her that she’ll take it because she always does. As he walks away, we see the girl take the toy Pegasus and rush into her home.
The narrative shifts to the ’90s, where the girl is all grown up and named Kirby Mazrachi (Elisabeth Moss). She lives with her mother, Rachel (Amy Brenneman), who is a Rockstar. She’s seen writing every single detail that’s present before her eyes in a journal, and we also get to know that she’s planning to move to Florida. Kirby proceeds to her workplace, which is the Chicago Sun-Times, where she works as a folder delivery person (I don’t know her exact designation). From her interaction with a colleague, Lakshmi Awad (Sadieh Rifai), it becomes evident that Kirby is not one of the most vocal people in the room and is very anti-social.
Next, we’re introduced to Dan (Wagner Moura), a crime reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times who approaches a sewer line surrounded by police, which is something that he thinks is weird. He goes in and is stopped in his tracks by the investigating officer, who says that it’s a routine check and that Dan can get out of there now. But the clicking of the camera indicates that the police have found a body in the drains. They just don’t want Dan to report on it.
Kirby enters her office space to notice someone else sitting where she usually sits. She questions the man, and he says that that’s his spot, while her table is across the office. No, it’s not an elaborate prank. It’s the first sign of the fact that either Kirby’s perception of reality is a little warped (and she doesn’t remember things correctly) or reality is changing before her eyes for reasons unknown to her and us. While Dan forces himself to follow the murder of Julia Madrigal (Karen Rodriguez), the girl whose body was found in the sewers, Kirby goes to the police to identify the suspect. Why? Because the nature of Madrigal’s murder and Kirby’s assault from the past are similar. But she fails because she doesn’t know what her assaulter looks like.
Kirby comes back home. We briefly see that she still has the toy Pegasus Harper gave her. A shot of Harper bursting through a door spills into the knocking of Kirby’s bedroom door, and in comes a dog named Grendel. It’s not a cat, as shown earlier. And that’s another sign that Kirby’s reality (or her perception of her reality) is constantly shifting, which is why she makes a note of every single thing that she sees.
Then we meet Jin-Sook (Phillipa Soo), an employee at the Adler Planetarium. Firstly, she finds a de-winged bee on her desk (yes, just like the one we see at the beginning of “Shining Girls” Episode 1). Secondly, while visiting the terrace and getting locked out, she finds a red umbrella (and it starts raining). And thirdly, she is visited by Harper himself, who, by the way, hasn’t aged a day since 1964 and is as creepy as ever. On the investigative side of things, Dan comes to know that the name of the suspect is Pawel Banik, a mentally ill man. Dan suspects that he’s not the real killer but someone who is being framed. Kirby takes an interest in the murder of Madrigal and is visited by a fellow colleague, Marcus (Chris Chalk). Yes, this bit is important. Then she finally interacts with Dan, who is now less interested in the Madrigal case.
Later on, Kirby steals Dan’s notepad to know the address of the suspect, Pawel. And, well, she does go up to Pawel’s house but promptly leaves when she understands that there’s no chance in hell that he is the murderer and because he has a baby with him. On her way out, she runs into Dan, and they start talking about each other’s motives. Dan thinks Kirby is doing all this for a desk job, instead of pushing folders and clips. Kirby clarifies that Madrigal’s case has similarities with her assault that happened six years ago, and she is trying to see if the person who killed Madrigal is the same one who attacked her.
Dan takes Kirby to a female medical examiner, Iris (Hanna Dworkin), to note the similarities between Julia’s attack and Kirby’s. When Kirby goes faint on the details, the medical examiner (still female) asks if she can see the scarring, just to be sure that Kirby’s theory adds up. Kirby agrees, and the medical examiner (still female) starts checking the scarring. Kirby starts talking about the assault. But, after a few minutes, when she looks up, she sees that a male medical examiner, Howard, is checking out her scars. Kirby panics and bolts out, leaving the medical examiner, and Dan confused as to what just happened.
Kirby goes home and starts talking to her mother about her shifting reality, doubling down on her decision to move to Florida. She says that it always starts with these little things, and then it turns out to be bigger changes. As Dan plans to file the news report on Pawel being the suspect in the Julia Madrigal murder case, Kirby tries to persuade him to not do so because they both know he’s not the murderer. Kirby says that they need to dig deeper into it after telling her that Julia must’ve had something inside her body because Kirby’s assaulter did the same to her. Dan decides to take the news story in the direction of pursuing a serial offender, just like Kirby wanted him to.
The final minutes of “Shining Girls” Episode 1 are intercut between Harper gutting Jin-Sook and Kirby returning to her apartment building only to find out that her room is not her room; it’s the one above it. And she doesn’t live with her mother, but is married to Marcus.
Episode 2: Recap And Ending
Kirby asks about the whereabouts of her mother, and Marcus says that she is the one who decided not to call her. Marcus asks Kirby where all the items are for his birthday party. Kirby is unable to make head or tail of this situation and keeps asking reasonable questions that seem unreasonable to Marcus. Before she can settle down in this reality, the house becomes filled to the brim with Kirby’s colleagues, who are now best buddies with the apparently married couple. Yes, Kirby and Marcus are apparently married. Then she rushes to her bedroom to check out her journal, and she’s shocked to see that it says that she indeed lives with Marcus, her husband, and Grendel is not a dog but a cat.
Dan pays a visit to Dr. Howard to talk about Kirby and Julia Madrigal. Dan talks Howard into showing Julia’s body so that he can examine and see if the killer really left something inside her, like Kirby was saying. While sifting through the evidence, Dan zeroes in on a metal tin with a description that says “Radium Ore, Midway Chemical Company.” Howard believes that it’s not actual evidence but something random that the investigating team found in the pipe. When they examine the body, though, Dan shuts off the lights to reveal the traces of radium inside Madrigal, thereby confirming that Kirby’s speculation is right. This might be the work of a serial killer.
We briefly see Harper enter the house we saw in Kirby’s dream, having coffee and examining the news about Julia Madrigal’s death. As the camera moves around him, the brown mug of coffee changes to a floral cup of tea. He’s unbothered by it as his focus is on the writer of the piece, i.e., Dan. Then we see (in 1990) Harper talking to someone called Leo at a home for the homeless (? ), who talks about a gas leak of some kind and then asks him if he’s there to see Julia. Harper says that he is, but this time she’s not his “girl.” On his way out, Harper tries to make small talk with Julia but, as usual, he makes it creepy. Thankfully, Julia is called away by one of the residents there, Gordie.
Julia gets back home to see her dad unpacking her things. She finds a polaroid of herself and asks where the photo is from, as she clearly doesn’t remember its origins. Her father says that the reason she probably doesn’t remember going to Glencoe is because she didn’t have a good time there. But Julia doesn’t think too much about it and sets the polaroid aside. Dan pays Kirby a visit now that he somewhat believes Kirby’s theory about the killer being a serial offender. Dan asks what the killer left inside Kirby. Kirby answers that by taking Dan to a laundromat, and she tells him that the killer left a matchbox inside her with an address to a bar, which should’ve been where the laundromat is. Dan wonders if there used to be a bar before it turned into a laundromat, and Kirby says that she has checked the record and the laundromat was always a laundromat. Not a bar.
Dan shows Kirby a photo of the box that was apparently inside Julia, and he asks her to walk him through the day the assault on her happened. As Kirby starts to recapitulate her own past, she realizes that things might not have occurred the way she remembers them because her present doesn’t correlate with the memory of her past. Dan asks where Kirby’s mother is, and she stops the questioning there because she wants to make sure she has the correct details (about herself) before going any further. Kirby then tracks down her mom, who is an ex-Rockstar and a preacher of sorts in this reality. Rachel is overwhelmed to see Kirby because, apparently, they’ve not been on talking terms for quite some time. When they go back to Rachel’s place, we see how different it is from the one we saw in “Shining Girls” Episode 1. They reminisce about their rock concert days.
Dan interviews Gordie about Julia and her last days. Gordie talks about how Julia went from being one of the bravest people he had ever seen to being so scared that she couldn’t walk to her car by herself. Based on that conversation, Dan goes back to the police to check if Julia ever filed any stalking complaints. The officer says he can’t comment on that. So, Dan shifts his focus to the second victim, i.e., Kirby (or Sharon Leads, which is her original name). Dan says that Kirby thinks Julia’s killer is the same one that assaulted her. The officer says that Kirby didn’t have any memory after the attack, possibly due to the trauma. That’s why it’s a little hard to believe her. Dan asks again about Julia’s stalking complaints, and the officer reveals that Banik has been arrested for killing Julia, and it’s possible he was the one stalking her.
Kirby gets back home to Marcus to see him test out some new film stock. Over the course of their conversation, it seems like Marcus is a good husband and is growing on Kirby even though she has no memory of the life they’ve spent together. At Julia’s house, she gets harassed by Harper in the scariest way possible. Here’s what he does. He has put polaroids in certain places in Julia’s house. These polaroids contain photos of the exact moment Julia finds out that someone has taken photos of her looking at the photo and then looking outside to see who has taken the photo. It’s a hint towards the fact that Harper can move through time to both take the photos and place them and then make a call to Julia to let her know that he’s doing all this.
Dan confronts Kirby about her real name and details. To win his trust, Kirby shows pictures of her bruises to show what she had gone through and what was left out in the cover-up story. They have a long-drawn conversation to ensure they are on the same page. After that, they go to Julia’s house to try and talk to Julia’s father. Seeing no way to get into the house, Kirby pretends to be a friend of Julia’s and breaks in while Dan blends in with the folk outside. Kirby then makes a run for it with the recording of Julia’s 911 call, which has the voice of Harper saying that he’s everywhere, all at once, and with all of his victims, all the time. Dan sees Harper and thinks that he’s a family member willing to give a statement about Julia. He approaches Harper.
Dan and Kirby submit the story while Harper goes back to his house. He lies down on his bed, and when he shuts off the light, the radium-green outline of a woman appears beside him, thereby hinting that that’s where he killed Julia.
‘Shining Girls’ Episode 3: Recap And Ending Explained
The episode opens with an unconscious Dan traveling on the metro, blood dripping down his right hand and a long bill for all the drinks he has put into his body. He goes back to the Koki bar to get his keys. He sees that one of the keys is missing. When he gets into his car, the driver’s seat is misaligned, and the cassette of songs that he doesn’t listen to is present in the stereo player. At this point, I think we briefly see Harper in the car’s rear view mirror because I can recognize that fit (modern lingo for attire) anywhere now. Dan gets back home and tells his son, Freddy, to get ready for school. Dan then notices that some of the books on his rack are arranged horizontally instead of vertically. So, he fixes them without thinking too much about it. And as Dan and Freddy prepare to leave, we see Harper standing across the street, just staring, like the creepy man he is.
Kirby has thrown herself headfirst into the murder investigation, which indicates that Abby has given her and Dan the green light to pursue the killer behind Julia’s murder. Kirby says that she’s looking into cases where stalking has led to murder. When Kirby says she has come across over 130 cases, Abby seems impressed and congratulates her for doing such a great job. But then Abby brings up the topic of Dan and his drinking problem. Kirby sees that as a red flag because Dan’s drinking can derail the whole operation. After forcing Dan to look into the missing women’s cases, Kirby confronts Dan about his “leave of absence.” Dan assures Kirby that whatever Abby has told Kirby about him is not him, which could mean a myriad of things, with the most logical one being that he has left his drinking days behind him.
Dan and Kirby travel to the warehouse, storage department, whatever you like to call it, to check out the evidence of all the 130+ cases of women who were stalked and then killed. We briefly see Harper come close to killing a girl in a store, which is a scene to essentially confirm that there’s no reasoning behind Harper’s murders. He just likes to toy with people because he can. Then we return to Dan and Kirby, going through all the cases, crossing names, marking names, etc. And as the montage goes on and on and on, the intention behind it becomes clear. Yes, it’s a montage to advance the plot and show the work Dan and Kirby are putting into the manhunt. But it’s also a horrifying exemplification of how many women are killed, and their murders are left unsolved, rotting away in a storage facility.
Harper pays Freddy a visit and gives him a KitKat after creeping the hell out of him. Back at the storage facility, Dan gets drunk with the employees there. When he gets back to the evidence room, he sees that Kirby isn’t there. He panics and starts looking for Kirby, only to find her standing near the evidence bin related to her. Kirby insists on taking some of it with her. Dan assures her that when there’ll be a legal trial for her assault, they’ll be needing all that evidence, and that’s why Kirby can’t steal it. After some hesitation, Kirby restores the items and follows Dan back to his house to do some more investigation. While going over the details, Dan comes across Kirby’s journal and finds it weird that she keeps such intricate notes on what’s going around her. Kirby explains the case of her shifting realities, and Dan agrees to look past it and continue with their investigation.
The next day, Kirby wakes up to find that Dan has already gone to the office to start reporting on the case. Abby is convinced that there’s enough material to start a weekly column on the murders similar to Julia Madrigal’s. When Dan reveals that his source is Kirby, Abby gets angry. After some initial trepidation, Abby advises Dan to peg the weekly column as the story of a survivor finding her assaulter/serial killer. Dan says that’s not something he can force Kirby to do. Kirby goes to Marcus to pull out 20-year-old negatives of photos of the murders she and Dan are investigating. As Kirby finalizes the one that is extremely detailed, Marcus warns Kirby about Dan and his inhumane way of reporting.
After that, we see that Harper has somehow broken into Dan’s house and is apparently setting up the environment the way it was at the beginning of “Shining Girls” Episode 3 when Dan came in. Dan approaches Kirby to go along with the angle Abby pitched to him. Kirby refuses. Instead, she takes the highly detailed but 20-year-old picture to the Adler Planetarium to ask if the key in the photo belongs to someone who works there. The security guard over there says that it probably belongs to Jin-Sook, who is alive and well. Kirby gets a hold of her to inquire about the keys, and Jin-Sook says that she had lost the keys, but they were replaced. To which Kirby says that that’s not possible because the photo is 20 years old. Jin-Sook is utterly confused, and as she questions Kirby, something prompts Kirby to look behind and at the reflective surface. That’s when we see that Kirby’s hair is long, a change in her appearance that’s evidently only visible to her.
Marcus threatens Dan to not mess Kirby up. This sends Dan into a downward spiral. He drinks and parties all night at the Koki bar. Harper is also present there to silently observe him. He follows Dan to the subway, which is where Dan falls and cuts his hand. Harper starts asking questions about Julia Madrigal’s murder. Dan asks why he cares so much about this particular case. Harper says that the murder happened a few blocks away from his house, and as he has a son, he is worried about what’ll happen next. Dan asks who is taking care of his kid at the moment. Harper says he is with his ex. When Harper asks if the murderer is still around, Dan reassures Harper that his son is not the killer’s type. Harper notes that the murder has a type, which means he’s a serial killer. And as he proceeds to ask Dan about where he’s getting his information from, the train arrives. For a second, it seems Harper is going to push Dan onto the tracks. Instead, he saves him. And as Dan takes a seat himself, we realize that everything we’ve seen so far has been a prequel to the opening minutes of Episode 3 of “Shining Girls.”