AppleTV+’s new crime drama Defending Jacob is a twisty turny tale which focuses on a father (Chris Evans) whose 14-year-old son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is accused of murdering one of his classmates. The show keeps you guessing right up to the end (and beyond) about exactly what did happen to Ben (Liam Kilbreth), to Hope (Jessi Case), with O’Leary (William Xifaras) and Billy Barber (J.K. Simmons) and of course what the future holds for Andy, Laurie (Michelle Dockery) and Jacob.
Here we break down the ending of Defending Jacob, including how it differs from the book.
Did Jacob kill Ben?
The fact is we just don’t know. Andy threw away Jacob’s knife so it was never tested for Ben’s DNA. Jacob says he didn’t do it but he also wrote a story which sounded like it could have been a description of what happened. Jacob’s fingerprint is on Ben’s jacket but Jacob says that got there when he found the body but didn’t tell anyone. Jacob’s online habits are pretty odd, it’s true, but liking weird stuff on the internet does not make you a killer.
Did Leonard Patz kill Ben?
Sad times, we don’t know! Patz (Daniel Henshall) had pictures of Ben on his phone and a history of paedophilia. He may have told local bad boy Matt McGrath (Hale Lytle) that he was interested in someone called Ben while he was propositioning Matt but Matt’s hardly a reliable witness having already lied to the police once, and he doesn’t turn up for Jacob’s trial.
We see that Leonard writes the suicide note confessing to killing Ben. However, the tight focus of the shot means that it’s not possible to see if anyone else is in the room coercing him. It’s deliberately ambiguous. Could Patz really have been forced to write that suicide note without more pleading, or force on screen? Who knows.
Did O’Leary kill Patz?
Yep, once again, we don’t know! Andy tells his father Billy over the phone that he thinks Patz did it. Billy pointedly asks Andy if he is sure, which might be an indicator that he intends to do something about it. O’Leary is his right hand man on the outside and we know he’s been tasked with looking out for the Barber family but that does not mean he murdered Patz.
Though police say there were some anomalies at the scene of Patz’ death they do rule it a suicide and Jacob is exonerated. Would it really be that easy to fake a man’s suicide by hanging? Surely Patz would have struggled, or left other evidence, something in the note perhaps to suggest he was being coerced?
When Andy asks his father if he did it, he repeatedly denies all knowledge albeit in a slightly stilted way. Later when the family are in Mexico Andy drunkenly tells Laurie he thinks his dad was responsible. But when Laurie asks him who else knows he says nobody knows. He’s drunk, and up until now has been completely unwilling to admit that he ever had doubts over Jacob’s innocence, even when Laurie expressed her fears. It’s perhaps not surprising but also not indicative of veracity that it would only be after the trial, when Jacob isn’t at risk of going to prison and Andy is fully smashed, that he’d drop his guard.
Did Laurie try to kill Jacob?
This we do know – in the TV show at least. Yes, she did. We see Laurie speeding up the car more and more hysterically asking Jacob if he killed Ben. He says no, and then he says yes, but neither answer is reliable since he’s afraid for his life. She then swerves and crashes them headlong into the side of a bridge. She may not have specifically been trying to kill him – or indeed both of them – but the crash wasn’t an accident. That’s one of the plot points that’s been altered from the book – more on that later.
So what does that mean for the Barbers?
We don’t know… But we can guess. If Jacob survives (and that’s not a given) he will know that his mother believes he’s a murderer and tried to kill him. Laurie expresses concern at the end of the final episode that Jacob might not believe it was an accident – does this mean she’s forgotten what she did? Possibly, but unlikely. The bleaker ending is that he’ll know what she did, she’ll know he knows, and Andy will continue to willfully refuse that it was anything but an accident. It’s officially been ruled an accident in court after Andy testifies saying, “It was raining. She was speeding. It was an accident.” So what if Jacob was actually innocent all along? Not only does he now know that his mother doesn’t believe him, he also knows she tried to kill him which no one in the world will believe. And if he’s guilty? It’s almost a fitting punishment – shared secrets between Jacob and his mother that they both know the other is a killer and neither will ever be believed.
How about the murder gene?
We learn that Jacob does not have this gene, but his grandfather and father do. His grandfather is a convicted killer but his father is an upstanding member of the community, albeit one with a tendency towards reckless behaviour. Jacob does have some other genetic traits, we learn, that make him predisposed towards some anti-social behaviours. Conversely though, at the end it’s his mother who is an attempted murderer. Jacob may not have inherited the murder gene from his father’s line, but he may have inherited traits from his mother – it may be the case that both he and Laurie are capable of murder.
Is the ending the same as in the book?
It is not! The book is told from Andy’s point of view while the show has made changes to retain the spirit of the ambiguity without being tied to an unreliable narrator. In the book Hope – the girl Jacob meets in Mexico (Jamaica in the novel) – washes up dead on the beach. Could Jacob have been responsible? Is that red mark on his bathing trunks really ketchup, or could it be blood? Again, it’s completely ambiguous. However, Laurie becomes increasingly preoccupied with the idea of Jacob’s guilt and on a drive, crashes the car into a tunnel, killing Jacob and leaving herself in a critical condition. It’s told through Andy’s eyes and it’s not clear whether the crash is an accident or not, though Andy refuses to incriminate Laurie at all. Are his wife and son both murderers? Or are the family just the victims of circumstance? The book and the show end differently but both come with a crushing blow.