Culprits Season 1 Episode 1 Recap – A stately premiere lays the blueprint for a big heist

By Jonathon Wilson
Published: November 8, 2023 (Last updated: 5 weeks ago)
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Culprits Season 1 Episode 1 Recap
Gemma Arterton as Dianne Harewood in Culprits | Image via Hulu/Disney
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Summary

A stately premiere spends a lot of time on set-up for later, but it’s anchored by a compelling performance from Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and shows glimmers of imagination and excitement.

There was before, and then there’s after. This is the narrative framing conceit employed by Culprits Season 1, with Episode 1, “Change of Use”, being divided between two distinct timelines three years apart. “NOW” introduces us to the protagonist, Joe, and a masked killer assassinating wealthy stuntmen in remote Italian villas, and “BEFORE” explains how everything about Joe’s cozy suburban life is a lie.

This gimmick works in the episode but makes a recap difficult to format since the events aren’t chronologically presented. What’s worse is that one can’t even sensibly collate the flashback and present-day sequences, since clues in the latter are contextualized in the former, and twists in one timeline are set up to be paid off in the other. So, this might jump around a little. Stick with me.


Culprits Season 1 Episode 1 Recap

Luckily, “Change of Use” opens with a lot of “NOW” sequences, so it’s easier to keep track.

NOW — Meet Joe Petrus

The first thing is a cold open in Lombardy, Italy, where we see a gunman with thinning white hair and eyes of different colors execute a man in a villa while wearing a dangerously gaudy tracksuit. This isn’t contextualized until the very end of the episode, but it’s pretty important, so remember it.

After that, we catch up with Joe Petrus in Washington State. Joe’s fairly new in town. He plays doting stepfather to his partner Jules’s children and has bought an old ramshackle hardware store that he intends to turn into a bistro. The episode’s title, “Change of Use”, comes from his efforts to change the function of the dilapidated building and acquire a liquor license for it, which is made more difficult by the fact he’s Black. (The old white men in charge of granting the authorization don’t say this aloud, but it’s very much implied.)

Culprits does a good job of highlighting that something’s up with Joe. He’s overly cautious — even paranoid. When he sees a poster on a noticeboard warning that some local forest is being cleared to accommodate a highway extension, he visibly panics about it. And when Jules borrows his copy of The Poems of Langston Hughes for his book club — “They made me read Hillbilly Elegy,” he offers as justification — we see quite clearly that the front page has been torn out.

When Joe sneaks out of the house and drives off into the night, we cut to our first “BEFORE” sequence in London, England.


BEFORE — Gangs of London

Three years prior, Joe was a driver for a London crime boss named Don Bardwell. This sequence exists to facilitate an action sequence, but it’s just as well since it’s a cool sequence. Joe doesn’t just have a secretive past, he was a legitimate killer. Bardwell is lured into an ambush under the guise of peace talks with three other London mobsters, and Joe has to kill three of them just to get him out of there.


AFTER — Hit-and-run

Back in the present day, we find out Joe has snuck off to break into the fenced-off forest that’s being cleared for the highway. He climbs a particularly giant tree and pulls open a hatch, revealing the trunk has been hollowed out to accommodate a giant bag that is so heavy we can barely hoist it back over the fence and to the car. Naturally, the bag contains bundles of cash.

On his way back home, a suspiciously damaged stop sign results in a hit-and-run. A speeding car hits another at an intersection, sending it spinning into Joe’s vehicle, popping the trunk. The driver who caused the collision speeds off — Joe notes the license plate — and the other driver remains unconscious, her face plastered into the airbag. Joe hides the bag of money in a nearby dumpster and calls the police about the incident.

Naturally, Joe is breathalyzed at the scene and treated as a suspect. Since he’s now a key witness in what could potentially become a manslaughter case, he’s taken to the station to make an official statement. Again, nobody says that he’s treated this way because he’s Black, but it’s once again implied.


BEFORE — David and Dianne

Joe’s name three years ago was David Marking. While out on a run, he’s approached by a man named Fixer who tells him that Dianne Harewood would like to meet him. She does so at the Tate Britain, in front of Mark Rothko’s Seagram murals. Joe’s efforts to save Don Bardwell attracted Dianne’s attention. She’s putting a team together to pull off a big job that’ll be incredibly lucrative but also attract so much heat that everyone who participates will have to leave their lives behind forever and reinvent themselves elsewhere.

Joe isn’t entirely keen on the idea, but seven figures is a lot.


NOW — Dumpster Diving

While being interviewed by the police, Joe recalls the license plate of the hit-and-run driver, and the cop warns him that he better be sure about it. You know what that means — it’s someone influential. But the victim in the other car may never walk again, so it’s better to be honest.

After being dropped home by the police — which they insist on — Joe heads out to retrieve the money. However, the dumpster has just been emptied, so he has to chase the garbage truck around like that mission in Insomniac’s Marvel’s Spider-Man. Joe hits lands on the idea of climbing into a dumpster further along the route so he’s deposited into the back of the truck. You’d think this would be played for laughs, but it isn’t. It’s closer to the trash compactor scene from Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope. After Joe finally retrieves the money, he understandably spews his guts up all over the floor.


BEFORE — Inside Man

In the past, Joe is approached in the gym where he works as a personal trainer by Detective Sergeant Mike Salanger, who takes him to a safe house to meet DI Kerry Darge. The police have a pitch.

Since the authorities are watching Dianne, they know she’s planning something. They know she wants Joe to be a part of it, and they know Joe killed three men in defense of a career criminal. That’ll do as leverage. Darge wants Joe to accept the job and play double-agent for the police in exchange for immunity. He refuses.


NOW — Rothko

In the present day, Joe buries the cash under the floor of the hardware store and returns home to Jules with a vague story about the hit-and-run, and no mention of the money. It’s worthy of note that there’s a Mark Rothko painting hung on the wall in the bedroom, suggesting that Joe knows a little more about art that he was letting on to Salanger and Darge.

This can’t be a coincidence, so it’s something to keep an eye on.


BEFORE — Who is C?

After talking to the police, Joe is kidnapped outside the gym by Fixer and another of Dianne’s goons. They take him to a remote warehouse, where Dianne, now armed, reminds him that he was warned not to say anything about the job to anyone — let alone the authorities.

Joe is up-front about the police dragging him in and asking him to play turncoat in Dianne’s operation. In so doing, he passes what was clearly a test, since Darge gets out of the car and reveals she’s working with Dianne. Joe is in.

Fixer takes Joe to pick up his essentials since he’ll never be returning home again. They include the book of Langston Hughes’s poetry, and we see him tear out the front page, which features a handwritten note reading, “D. Happy Birthday! C xx”


How does Culprits Episode 1 end?

The driver in the hit-and-run seems to be the father of Taylor Bedrosian, who attends the same school as Jules’s kids. Mr. Bedrosian is a local developer and councilman, so clearly a man of means. While researching the story, Joe also spots a headline about the death of Marcello Bari, a former movie stunt driver who we saw being executed in the cold open. Joe recognizes him too.

The episode ends back in the past, we Dianne briefing the team about the importance of sticking to the plan. It’s all very Reservoir Dogs. Nobody is allowed to know anyone else’s real names, and they’re all given codenames. Dianne is Brain. Fixer is… well, Fixer. Joe is Muscle. There’s Right Hand, Soldier (Darge), Officer, and… Driver, who is very clearly Marcello Bari.

“Like being in a movie, no?” Bari says to Joe with a wink.

What did you think of Culprits Season 1 Episode 1? Let us know in the comments. 


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