i'll be gone in the dark review

True Crime isn’t a new fad, but in the last several years, thanks to buzzworthy podcasts and binge-worthy series (usually on Netflix), there’s been a considerable boom in the genre. More often than not, these entries fit into a formula – a cookie-cutter set-up and follow-through that, while often engrossing and even captivating, rarely treads new ground. Which is part of what makes I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the new HBO docuseries adapted from the book by the late Michelle McNamara, stand out. This isn’t just another True Crime docuseries. It’s a game-changer.

While the majority of recent entries into the ever-growing field of True Crime docuseries tend to stick with a straightforward description of the facts as they happened, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark breaks the mold by attempting something deeper, and more profound. Yes, it covers the story of a series of heinous crimes. And yes, there are the occasionally moody, atmospheric, and cinematic re-creations of certain events. But there’s so much more going on here.

McNamara was a True Crime blogger who was also married to comedian Patton Oswalt, and her blog True Crime Diary had a devoted following. But everything changed for McNamara when she published an article in Los Angeles Magazine devoted to the serial offender she dubbed the Golden State Killer. In the 1970s and 1980s in Los Angeles, a killer was on the prowl. He started off as a serial rapist, ultimately responsible for 50 murders. These actions earned the killer the nickname The East Area Rapist, or EAR.

The sexual assaults kicked-off an understandable season of fear and paranoia, and eventually, the EAR moved on – but he wasn’t done. Setting up shop elsewhere in California, the suspect graduated from rape to murder, which eventually earned him another name – The Original Nightstalker. And it wasn’t immediately put together that the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker were the same person. In fact, we even see archival footage here of a law enforcement official flat-out stating that the crimes were too dissimilar to be connected.

The killer’s M.O. involved terrifying home invasions. When he was beginning, he would break into the homes of single women, but eventually moved into attacking couples. He would creep in in the night and awake his victims with a flashlight, subjecting them to hours of terror and torture, and, eventually, as his crimes increased, murder. The attacks were brutal and unrelenting, and incredibly risky – and yet, the killer evaded capture for decades.

McNamara’s LA Mag article on the crimes was heralded across the board, and almost immediately landed the writer a book deal to expand the story further. From here, McNamara would fall down a deep, dark rabbit hole, obsessively staying up late at night, pouring over case files and other data, trying to both write her book and possibly solve a case no one else had ever been able to solve. And then, tragedy struck. McNamara died due to an accidental overdose, leaving the book unfinished, and her friends and family absolutely devastated.

Like the book – which was eventually finished by fellow citizen detectives Paul Haynes and Billy Jensen – I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is not just the story of the Golden State Killer. It’s McNamara’s story, too. Her words come to life here, as read in voice-over by Amy Ryan – or in some cases by McNamara herself, with audio pulled from podcast interviews. What set McNamara apart from other run-of-the-mill True Crime writers was both her way with words and her ability to project genuine empathy towards the victims. So much of True Crime is crass, and cold – the victims are secondary to the descriptions of the terrible acts inflicted upon them. People who binge True Crime docuseries can tell you a killer’s name at the drop of a hat, but press them for the name of a victim or two, and they might come up blank.

The empathy of McNamara’s words radiates off the screen as well, as director Liz Garbus takes great care to never sensationalize the crimes while also never shying away from their brutality. And the survivors are here as well, speaking directly about their experiences, and how they struggled to put their lives back together in the aftermath. Never condescending, never patronizing, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark lets these individuals tell their stories on their own terms. It’s emotionally draining at times, but that’s the point. It should be. We should be made to feel emotions from these stories beyond taking morbid fascination in the gory details. We should be more than voyeurs.

The Golden State Killer’s reign of terror is intermixed with McNamara’s story, with Oswalt interviewed multiple times, practically beaming as he discusses the great work his late wife was doing. This, too, is ultimately emotionally draining as we realize what a terrible loss was suffered with McNamara’s untimely death. There’s a moment in the final episode, where the set dressed to resemble McNamara’s home office is struck, and we see stage-hands carrying away a desk, a lamp, a laptop. It’s all stage dressing. It’s all an illusion. McNamara is gone.

Loss and grief resonate throughout the series. While there is hope to be had here – much is made about how the survivors were able to move on after suffering such trauma – there’s an undeniable horror at play that seeps into your skin and wraps its icy fingers around your bones. The ominous opening credits unfold with a cover of Leonard Cohen’s foreboding “Avalanche.” It almost feels like a warning – you might want to turn back now, because there is darkness beyond your worst nightmares here.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark isn’t interested in psychoanalyzing the Golden State Killer. After McNamara’s book was published, 72-year-old former police officer Joe DeAngelo was arrested for the crimes, and it was recently revealed that DeAngelo would plead guilty in order to avoid the death penalty. But DeAngelo is an afterthought here. A shadow, a shade, a bogeyman reduced to a feeble, toothless old man with a perpetual look of confusion on his face. In many ways, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark ultimately renders him powerless. The series would rather spend time focusing on McNamara, and the survivors of DeAngelo’s terror, than devote too much time trying to get into the killer’s mind. That, too, feels like a massive bucking of tradition. While there are countless documentaries trying to understand what made someone like Ted Bundy tick, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark would rather lock DeAngelo away in the cage where he belongs, and shine a light on the people he tried – but failed – to destroy.

***

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark premieres on HBO on June 28.

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