'I'LL BE GONE IN THE DARK' (HBO) Even as true crime has exploded as a genre, so many of the stories told are firmly settled in the past, especially because of the unsolved status of a number of interesting and distressing murders. The story of Golden State Killer has that aspect, but with this new documentary series, it also has the strength of being firmly placed in the present for a couple of reasons. One, the killer, Joseph James DeAngelo Jr., pleaded guilty to 13 murders and 13 charges of kidnapping for purposes of robbery, the day after the series premiered. Two, the true-crime writer who made the most headway in the case, Michelle McNamara, offers a compelling biography that stands alongside the story of the killer and his victims.
McNamara, author of the popular website True Crime Diary, was the wife of actor/comedian Patton Oswalt and her untimely death in 2016 made headlines. "I'll Be Gone in the Dark," also the name of her posthumously published book, uses her life and investigation as the conduit to the story of the Golden State Killer, who is traced back to previous criminal identities like the Visalia Ransacker, the Original Night Stalker and the East Area Rapist. McNamara's process is meticulously laid out, as well as her own demons, under the guidance of Oswalt. Her involvement in the case, as an investigative true-crime writer, brings other investigators, both professional and civilian, into the documentary fold, as well as, most importantly, victims of the Golden State Killer.
If there's a central idea to the series it's that we all have something to hide, and that includes McNamara and the rape victims. In McNamara's case, it will prove to be her undoing, but in the victims' cases, it will become their transformation. At the time of their rapes, the 1970s, the crime brought shame to the victim and the women were encouraged to act accordingly. But seeking justice won't allow them to keep their traumas a secret and in many ways, the documentary moves from being an examination of the criminal career of one monster and the obsession of one writer to an exhibition of the bravery and fortitude of the victims, and a deserved celebration of them.
It's a very unexpected feel-good aspect to an extremely dark documentary series, but it's part of a chosen focus that makes it a tremendously successful work in general. While it is interested in the transgressions and motivations of the Golden State Killer, it is more concerned with how his actions affected other people, what his evil set out into the world beyond the parameters you would expect. Part of this is obviously measured in McNamara's obsession and how that affected her husband and daughter. Part of this is in regard to the victims and their husbands and children and extended family, as well as their community.
But part of this also concerns the killer's friends and family, and several of these speak to reveal the impact it has had on them the realization that a destructive monster has been hiding within their own lives, allowed intimacy, offered affection and thanks. These people can't help but question themselves and attempt to hold themselves accountable even as they go through life as a different kind of victim of the Golden State Killer.
Covering crimes that happened a decade ago reveal insights that you don't expect in the form of general observations about how much the world has changed. Danger still exists, but we are savvier about its existence. Evil, though, is still the same as it ever was. The motivations that couldn't be deciphered in the 1970s are still having trouble crystallizing in our own era, and that means that predators like the Golden State Killer have the same strength as they ever had. They may not necessarily be more prevalent, and the forces working against them may be more solid, but the direct line from criminal to victim is still as mysterious as it ever was, and that's part of why true crime has captured the popular imagination. Working together to make the randomness of evil less so might be the ultimate result of that obsession.