In the ongoing conversation about the concept of copaganda, true crime occupies an interesting space. On the one hand, trust in cops is built in to the genre’s storytelling: Even when dealing with cases of institutional neglect and indifference, ultimately it’s the actions of police that bring about a return to normalcy and the relief of fear at the end. On the other, few things make police departments look more cynical and incompetent than honestly documenting their real-life actions. I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, HBO’s new docuseries about late crime writer Michelle McNamara and her obsession with finding the predator she dubbed the Golden State Killer, is a complex story that embodies both of these points and more.
The documentary is structured around McNamara’s writing, which at one point, one of her editors compares to that of Truman Capote. And indeed, McNamara was a gifted writer who intuitively understood that the real story behind a violent crime is one of broken hearts and unrealized dreams, not evil geniuses plotting their next move. That’s not to say that the rapist and murderer who terrorized first Northern and then Southern California in the ’70s and ’80s wasn’t scary: A tape of the perpetrator breathing heavily into the phone and taunting one of his rape victims with a whispered, “I’m going to kill you,” is more terrifying than any horror movie. But in the end, he was no match for the group of self-proclaimed “citizen detectives” (and one freelance “investigative genetic genealogist”) who dedicated their lives to discovering the Golden State Killer’s identity, with McNamara as their patron saint and semi-official chronicler.
One of the more surreal elements of this story is that McNamara was married to comedian Patton Oswalt, who features heavily into the docuseries giving insight into his wife’s life. Given that McNamara died before she could finish the book version of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, Oswalt’s memories, and those of her friends and family, are all we have to reconstruct her growing obsession with this case—except for her writing, podcasts, emails, and text messages, of course. Director Liz Garbus gives equal time to McNamara’s story and that of the Golden State Killer saga in the docuseries, providing context and even some new information for those who have read the book and/or followed the case. (The infamous “Bonnie” shows up to tell her story in the last episode, for example.) Using the classy kind of re-enactments that utilize evocative shots of important objects rather than non-union actors, Garbus shoots much of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark essentially in the first-person, putting viewers into McNamara’s sleepless, paranoid mindset. And yet, she remains an elusive character.
The first half of this six-episode series is essentially a tribute to shoe-leather journalism, as McNamara visits crime scenes, prowls internet forums, and digs through dusty boxes of files trying to find the one clue that everyone else had missed. Along the way, she—and we—meet a network of survivors who are determined to help each other recover from the trauma brought on by their mutual attacker. As seen in other recent true-crime docuseries, police simply did not take rape seriously in the ’70s, and Sacramento, where the Golden State Killer (then known as the East Area Rapist) terrorized single women and couples from June 1976 to July 1979, was no exception. The women’s stories are harrowing, to the point that the second episode in particular may be difficult for sexual assault survivors to watch, and the sheer volume of cases is overwhelming at times. (Along with committing more than 50 rapes, the Golden State Killer is believed to have murdered at least 13 people.) To convey these dark and unsettling emotions, Garbus keeps returning to images of drowning and descent, cutting in footage from Creature From The Black Lagoon—one of Oswalt and McNamara’s favorite movies—with speculation that the killer was using creeks and canals as his own private expressway of terror.
Toward the end of the series, I’ll Be Gone In The Dark overtakes the material covered in McNamara’s book. This is where it becomes both thornier and less thorough, introducing controversial concepts like familial DNA searches and briefly delving into the psychology of true-crime fandom with the help of My Favorite Murder’s Karen Kilgariff. One thing that stays consistent is Garbus’ commitment to McNamara’s belief in foregrounding victims, several of whom are given extensive screen time in the fourth and sixth episodes of the series. Family members of alleged Golden State Killer Joseph James DeAngelo also get a chance to speak their piece, and their sense of betrayal at learning that a beloved uncle or cousin was actually a monster is heart-wrenching—although that’s nothing compared to the tearjerker ending to the series.
One interesting choice by Garbus is to give former Contra Costa County DA cold-case investigator Paul Holes a relatively minimal amount of screen time, which is unexpected given that Holes has become a celebrity in the true-crime world following his successful effort to match the killer’s DNA with a suspect. The decision presumably wasn’t motivated by a conscious desire to downplay the role of cops and DAs in this story—more likely, Garbus was focused on uplifting the women, whose strength and solidarity are indeed inspirational. But it does have that effect. On a less progressive note, there’s no getting past the overwhelming whiteness of the interview subjects and cheering fans who show up to readings and book signings—including, somewhere in the crowd in footage from CrimeCon 2018, this writer herself.
These are the conversations that will hopefully continue to evolve as the genre moves forward. And if anyone would have embraced the current movement for police reform it would have been McNamara, whose ideas about crowdsourcing investigations and victim-forward storytelling have both taken off in the four years since her death. DeAngelo, a retired police officer whose (alleged—he hasn’t gone to trial yet) crimes were driven by brutality, callousness, and insecurity, is now in prison. He will probably die there. But that doesn’t mean that the work is over. If we can take one thing from the life and work of Michelle McNamara, let it be this: In the face of overwhelming darkness, looking out for one another is the only path forward into the light.