Netflix Probes Alex Murdaugh’s Trail of Dead Bodies and Missing Millions
If you have a taste for lurid news you probably know that Alex Murdaugh is currently on trial in Walterboro, South Carolina, for the murder of his wife and younger son. It’s the kind of story that makes true-crime mavens drool: a once-prominent, now-disgraced lawyer is charged with bloody heinousness. Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal, a new three-part Netflix docuseries, is either incredibly timely or brazenly opportunistic — or, most likely, both. It provides a crash course in the scandals and deaths that have engulfed the old-money Murdaugh family for years, including a fatal boating accident, the mysterious deaths of a family housekeeper and a local teen, a staged would-be suicide, and the embezzlement of millions of dollars.
If you can’t make hay out of this material you don’t belong in Netflix’s ever-expanding true-crime gallery, and filmmakers Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason do a fine job spinning the yarn, pulling the viewer this way and that, and letting the “Can you top this?” details slowly pile up. The current murder trial is merely the final act in a tragedy about the abuse of power inflicted by a big-fish, small-pond family whose skeletons have left the closet and begun dancing through town.
Murdaugh Murders should appeal most to viewers who haven’t already been poring over the case, and to those who haven’t already consumed some, or, heaven forbid, all of the previous documentary projects about the subject. There are several. 20/20: Fall of the House of Murdaugh premiered on Hulu in January 2022. Investigation Discovery soon followed with Murdaugh Murders: Deadly Dynasty, streaming on Discovery+. HBO Max checked in with Low Country: The Murdaugh Dynasty, which dug deeper into the family history, and CNBC’s American Greed series did a two-parter that concentrates on the family’s business dealings. Never accuse streamers of neglecting a good true crime feeding frenzy. Then again, nobody ever went broke underestimating the American appetite for scandal.
In fairness, there’s plenty to feed on. The Netflix series begins with the 2019 death of 19-year-old Mallory Beach in a drunken boating accident in Beaufort County, South Carolina. Paul Murdaugh, described as a violent drunk, was at the wheel; he’s the younger Murdaugh scion who was later killed while out on bail. According to the series, he allegedly tried to shift the blame to another friend, precipitating a cover-up aided by local law enforcement. This first episode establishes Alex Murdaugh as a man who runs things behind the scenes, or, when necessary, out in the open. “Murdaughs don’t really get told ‘no’ much,” explains Morgan Doughty, Paul’s longtime girlfriend, who describes being physically abused by her boyfriend.
The series benefits from these interviews with Paul’s friends and peers, including Mallory’s boyfriend, Anthony Cook, who considered Paul a good friend. Nobody in Murdaugh Murders is crying poor, but most don’t have Murdaugh money. This is largely a study in how wealth seduces, or how a group of sentient young people fell under the sway of a spoiled sociopath who, when sober, could be quite charming (and whose family had its own plane and landing strip).
Then the series gets down to the really strange stuff. In June 2021, Paul and his mother, Maggie, were found murdered near the family’s country home. He was shot with a shotgun, she with a rifle, apparently after they discovered Alex Murdaugh’s sizable stash of opiates. From there, previously-whispered stories about the family became amplified. There was the strange death of a local teen, who was rumored to be having a sexual relationship with the elder Murdaugh son, Buster. There was the equally strange death of the Murdaugh family housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield, who was said to have tripped over the family dogs and fallen on stairs at the Murdaugh home (shades of The Staircase), dying from her injuries soon after. In 2022, Alex Murdaugh admitted that he owed Satterfield’s sons a multi-million-dollar settlement that they hadn’t been told about. Prosecutors have accused him of defrauding victims out of more than $8 million. Murdaugh also admitted to hiring a family friend to shoot him in the head in a fake suicide attempt, hoping that a murder might help Buster collect on a $10 million life insurance policy.
This is a dizzying array of malfeasance and allegation, tied to the highest-profile criminal case in the country. In other words, a Netflix fever dream. But there’s a deeper issue to be gleaned from the macabre mess.
It’s a good bet that towns across the country have a Murdaugh family. They may not come with these outsize dimensions, or gory details, or sheer tabloid-ready lunacy. Privilege, however, comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s often entrenched in old money — the Murdaugh dynasty goes back several generations — that buys a lot of influence and can easily convince a powerful brood that it can get away with anything. A lot of the Murdaugh fascination stems from a particular kind of schadenfreude, the comeuppance of unbridled, influential wealth. The country wouldn’t care about Alex Murdaugh if he weren’t rich and powerful. He is, or was, both. And now he pays the piper, one trial, and docuseries, at a time.