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What went wrong with Netflix’s The Watcher?

Fresh off their controversial Netflix series Dahmer, Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan have come out with another miniseries, The Watcher, which has rubbed many audiences the wrong way. Based on a true story, the series follows the Brannock family, who begin receiving threatening letters from a sender known only as “the Watcher” after they move into a new house in Westfield, New Jersey. The Brannocks also find themselves tormented by their neighbors. who refuse to respect their privacy, leading them to believe that one, if not all, of them is the Watcher.

Despite currently ranking as Netflix’s No. 1 show, The Watcher has premiered to mixed reviews, scoring 50% from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, with an average audience score of 36%. The series has redeeming qualities, including an intriguing premise, stellar performances, and frightening scares. But as the story progresses, the foundation starts to crumble under the weight of its own ambition. The result is a convoluted and far-fetched mystery with a lackluster conclusion that no one really likes.

Warning: The following article contains many plot spoilers for The Watcher.

What happened to the Brannock family

Bobby Cannevale in The Watcher standing outside his house with a letter in hand, looking scared.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

In order to break down the things that went wrong with this popular miniseries, one must first understand everything that the Brannocks discover throughout the series. After receiving multiple letters from the Watcher, Nora and Dean Brannock find leads that imply that their neighbors are part of a blood cult that wants to sacrifice their children, Ellie and Carter. They also learn that one of the house’s previous owners, John Graff, who received letters from “the Watcher” and disappeared after murdering his family, might be the new Watcher and a member of the supposed blood cult (which possibly masquerades as a historical preservation society). They also suspect Nora’s realtor friend, Karen, of trying to get them to sell her the house by scaring them away with those mysterious letters.

The family discovers a girl with pigtails who looks like Graff’s dead daughter getting into Dean’s bed while he’s asleep, as well as a series of underground tunnels connected to their basement. These discoveries mean that either the house is haunted by Graff’s dead family or someone snuck in dressed like her through the underground tunnel. Lastly, Nora and Dean suspect that the Watcher is Roger Kaplan, an English teacher/architecture enthusiast who created a popular assignment for his students to write letters to houses they like. Though the couple confronts Kaplan about this, they find no proof that he’s the culprit, and the Brannocks are forced to move back into the city.

There are too many subplots

A man and a woman stand next to each other in The Watcher.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The Watcher presents many, many, many subplots with a plethora of possible answers for what’s happening at the Brannocks’ house. But this proves to be the show’s downfall, as it seems to skip from one storyline to the next without presenting a coherent narrative. For instance, Dean’s 16-year-old Ellie starts dating the 19-year-old Dakota. When Dean forbids it out of suspicion that Dakota is the Watcher, Ellie gets revenge by going online and falsely saying he called the cops on Dakota for being a Black man. The audience is led to believe that this act will ruin the family’s lives, but the Brannocks all recover relatively quickly, and Dean and Nora almost immediately forgive Ellie, even though what she did was absolutely not OK.

Nora also thought Dean had an affair and she declares that she is filing for divorce as a result. In the next episode, she even learns that Dean wrote one of the Watcher’s letters in order to help his case, which should’ve been a reason for divorce as he lied to his family and intentionally frightened them even more. Instead, Nora forgives him while still leaving a divorce a possibility after they solve the case, but it’s never brought up again in the end.

The show sweeps many of its twists under the rug as quickly as they appear so it can continue exploring the mystery of the Watcher, which makes them seem like they were only meant for mere shock value, with little bearing on the overall story. They also cast the Brannock family as more unlikeable and unrealistic, making it more difficult for the audience to be invested in them as the series continues. What starts as an intriguing web of lies and secrets ends up looking more like a tangled mess of abandoned storylines and red herrings that are more frustrating than entertaining.

That groaner of an ending

Image used with permission by copyright holder

In the finale, Dean and Nora’s private investigator, Theodora, claims that she was the Watcher and that she orchestrated everything to claim her dream house. But shortly after that, the couple learns that she lied so they can finally have peace of mind knowing who the Watcher is. Of course, the audience knew this was a lie, as her story didn’t explain why Grsff came in through the house’s underground tunnel, which left this fake twist not having as much power as it should have had.

Thus, the series ends with the Brannocks never finding out who the Watcher is, but Dean can’t move on with his life without knowing the truth. Dean is last seen watching the house in Westfield, waiting to see if the new homeowners receive a letter from the Watcher. Lying to his wife about where he is, Dean continues to pursue the truth, only for the show to reveal that Nora is watching him too. So now a watcher is watching another watcher watching for the Watcher. Yeah, it’s a lot.

In real life, the Watcher’s identity is still unknown (yes, this series is actually based on a real-life case), and the show’s creators understandably wanted to have the series end similarly. The conclusion fits with the show’s message about the dangers of obsessing over an unsolved mystery, as Dean’s preoccupation with uncovering the truth continues to haunt him just like the Watcher did. However, after this series built up its own fiction involving a creepy historical preservation society, brutal murders, a possible haunting, and a probable blood cult, what’s one more piece of fiction if it makes for a good ending?

It’s bizarre that The Watcher‘s Murphy, who isn’t exactly known for subtlety or a fidelity for the truth in his shows or feature films, would find altering the ending to be too much. This is a man, after all, who made real-life serial killer Richard Ramirez an immortal demon in American Horror Story: 1984 and thought James Corden would be a likable lead in the awful musical The Prom.

How The Watcher should have ended

Two women sit at a table talking in The Watcher.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

There was certainly another way for this show to end so that its creators and audience could have their cake and eat it too. Much like an episode of The Twilight Zone, the series could have ended by providing a more concrete answer that could be based in reality without actually saying it’s correct by revealing the Watcher’s identity to the audience, but not to the Brannocks.

The most likely truth behind the Watcher in the series seemed to be that Graff was trying to have Dean continue his violent legacy à la The Shining by driving him to kill his family and offering their blood to the preservation society. In the show’s twisted mythology, that would make some sense, even if it’s outrageous and barely believable.

Instead, the show ends with no answer and too many unanswered questions. Who was the girl that slept in Dean’s bed? Who was the Watcher that sent letters to Graff? Who was the Watcher that drove Karen out of the house?

The Watcher | Official Trailer | Netflix

The show’s ending could have worked if it was setting up a second season because then it would have left more room for some questions to be answered in the future. However, this season of The Watcher looks to be a one-and-done deal, and its conclusion remains too ambiguous to satisfy a mass audience, which always hungers for closure at the end of a mystery series. Remember that controversial season 1 finale of The Killing, which didn’t resolve its central mystery? Murphy appears to have forgotten it, and the painful lesson that show’s creator, Veena Sud, learned as she faced viewer backlash.

The end result is a show that had a promising beginning, a messy middle, and an unresolved ending that no one is really satisfied with. It’s a shame because like most of Murphy’s shows, there was potential for The Watcher to be truly watchable and memorable. Instead, it joins Hollywood, Ratched, and Halston as another Ryan Murphy production that left a bad taste in viewers’ mouths.

The Watcher is currently streaming on Netflix. Don’t say we didn’t warn you.

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Anthony Orlando
Anthony Orlando is a writer/director from Oradell, NJ. He spent four years at Lafayette College, graduating CUM LAUDE with a…
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