The HBO documentary series I’ll Be Gone in the Dark tells two interwoven stories. The first is of true crime writer Michelle McNamara, the late wife of comedian Patton Oswalt, who penned the New York Times bestselling book for which the miniseries is named. The second is of her subject, a serial rapist and murderer known alternately as the East Area Rapist and the Golden State Killer (among other monikers), whose acts of terror spanned a horrific 12 year period through the 1970s and 80s. Directed by Liz Garbus, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a powerful eulogy for McNamara using video and voice recordings, as well as passages from her book (read by Amy Ryan), to detail her obsession into this unsolved case—which eventually helped lead to an arrest, but took a devastating emotional toll on her.
The title McNamara used for her book is something the killer said to one of his victims (he is responsible for at least 12 murders and 50 rapes), a chilling reminder of not just his evil but his almost legendary elusiveness. McNamara dubbed him the Golden State Killer (GSK) because his crimes went beyond the Sacramento area borders where he was first tracked, and in her own words describes her dogged desire to not only find justice for his victims, but to bring more publicity to a case that deserved more attention.
To say that I’ll Be Gone in the Dark requires a trigger warning is a huge understatement, given the harrowing nature of the crimes and the very detailed discussions by survivors. It is clear from the start though that Garbus, like McNamara, is not interested in the personhood of the perpetrator (beyond bringing him to justice), but in illuminating the stories of those he terrorized. There’s almost no discussion of potential suspects or theories of the case before the final episode; there is nothing for viewers to “solve” here. Because of that, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark wisely removes one of the elements that plagues the true crime genre of fetishizing the attacker or his methodology. When he is revealed, his story is told briefly by the few family members willing to speak on record, but it’s still not really about him. It is about everyone he hurt coming to terms with the evil he wrought.
Garbus uses a mixture of interviews, archival footage, and reenactments to keep the story dynamic. No matter how upsetting the acts being discussed were, though, I could not turn away. It’s not all grim, though—McNamara’s life with her family, as well as updates from survivors, infuse both hope and normalcy. There’s even a “heist” sequence as McNamara and her researcher collected boxes of old case files. The reenactments are never cheesy, and crucially do not show someone posing as McNamara beyond typing hands or hair being tucked behind an ear. The result makes viewers feel like we are a part of this—the same pull that true crime has always had. As text messages and emails appear on screen, and an Olympus recorder is flipped on over and over again, we get a really sense of who (in this context) McNamara was, as if we were alongside her. But we also get a sense of the case’s addictive nature.
Obsession is examined throughout the documentary series, from the killer’s obsessive habits to “citizen detectives” pouring over old case files, to McNamara’s perfectionism in wanting to tell this story the right way. It doesn’t glorify any of it, while still acknowledging the realities of each. The case overtook McNamara’s life, and consumed her. She died in 2016 after accidentally taking a lethal combination of pills to help her sleep, and the lead-up to that moment in the documentary is utterly devastating.
Though I could have looked up the identity of the GSK throughout watching the screeners, I never did. I trusted both McNamara’s and Garbus’ process to lead me through it, because the pacing and the revelations are pitch-perfect. Even for those who have read the book (I have not), there is so much more that this series is able to bring to life around it, including how it all came together, and what happened afterwards. There’s also important context given as to why these kinds of crimes proliferated in the 1970s in particular, including survivors telling heartbreaking stories about being told to stay quiet about their trauma by parents or partners.
That is why, ultimately, the moment in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark that resonates so strongly is a scene of the survivors meeting and coming together. There they are able to talk about something that no one else understood. McNamara was key to all of this, not just in her research and writing that illuminated this cold case in a way that caused law enforcement to use new DNA technology to give it another look, but by creating something with her book that allowed these men and women to form, as one of them defines it, “a survivor family.” I’ll Be Gone in the Dark can be very difficult to watch; it’s haunting and incredibly sad. But that’s also what made it all the more moving, in the end, to see the survivors join together: bonding, smiling, and living their lives in the light.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark premieres Sunday, June 28th on HBO.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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