Lauren Beukes’ 2013 speculative murder mystery The Shining Girls has some pretty solid hooks: A serial killer, a time-traveling house, a list of “shining girls” to murder across decades, and the victim who survives. For many readers, that was enough to express how impossible it would be to catch such a killer if he could just open a door into another time. But for the 2022 Apple TV+ adaptation, the source material was missing a final piece to really depict the hopelessness of trying to chase someone through time and space. Then series creator Silka Luisa found the final lead that ties it all together: create more doors into other realities, without viewers—or even the series’ protagonist—knowing which worlds and times are real.
Just like in the book, wannabe reporter Kirby Mazrachi (Elisabeth Moss) is an archivist at the Chicago Tribune trying to earn her right to a byline. It’s 1993, four years since the brutal attack from a stranger who inexplicably seemed to know her, who gutted her like a pig but didn’t manage to finish the job. When a recent homicide matches Kirby’s distinctive scars—including the killer’s macabre M.O. of leaving an anachronistic object inside his disemboweled victims—Kirby must offer up her past trauma as credibility to confirm the existence of serial killer Harper Curtis (Jamie Bell).
The only problem is, Kirby’s present isn’t even hers: Every day she wakes up and scans a list of facts she’s written for herself (her name, address, even what kind of pet she has), because she may start the day living with a cat named Grendel and her hot mess of a mother, Rachel (Amy Brenneman), but she may end with Grendel being a dog and Rachel a born-again Christian. During the workday, Kirby might leave the archives to run some information upstairs to the newsroom, where she longs to be, and when she returns her desk has moved…and has always been there, so she’s the one who’s imagining that it was ever in another spot.
In the novel, it’s only Harper who can move through time thanks to his mysterious home, while Kirby is stuck on a linear track—like a twisted The Time Traveler’s Wife dynamic. But the TV series has granted its heroine her own version of time travel, even if it’s more of a sideways shift through parallel universes. This brilliant change from the book immediately destabilizes both Kirby and the viewer; if you’re not paying close attention, you’ll also miss the moments where her entire world turns on a change, big or small, and yet again Kirby must reorient her worldview without anyone noticing that she’s off-balance. But once Kirby is in pursuit of the truth, her rapidly-shifting present makes her an unreliable witness and an untrustworthy reporter.
Because the show follows multiple perspectives, viewers catch on before Kirby does that Harper must have some impact on how her present changes. As we see him stalk various “shining girls”—those burning with potential that he wants to snuff out—his movements match her stumbles into alternate universes. Even as Kirby tries to help Tribune reporter Dan Velazquez (Wagner Moura) investigate Harper’s murder of Julia Madrigal, things start changing in such substantial ways—like discovering that she’s married to her coworker Marcus (Chris Chalk) despite hardly knowing him—that her regular coping mechanisms are becoming woefully inadequate for managing.
She was prepared for one item on her list to change each day, not for entire histories to sprout up that she doesn’t remember. And despite her stubbornness in reminding herself that she knows who she is, the growing evidence otherwise—photographs, new haircuts, contradictions from Rachel and Marcus and others—make that doubt fester. Pulling evidence, like the matchbook Harper left in her body—from the Bee Happy Bar, which doesn’t even exist yet in 1993—only further makes her question her sanity.
It would seem that Kirby is being gaslit. Because by the time she has to trust Dan with revealing her trauma, it’s no longer just about whether Kirby feels comfortable accessing the past; now everything that happened to her is called into question.
Book Kirby gave off a “plucky girl reporter” vibe, the novice who wouldn’t get her chance to break the big story until she had the intel no one else could, and the mentor figure in Dan to give her that platform. He’s got the decades of reporting experience; she’s got the personal connection and a name that sounds perfectly dreamed up for a book character.
The adaptation cleverly subverts the very put-on nature of Kirby’s moniker by turning it into an alias. Kirby isn’t actually Kirby—or at least, she wasn’t always the woman we meet in the pilot. As she begins sharing details of her assault with Dan, she reveals that she was born Sharon Leeds; even after she survived, Rachel still calls her by it. She changed her name, first and last, at some point during her recovery, presumably so her would-be killer would have no chance of ever finding her.
Yet in doing so, the adaptation also highlights how this is a damning misstep for Kirby’s credibility. After all, how can you believe a woman who isn’t who she says she is?
It helps to have Elisabeth Moss in the role, which is an almost too natural a progression from Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale and the 2020 gender-swapped remake of The Invisible Man. Moss has played gaslit women out the wazoo, from June being beaten and brainwashed into submission based on her fertility by Gilead’s Aunts, Wives, and even fellow Handmaids; but especially as Cecilia, who escapes an abusive partner, only for him to don an invisible suit and stalk her into her new life. Despite feeling the invisible man’s eyes on her in every room, Cee’s trauma responses paint her as hysterical, unhinged, and even dangerous to her loved ones.
Kirby tries to confide in Marcus, thinking that maybe the universe has a reason for showing her the reality in which they are married. Instead, he turns on her… in part due to Dan’s own undependability. His past is pockmarked by blackouts and other episodes of substance abuse, to the point where only a few people at the paper really trust him.
As we see in the nonlinear episode “Overnight,” Dan hardly trusts himself. The episode’s opening, with a disoriented Dan bleeding on the el train, implies that Harper may have used some time travel shenanigans to not only gaslight the disgraced reporter, but to stab him as well Yet as the clock rewinds and the action unfolds, it becomes clear that this was all Dan: He followed some leads to a bar, where a casual daytime drink slid into him getting fucked up. Even with Harper lurking there watching him, Dan manages to fall onto some broken glass all on his own.
Yet not even Dan can immediately grasp it when Kirby tries to explain about things changing from one moment to the next. They have to be seen to be believed—but it’s not Dan who will validate Kirby.
While Kirby’s changes at first occur subtly, blink-and-you’ll-miss moments throughout the first four episodes, they’re best visualized in the incredible visual set piece at the end of “Attribution”: Kirby and Harper come face-to-face for the first time at an empty laundromat that will eventually become the Bee Happy Bar.
But as he tries to finish what he started on that beach, and she surprises him by fighting back, they’re both startled to see the laundromat transform with every punch: first the wall of machines is replaced by wallpaper, which keeps changing each time Harper slams her head against it, and he looks well and truly rattled.
“Did you do that?” he demands, but she’s focused on finding an identifying marker, ripping open his shirt to see his military tattoo. The space itself seems to respond to their actions, as her search for a way to identify him makes the wall transform into a mirror—which they then crash through into the now-renovated yet empty bar. And when Kirby takes her opportunity to run away, she turns back only to see the Bee Happy Bar full of warm light and chattering patrons, as if it’s been open forever.
For the first time, Kirby isn’t the only one who sees the world change. And with that, the balance of power shifts: It’s not just the time traveler who can gaslight the victim, but the victim who might possess the power to change the time traveler’s reality as well.
In Beukes’ The Shining Girls, the house cracks the case open for Kirby and Dan; once they know their serial killer’s how, they can use it against him. But the house is a secondary detail for the Shining Girls TV series, not even revealed until two-thirds through the series in the sixth episode, “Bright,” and then not explained all that clearly. The crux of this version of the story is constantly unlocking, over and over again, the mysteries of each shifting reality.
It’s not a perfect adaptation. What Shining Girls teaches us is that there’s a constant trade. The novel devoted chapters to each of the eponymous women, revealing the crucial positions they might have occupied in history if only Harper hadn’t gotten to them. Instead, the miniseries gives all of those disparate portraits of potential just to Kirby; we see all of the versions of herself she could have been, all the half-lives she’s experienced or guessed at or adopted. Without them, she wouldn’t have a hope of finally catching up to the man who would have killed her when she had just one life to cut short.
Natalie Zutter is a Brooklyn-based playwright and pop culture critic whose work has appeared on Tor.com, NPR Books, Den of Geek, and elsewhere. Find her on Twitter @nataliezutter.