How 'Only Murders' put Meryl Streep in 'the most unexpected romance of the year'

Warning: The following contains major spoilers from the Season 3 finale of “Only Murders in the Building.”

John Hoffman gets nervous whenever Hulu releases a new “Only Murders in the Building” episode. “I don’t know why I get this way, because there’s nothing I can do at that point,” said the series’ co-creator and showrunner. “But when they’re dropping for the first time, I’m always in a panic.”

That’s a particularly understandable reaction to the Season 3 finale, now streaming, which features snippets of four musical numbers, identifies two homicidal culprits and, of course, reveals one new murder in a cliffhanger that will have fans eagerly awaiting Season 4.

It all begins with the confirmation that star actor Ben Glenroy (Paul Rudd) was poisoned by seasoned producer Donna (Linda Emond) after she read a soon-to-be-printed review of their new musical. “[It] would’ve killed the show, so I bought us some time,” she tells amateur sleuths Oliver (Martin Short), Charles (Steve Martin) and Mabel (Selena Gomez) when they corner her backstage. “I wasn’t trying to kill Ben, I was just trying to knock him on his ass.”

Of course, the poison didn’t kill Ben. It was a fall down the elevator shaft in our heroes’ killer New York City building, the Arconia. And at first, Donna confesses to this crime as well — after all, a bloody handkerchief found with the body is marked with her lipstick. Soon enough, though, we learn in a flashback that the handkerchief actually belongs to Donna’s dilettante son, Cliff (Wesley Taylor), and that he was fighting with Ben when the actor plunged to his death.

Mother and son alike are arrested after the curtain call on the musical’s tumultuous opening night — but it wouldn’t be an “Only Murders in the Building” finale without another murder. This time, the ill-fated character is none other than Charles’ longtime stunt double Sazz (Jane Lynch), who is shot while walking through Charles’ apartment. (Whether the killer meant to off Charles or Sazz remains a mystery.)

The Times caught up with Hoffman about whether Ben’s death was accidental or intentional, why Sazz was the next to go and what industry the fourth season very, very likely skewers.

The third season ended with not one but two murderers. Did you feel pressure to up the ante in this way?

It’s always part of the discussion in the room: “What haven’t we done before? What feels fresh, what feels earned?” And with two murderers, it’s then a question of, “Are they working together? Are they even aware of what the other person has done?”

I tend to be a fairly insecure writer, so I need to have something else underneath everything to have confidence in the story. This one had a personal connection: my mother passed away a year ago. So in looking at the skeleton of the story lines we were building across the season, underneath it all is this ode to motherhood. It was fun to play with that between Donna and Cliff, Loretta (Meryl Streep) and Dickie (Jeremy Shamos) and the insane “Death Rattle Dazzle” theme of a nanny protecting her children.

Neither Donna nor Cliff were purely evil in trying to murder Ben. As comical as they are, they were both just doing so to protect the other.

Exactly. I’ve never been interested in murder mystery stories with just a “bad guy,” I’m interested in the human story. This one doesn’t feel accidental to me. He’s not shyly grappling with the guy outside of those elevator doors, he’s in a real fury. All season, both of them seemed really surface-y, a bit like you could write them off…

So I get why, in that moment, [Cliff] would want to feel empowered and finally break free from his mother’s [overbearing] sensibility, but also to defend her. And then to have Meryl Streep singing “A nanny’s only duty is to protect her children” while the flip is happening. The son is taking over to protect his mother. And that’s the surprise of the season.

The finale also gives Loretta a happy ending, as she reunites with her son Dickie and talks of continuing her relationship with Oliver as her career takes off. Can you talk me through crafting her character’s arc?

The pitfall could have been, “It’s Meryl Streep in your show! Are you gonna give her enough to feel fulfilled?” I loved the prospect of her playing an actress who has never cracked success, and also in the most unexpected romance of the year. It felt like a new Meryl in some ways, a real opportunity. And she got the chance to fall in love with Marty Short. I don’t think many people saw that coming as a pairing…

I’ll tell you a story: During that ferry ride [in Episode 5] — God knows we wrote ourselves into a calamitous situation, shooting romantic scenes on a ferry in February in New York City when it’s gonna be 12 degrees below zero. I mean, what was I thinking? “Meryl will never come back, she will leave the show forever.” It’s the one and only time I will thank climate change, because it was 60 degrees on the night we shot that scene. I was very grateful for a stunning night out there. On our way back to the city, Marty said, “I’m gonna bring cosmos. John, you bring cheese and crackers, and we’re going to have a little party on the way back on the ferry.”

So they do this beautiful scene, and we’re all tipsy with our cosmos at 2 in the morning, and Meryl .just looks around and says, “I have to say, this is maybe my favorite location I’ve ever done. Well, OK, maybe it’s No. 2. No. 1 is when [Robert] Redford washed my hair in ‘[Out of] Africa.’”

As we were stepping off that boat, Meryl turned around, grabbed my hand and said, “Thank you for this. This romance, getting to do this at our age, where it’s not old in a way that’s twee, in a way that it’s not about age, that it makes perfect sense as two souls coming together. I honestly didn’t think there was this coming.”

So much of this show isn’t explicitly about age, even in its third season. Is that a conscious decision?

Yes. Oliver’s heart attack this season is the first time we’ve ever had any physical effect of age, but it really is driven by the stress of what’s going on with Loretta and the musical. It’s because before this show, I worked on “Grace and Frankie,” and there was a lot in that show that was very centered on age, so I felt like I had done that. And I also recognized quickly that Steve Martin and Martin Short are the younger spirits I know — they genuinely are, no question — and Selena Gomez is a beautiful old soul.

I have to say, it was a tough thing to write them as not on the same page this season. The audience loves that trio, and I hoped and prayed the audience would hang with us through those times. But the fight at the end of Episode 6 felt really essential, especially for Mabel to be the one standing there and saying, “I am fighting for you now! Why am I doing this?” because their coming back together feels so earned.

Speaking of Mabel, I admit that I initially suspected Ben Glenroy’s documentarian Tobert (Jesse Williams) as the season’s murderer. It was sweet that he asked her to come to Los Angeles with him in the end.

Right? That’s the twist: Tobert, who we’ve all been suspecting, is a guy who is just really interested in Mabel. And watching the episode last night, that silent moment of her behind the curtain, looking at Donna and Cliff while Loretta and Dickie are having that moment, her looks are just incredible as Mabel is putting everything together.

I don’t think it can be overstated: the task for Selena Gomez to find her way on a show with [a] legendary, 35-year-long duo is massive, and she makes that trio feel like better than their duo, in some ways.

Let’s talk about Ben’s dressing room moment in Episode 9: Paul Rudd vs. a (poisonous) Schmackary’s cookie. How did that wonderful scene come to be?

I had a bit of a feeling to change it up this season and drop the bread crumbs early, give people a gut feeling about one or two things here and there, and lean in more to the execution. So you may have suspected that he was talking to a cookie, but I don’t think people were prepared for the scene that played out, and it was thrilling to play with the reveal that this cookie is his bête noire, symbolic of his self-loathing. And whenever someone has a weakness that feels uncontrollable, it feels humanizing and heartbreaking, which I don’t think people expected from this character.

Paul and I talked about it beforehand, about how to get it to a place of realness — Ben writes that [message] up on the mirror for himself right before he’s supposed to go onstage. We did a few versions because it’s laugh-out-loud funny in many ways, but I wanted it to turn darker in a way that’s relatable. He really blew us away, and with Selena, Steve and Marty sitting on the couch right up close to him as it’s all happening. We have a very funny and lively crew, but the way everyone exited off the set that day was very, very quiet.

The season ends with the sudden death of Sazz. How could you?!

That choice was the brainchild of my partner producer Jess Rosenthal. When he first said it, I was immediately sad, and then I was like, “That’s really good.” Because it does something new for us — we’ve never done a beloved person in our victim situation, and it ups the stakes that we always need because, at our best, at least one of the trio feels a connection or responsibility [for the murder]. And because it’s someone so personal, it’ll be such a bonding thing after this season of division, like they’ve got to come together with more urgency right from the get-go.

Thankfully, the moment I told Jane Lynch about the possibility, she said, “I love it.” It’s hard to tell people they’re gonna die or that they’re the killer, but she was amazing about it. I’ve also loved the character and what Jane Lynch was doing with Sazz, so it delights me to be able to take the time with our victims that we do throughout a season where we see who she was, what ways we can make greater use of her and love her more.

With the show already renewed for a fourth season, do you have an eventual endgame in mind?

We’ve definitely talked about it. I don’t have a firm idea; I’ve never been that guy who sees the series the whole way through in my head. The best I can do is go season by season, which is a big enough task, and leave it open to learn things along the way.

So looking at these bread crumbs over the years: you’ve already set seasons in the podcast world and the theater world. Sazz being Charles’ longtime stunt double on that series, it makes sense that Season 4 is in the TV world.

I mean … I … well … that was good! I do think what you’re saying makes sense. Again, it may be certain ways in which those crumbs fall in certain directions that you are going to think, “OK, I know where this is going,” but hopefully we surprise you in the way we approach it.

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