Let’s Talk About That Unsettling End to The Watcher
The following story contains spoilers for the ending of Netflix’s The Watcher.
As soon as I heard about Netflix’s The Watcher—a based-on-a-true story horror/mystery series based on a 2018 piece published in The Cut—I was sold. A real-life haunted house story, set in New Jersey—where I grew up—and starring Bobby Cannavale and Naomi Watts, two of my very favorite actors? Hard to ask for much more. But after learning that the case upon which the series was set was never solved, my enthusiasm waned a bit. I’m the guy whose favorite true crime documentary of all-time is The Jinx—because it’s the only one, really, with a sturdy ending. It’s part of the reason why I’ve actually found myself way more into watching movies and short limited series of late as opposed to long-running traditional television: it can be nice and rewarding to start something, finish it, and feel like you’ve gotten a beginning, middle, and end. Loose ends can be frustrating.
Still, I gave The Watcher a shot—and I’m glad I did. While the show doesn’t make up an explicit ending or a real answer to any of the questions presented, it does tell a fairly focused story—a family moves into their dream New Jersey home only for bizarre letters to begin coming in and strange things to begin to happen—and manages to captivate along the way. There have been lots of critiques of co-creator Ryan Murphy and his numerous TV shows through the years, but no one has ever doubted the man’s ability to make watchable TV. And The Watcher is without question one of his best efforts.
The show has one of the best casts of the year, led by Naomi Watts and Bobby Cannavale with Jennifer Coolidge, Margot Martindale, Richard Kind, Noma Dumezweni, Christopher McDonald, and Mia Farrow among those in supporting roles. And at only 7 episodes long—all coming in comfortably under an hour—it’s to succinct in structure alone to come off the rails in the same way that many other Ryan Murphy-produced projects tend to. For a story about a stalker at best and a haunted house at worst, The Watcher is relatively grounded.
Things worth considering as we discuss the ending of The Watcher: the series is only loosely based the real events documented in the story that ran on The Cut. And the case presented in that story was never solved. Therefore, Ryan Murphy and friends does not give his version of events any definitive answer to the questions either. But it does give us lots to think about. And that’s where we are now.
So… who was The Watcher in Netflix’s The Watcher?
Before we dive too deep into any explanation here, we should probably make an important qualification—any speculation within the rest of this story is based on the events that Netflix presented in the series The Watcher, which is only loosely based on the loose events. We are reading from the fictional depiction, not the real events.
In The Watcher, we never get a definitive answer as to who The Watcher, writing letters to Dean (Cannavale), Nora (Watts), and the rest of the Brannock family was. For a brief moment in the finale, it seemed like Theodora (Dumezweni) was confessing to everything; but you can suspect in the moment those pieces don’t quite add up, and that suspicion is confirmed only a few moments later.
And while we never get a definitive answer, there seem to be two main theories that the show wants us to run with. And the real answer could be either of these, both of these, or, sorry, neither of these.
The first possibility that the show has planted the seeds for us to consider is that being “The Watcher” is essentially a curse that is handed down from owner to owner of 657 Boulevard…outside of Karen the devious realtor (Jennifer Coolidge), who was only in the house for 48 hours before selling for a major loss. The story presented mid-series tells us that John Graff (Joe Mantello) lived in the house in 1995, and got the same letters that Dean and Nora got, before, long story short, losing his mind, killing his entire family, and disappearing off the face off the earth. And yet we see him right in Dean’s kitchen in present day. Dean has no idea if what he’s seen is who he thinks it is—but we see “John” in Pearl’s (Mia Farrow) preservation society meeting, alongside Jasper (Joe Mantello), Big Mo (Margot Martindale), and Roger Kaplan (Michael Nouri), who recognizes him from the past. Clearly, this is John Graff, and he’s been around.
We also at the end of the show see Dean lingering outside the house of the new 657 Boulevard owner, and he specifically looks at the new owner going through his mail. At this point, it’s become clear to us that Dean isn’t getting over The Watcher any time soon; even after being chided by Nora for not moving on, he brings it up unprompted in his therapy sessions. He then lies to Nora about being at a job interview; he’s covering something up. And we know from earlier in the season that he’s got experience writing at least one Watcher letter (in an attempt to scare his wife into selling the house, as the family was in deep financial trouble).
If being “The Watcher” was some sort of curse that was passed down through owners of 657 Boulevard—because they simply were haunted, and could not get over the experience—that would make a lot of sense.
The other possibility is that Dean and Nora’s Watcher was always John Graff, and that he got some semblance of assistance from, most likely, Pearl. We saw Graff in the tunnels beneath 657, running and meeting up with Pearl after the Brannocks discovered the tunnel passageways beneath their house.
Through this reading, Dean wasn’t looking at the new owner going through his mail to see if he got the letter that he (Dean) had written, but rather to see if the new owner was doomed to the same misfortune that he and his family had—with the arrival of a first Watcher letter.
Either way, the Watcher’s presence proves to be a curse. Whether it’s an everlasting one is anyone’s guess.
What was with the pigtails girl?
That is deliberately left unexplained by the show, and something we have no real answer for. Given that there was a tunnel underneath the house, that the neighbors knew about, the only logical explanation would be that someone knew Dean was home alone, and planned to set him up to look bad and drive him out.
Who could that have been? It would make sense for it to be Karen, as she was constantly trying to get her hands on the house—but she was later scared out herself, making it less likely. Our money would be on Pearl and John, or Big Mo and Mitch, or all of the above—they didn’t like the changes Dean and Nora were making to the house, and wanted to come up with a way to get them out of the house. And publicly ruining Dean—or at least driving a stake into his marriage—was one way to do that.
Who was The Watcher when Karen was in 657 Boulevard?
This feels fairly straightforward. While we don’t know who The Watcher was at basically any other time throughout the course of the show, The Watcher for Karen was almost certainly Nora—possibly with some assistance. When Nora first confronts Karen at 657 Boulevard, she’s gotten into the house without Karen’s knowledge, which likely means she came in through the tunnels. The two talk it out and Nora pisses Karen off enough to essentially have Karen kick her out—but not before Nora literally tells her she’ll be watching.
Nora knows that Karen is, essentially, a miserable and selfish person. And while she doesn’t know that the lazy police chief won’t help her when she calls, she’s smart enough to guess that that little fling likely has run its course by now. Nora knows all about the house at this point, and while we don’t know that she knew about any sort of trap door in the stairs, we can reasonably assume that she figured it out. All of which is to say: Nora got Karen scared. And she got her out of there.
What does the final scene mean?
The final scene of The Watcher could be interpreted in a few different ways. What we see explicitly: the new owners of 657 Boulevard are moved in, and Dean is one of many (all the kooky neighbors we’ve come to know through the series) outside looking—watching. He meets the new owner, telling a lie—that he lives nearby and loves the house. He then watches as the new owner flips through his mailbox. We have no idea at this point whether he sees the new owner grab a letter that he, Dean—now, perhaps the new Watcher?—wrote, or whether he simply returned, out of morbid curiosity, to see if the new owner had received the same letter that his family did.
We then see Dean get a call from Nora. He lies, talking about a job interview that obviously did not happen. We then see Dean drive away, with Nora right behind him. Does she know that Dean was lying to her and she’s been tailing him, or does she simply have the same morbid curiosity that he did? Again—left up to our interpretation. Either way: the Brannock family is not at peace.
There’s one much, much darker read that crossed my mind at the end of The Watcher. In the story of John Graff that Dean learned midseason, part of what drove John to insanity was not having a job, and lying to his family about where he was and what he was doing all day. Here we see Dean following the exact same path. That’s after we also saw Dean exhibiting conservative behaviors—like John—when it came to his daughter, Ellie, all season long. It’s a particularly grim read, but if Dean’s road to madness continues, it’s possible history could repeat itself. And that might be the biggest The Watcher horror of all.
Evan is the culture editor for Men’s Health, with bylines in The New York Times, MTV News, Brooklyn Magazine, and VICE. He loves weird movies, watches too much TV, and listens to music more often than he doesn’t.