“I had a murder habit, and it was bad,” Michelle McNamara says early in the new HBO documentary series I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. “I would feed it for the rest of my life.”
Like many things McNamara said or wrote, these words prove sadly prophetic. An acclaimed true crime writer, McNamara unexpectedly died in 2016 at the age of 46 while trying to complete the book on which the HBO show is based, an epic account of the crimes of the man she dubbed the Golden State Killer. He had been responsible for so many different California crime sprees in the Seventies and Eighties that he already had multiple nicknames — the Visalia Ransacker, the East Area Rapist, and the Original Night Stalker — as it took years for law enforcement to realize all were the heinous work of the same person. McNamara drew new public attention to a man she once described as “the worst serial offender in modern history that no one really knows about,” and helped weave the many complicated strands of his crimes, and their impact on his many victims, into one clear and compelling tapestry. But in the process, the TV version of McNamara’s story argues, her murder habit ultimately killed her.
Directed by Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?), alongside Elizabeth Wolff, Myles Kane, and Josh Koury, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark operates on parallel tracks. One is the story of Michelle McNamara’s life, and the way her obsession with this case contributed to her early demise. The other is the story of the Golden State Killer’s repeated reigns of terror, as seen through the eyes of McNamara, her fellow civilian sleuths, members of law enforcement, and the survivors of his time as the East Area Rapist.
By exploring our nation’s collective true crime obsession through this one case, Garbus and her collaborators are trying something much more ambitious than if they had made a more straightforward documentary that just focused on the Golden State Killer and his victims. But while the individual components of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark can work to remarkable, devastating effect, the sprawl of this approach can find the two stories working against one another as often as they’re complementary. And the further in you go, the more the Golden State Killer half winds up dramatically outweighing the Michelle McNamara half.
Like McNamara’s book — which was completed after her death by her assistant Paul Haynes, fellow true crime author Billy Jensen, and McNamara’s comedian husband Patton Oswalt — the series fluidly moves around in time and space between the Golden State Killer’s crimes and McNamara’s life story. We hear and see interview clips of McNamara, while the actress Amy Ryan reads aloud from McNamara’s writing. McNamara proves an appealing and increasingly complex subject. Through her words and those of her friends and fellow true crime enthusiasts Melanie Barbeau (a social worker McNamara met on an East Area Rapist message board) and Karen Kilgariff (co-host of the My Favorite Murder podcast), we get a clear and often compelling tour of the quest for answers and certainty that drives people to fixate on cases like this. McNamara felt great empathy for victims — it’s the aspect of her writing often cited as what set her apart from her peers in the genre — but she also just enjoyed solving puzzles.
Over time, we learn as much about McNamara the person as McNamara the citizen detective. There’s abundant home video footage, both of her at younger ages and of her as wife to Oswalt and mother to their young daughter Alice. Oswalt appears to have set few, if any, boundaries on what Garbus could show from their lives together; the fourth episode features an intensely personal text exchange between the two about whether to have another child. And as the film approaches the weeks, and even hours, before a physically and emotionally spent McNamara laid down for a nap and didn’t wake up, the harbingers of her untimely death seem everywhere.
At the same time, the filmmakers are laying out a clear picture of the Golden State Killer’s crimes, why it took so long for authorities to connect them all, and the long-lasting impact they had on the victims and their families. Sad as McNamara’s story is — particularly in scenes where she frets about focusing too much on her gruesome work at the expense of Alice — this material is so potent that it often overwhelms the McNamara end of things. The rape survivors talk about the Seventies culture of silence that forced them to wrestle with their pain alone for years, or even decades. The East Area Rapist’s M.O. involved breaking into women’s homes and spending long periods of time there, often while their husbands were tied up nearby, helpless to do anything. We meet one of these couples, who speak frankly about all the work they’ve had to do to keep their marriage going, and about their different coping mechanisms. She describes the attack in agonizing detail for the filmmakers, while he, sitting next to her, confesses that he “blocked all that out years ago.” (The little look she flashes when he says this speaks volumes, not only about the difference in their experiences, but in the compromises they’ve made to keep going.)
The more we get to know the victims, the more jarring it starts to feel whenever the story returns to McNamara. Her book is part memoir, but still much more focused on the case than on herself, whereas the show splits things about evenly. There are moments when the two halves seem in perfect balance: A segment about McNamara’s fraught relationship with her mother leads into a scene where a murder victim’s daughter tells McNamara about how she and her own mother got along. At others, the pieces feel mismatched.
This proves particularly challenging in the series’ sixth and final hour, which (spoiler alert if you consider recent history to be such) deals with the arrest of the Golden State Killer, ex-cop Joseph James DeAngelo, and the impact his belated capture has on both the survivors and the many people who worked on the case over the years. By focusing much more on the victims — including members of DeAngelo’s own family who have to cope with knowing what “Uncle Joe” did — it’s by far the show’s best and most powerful episode. But it also largely sidesteps the fact that McNamara not only didn’t solve the case before she died, but that her voluminous research never even came close to DeAngelo.
There are a few brief scenes where Haynes and Jensen realize they have nothing documented on DeAngelo, nor even anyone who fits his general profile. And the series does make clear that the key breakthrough came from cold-case investigator Paul Holes, a friend of McNamara’s who teamed with genealogist Barbara Rae-Venter to build a reverse DNA profile that led to DeAngelo. Holes argues that the notoriety McNamara brought to the case led to more police resources being poured into it at such a late date. But it feels a missed opportunity for the show to more directly confront the fact that DeAngelo was an invisible man to McNamara and her collaborators.
It’s not that she deserves a posthumous scolding. Rather, the idea that some mysteries can’t be solved even by a smart, dedicated investigator, much less one who essentially gives her life to the case, feels like a fundamental challenge of the field to which McNamara devoted herself — and, thus, something worth discussing at length in a series that’s as much about true crime itself as about these particular crimes. Had the filmmakers more directly reckoned with that bittersweet aspect of DeAngelo being caught — and caught while Oswalt, Haynes, and Jensen were in the middle of a tour to promote the book, no less — then the two halves of this version of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark would feel more like a satisfying whole, rather than the often fascinating but inconsistent version HBO is debuting.
Again and again throughout the final installments, Oswalt and others lament that McNamara’s not there to see her target brought to justice. Based on everything I’ll Be Gone in the Dark tells us about her, she seems like the very first person who would want to talk about how DeAngelo eluded her, if she could have done anything differently, and whether it matters to her that she was tangential at best to closing the case. As she herself admits in the first episode, “I love being wrong, because sometimes, it proves you didn’t know enough.”
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark premieres June 28th on HBO. I’ve seen all six episodes.