The Horror of an Optimized Life

In The Girl Before, residents of an austere house are compelled to live according to its mysterious rules.

A still from 'The Girl Before'
Amanda Searle / HBO Max

The Girl Before, a sleek, sinister new miniseries on HBO Max, has all the hallmarks of the “girl, etc.” genre that’s dominated thrillers since Gillian Flynn published Gone Girl a decade ago. There’s a girl, actually a woman: Jane (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who becomes fixated on the fate of another girl (also actually a woman) who lived in her house before her. There’s a traumatic backstory for both women that slowly unfurls over four episodes, secrets, red herrings, enough wine to sink a freighter, more secrets, a seductive but controlling man bearing gifts. Pass the chardonnay, in other words. It’s women-driven crime-thriller time.

But what caught my attention, and kept it, was the house at the center. The premise of the show—based on a book by the British thriller writer J. P. Delaney—is that Jane, after experiencing a profound personal loss, moves into a minimalist home in London designed by a celebrated architect, Edward (David Oyelowo). An austere temple of polished concrete, glass, and angular light, 1 Folgate Street is offered at an affordable rent to tenants who meet the architect’s criteria and agree to live up to his standards. They have to agree to hundreds of arbitrary-seeming rules set by the architect: no smoking, no pets, but also no clutter, no books, no pictures on the walls, no children. The house is equipped with an AI that tracks the moods and movements of its residents. “Housekeeper,” as it’s called, is soon revealed to be more like Mrs. Danvers than Siri, programmed to have controlling tendencies and dark instincts of its own.

I’ll confess here that the house is evil plotlines are among my favorites. If you’ve scrolled through enough real-estate listings, you’ve likely come across a home that just seems wrong: bookshelves too tightly spaced to contain actual books, walls tilted strangely, windows too small or too narrow, stairs that lead nowhere. (The house I moved into last year contains what I immediately named the “murder basement,” complete with plastic bins I still haven’t dared peek into.) The great horror writer Shirley Jackson, in The Haunting of Hill House, described the way a cursed mansion’s “maniac juxtaposition, a badly turned angle, some chance meeting of roof and sky, turned” it “into a place of despair,” a description that conveys the sense that houses can be as vicious and as twisted as people. The mere appearance of the House of Usher, in Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 short story, pervades the narrator’s spirit with “insufferable gloom”; its “bleak walls” and “vacant eye-like windows” induce what he describes as “a sickening of the heart.” Whether the houses are actually malign or just preying on the darker impulses of the people who enter them is often left chillingly ambiguous.

The Girl Before, adapted by Delaney with Marissa Lestrade, and directed by Lisa Brühlmann, takes the old idea of the haunted house and inverts it. Instead of rooms filled with forbidding portraits and molding clutter, 1 Folgate Street contains hardly anything at all. It has no skeletons in its closets (it barely has closets at all—there’s a single one for clothes, a reminder that residents should exorcize everything from their lives except the perfect essentials). If the house contains evil, it’s found in the aesthetics. This is architecture created to control. “All buildings are designed to have an effect on people,” Edward tells Jane in the second episode. “Castles to intimidate. Churches to inspire. Why shouldn’t a house be designed to give you a framework to live by?” His philosophy is that people, like buildings, require rigid foundations to elevate themselves.

Architecture is a malign entity in 'The Girl Before'
Amanda Searle / HBO Max

The story itself is very silly, involving doppelgängers and death, a fleet of bad men (burglars, abusers, partners who insist on picking one’s outfits), even supposed ancient rites of human sacrifice. Jane’s story is juxtaposed with that of Emma (Jessica Plummer), the resident who lived in the house before her, whose life became similarly enmeshed with the home and its architect, and whose death is revealed fairly early on. The show draws parallels between the two women, but also fascinating, unspoken distinctions. Emma is younger, more enthusiastic, untidier, more idealistic; Jane is glacial, reticent, composed. The two women have professional disparities, too. Emma is a former assistant trying to break into marketing; Jane is a financial executive. Emma flouts the rules of the house with chaotic regularity; Jane greets them as a kind of liberating system, a freedom from the messiness of choice.

Inevitably, Jane finds traces of Emma within the house and begins to investigate what happened to her. Despite some of its more predictable twists, The Girl Before is riveting, even counterintuitive. Brühlmann, the director, takes material stuffed with clichés and gives it a subtler texture. The house, created by the production designer Jon Henson, is smooth and bloodless, a diagram of clean lines and monochromatism. The omnipresence of Housekeeper and its malevolent interventions—it blasts jarring music out of the blue, and withholds heat and electricity until certain obligations have been met—suggests an episode of Black Mirror; when Jane discovers a secret cupboard in one of the house’s walls, it reveals banks of servers humming and throbbing as though they’re alive. The show’s design is so deliberate that small details take on heavier significance. A bouquet of flowers in yellow and pink is an aggressively colorful statement, a man’s dirty sneakers a visual invasion of the ascetic concrete. Mbatha-Raw is so restrained and controlled as Jane that an eye roll from her can feel like an outburst. Oyelowo, similarly precise, is a terrifyingly charismatic and quiet authoritarian.

For all its more formulaic components, the show extends a well-worn novelistic trope, the house as a stand-in for the self, in a disquieting direction: Edward’s home is presented as an idealized version of a “better” self that residents should aspire to conform to. One of the reasons the female-driven crime story—currently being parodied by Kristen Bell on a Netflix series titled The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window—became so popular is for all the ways it explores a rot in the domestic sphere, a glut of homes secretly riddled with loathing and longing and ennui. In The Girl Before, both Emma and Jane move into 1 Folgate Street because disturbing events have destabilized their sense of home—what it means, what it should be. They’re drawn to the house for what it represents: the literal rendering of an optimized life. “Living in a different way, a different place, I think it’ll help,” Jane tells a friend who’s perturbed by her extensive new tenancy agreement. But escaping a haunted house—or your own darker impulses—is rarely as simple as leaving.