a wilderness of error quarantine stream

(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)

The TV Series: A Wilderness of Error 

Where You Can Stream It: FX on Hulu

The Pitch: A docu-series based on the book by award-winning documentary filmmaker Errol Morris that explores the story of Army surgeon Jeffrey MacDonald, who was convicted of murdering his entire family. But did he do it?

Why It’s Essential Quarantine Viewing: Fascinating and engrossing, A Wilderness of Error is true crime done right. It never overstays its welcome and keeps the viewer engrossed in the many different diverging paths the narrative goes down.

Errol Morris invented the true crime documentary as we know it. Morris’ The Thing Blue Line, with its stylish recreations and direct-to-camera interviews, became the gold standard of all true crime to follow, and pretty much anything true crime related you see these days, be it a movie, a Netflix series, or something on the Investigation Discovery channel, is cribbing from Morris’ style.

Which makes A Wilderness of Error all the more fascinating. Morris did not direct the series, but he does appear, as an interview subject. Morris’ book of the same name inspired the show, and what’s most interesting to see here is that while this is adapting Morris’ work, and using Morris as an interviewee, it becomes clear that the filmmakers don’t entirely agree with Morris’ conclusions.

The basic story: late one night in February of 1970, Army surgeon Jeffrey MacDonald claimed that a group of hippies broke into his house, attacked him, and murdered his two children and his pregnant wife. MacDonald quickly became a suspect in the murders, and an Army investigation was put together. The result: charges against MacDonald were dismissed. However, the family of MacDonald’s wife – who believed him to be innocent at first – slowly began to suspect he might be guilty. Soon, MacDonald was on trial, and eventually found guilty.

All of this was chronicled in the best-selling book Fatal Vision, written by Joe McGinniss. The book was not without controversy: MacDonald actually sued McGinniss, claiming the author manipulated him while writing the book. As MacDonald told it, the author acted like MacDonald was innocent around MacDonald to gain access, and then went and wrote a book stating MacDonald was guilty.

Years later, in 2012, Errol Morris published his take on the case, A Wilderness of Error, which casts doubt on many elements of the story, including mistakes that were made from investigators from the start – mistakes that would then color the decisions of lawyers, judges, and journalists in years to come. But does that make MacDonald innocent?

Morris is upfront in saying he doesn’t know the answer one way or another, but as A Wilderness of Error unfolds, a clear picture begins to unfold. We may never really know the full answer, but there’s a good chance this is one mystery that’s already been solved, no matter how much it may draw us in with all its many details.

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A Wilderness of Error is currently airing on FX, and streaming the following day on FX on Hulu. I was able to watch all five episodes via screeners before writing this piece.

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