Want to know why HBO’s true-crime docu-miniseries The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst has become a weekly obsession? Look at the way each episode ends. In the final scenes of Part One, millionaire murder suspect Robert Durst emerges from the shadows and agrees to an interview, promising to explain once and for all why he’s innocent of the three killings that have been pinned on him. At the close of Part Four, he can be heard rehearsing his excuses over and over in a creepy whisper, assuming he’s off-camera. And last Sunday night, viewers learned that one of the alleged killer’s friends has found a letter that may be the key piece of evidence in a 2000 shooting. This has been one of the show’s main missions: to leave no viewer’s jaw un-dropped by the end of the hour.
This Sunday, the cable network will be airing The Jinx‘s sixth and final installment, and fans fully expect a kicker as strong as any the series has produced so far. But with so many twists, characters, and clues, it’s time to look at all the pieces of the puzzle one more time before the solution’s revealed. So for those who need a quick refresher before the finale — or for those who’ve never watched an episode and need to get up to speed before March 15th — here are the names, places, and facts you need to know.
Durst’s alleged crimes have been tabloid staples partially because he’s the eldest son of accomplished New York real estate magnates, the Durst family. At age seven, Robert saw his mother Bernice die from a fall off the roof of their house, in what was likely a suicide attempt. He subsequently became withdrawn and rebellious, defying his father Seymour’s demands that he work beside him and become his heir apparent. As a result, his younger brother, Douglas, has run the family business since 1994. Douglas Durst is something of an enigma in The Jinx, refusing to register any opinion about his brother’s eccentricities, or to answer any questions about whatever assistance he or his lackeys may have given to help cover up the murders.
The Jinx jumps around in its timeline, starting with the last of the three killings Durst is accused of committing. But each victim gets enough airtime for the show to explain who they are, and what Durst’s involvement may be with their deaths.
Victim No. 1 (1982): Kathleen Durst. Robert’s first wife was a medical student who vanished one day after nine turbulent years of marriage. Because no corpse has ever been found, Robert hasn’t been formally charged with any crime related to Kathleen’s disappearance, though the state of New York did open an investigation into his potential culpability in 2000. During the course of the miniseries, Durst admits to physically abusing his wife, forcing her to get an abortion, and misleading the court about whether he’d spoken to her after she left their house for the last time. But he insists that he doesn’t even know if she’s dead — and says that if she is, he had nothing to do with it.
Victim No. 2 (2000): Susan Berman. A close friend of Robert’s, Berman was executed gangland-style in her Los Angeles home shortly before she was supposed to be interviewed by New York investigators about Kathie — and about the possibility that she may have helped Durst bury the body in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. Because Berman was the daughter of a mob boss, the authorities assumed the Mafia was behind her murder, and barely looked into Robert as a suspect. For his part, Durst admits being in California when she died, but shrugs off any notions that he should be a person of interest to the authorities. “California’s a big state,” he says.
Victim No. 3 (2000): Morris Black. The weirdest chapter in this whole saga — and the one that kicks off the show — is the death of Morris Black, Durst’s neighbor in Galveston, Texas. The alleged murderer had fled to the Lone Star state when the heat on him intensified back in New York, and started a new life down south disguised as a mute woman. When his fellow Galveston resident’s dismembered body was found in multiple garbage bags in the bay, Durst was arrested; he eventually admitted that he hacked his friend to pieces after an accidental fatal gunshot. The jury bought his attorneys’ claims of self-defense, and the worst the Texas justice system could nail Robert on was evidence-tampering and bail-jumping.
Ultimately, The Jinx‘s story is as much about class as crime. Though she appears infrequently, one of the series’ key players is Debrah Lee Charatan, Durst’s second wife, who married him after the deaths of Berman and Black. Seen only in a video deposition, Charatan pauses before every answer and rolls her eyes a little, as though she can’t believe the inconvenience and impertinence of this whole process.
Over the past 30 years, Durst has been scrutinized by the police, lawyers, and amateur sleuths. Jeanine Pirro is the dogged Westchester County D.A. whom Durst blames for hounding him about Kathie, and perhaps forcing him to kill Berman and Black. Detective Cody Cazalas is a goateed Galveston cop whose dumbfounded reactions to the crimes Durst may have committed — and the way he’s been able to escape significant jail time — makes him something of an audience surrogate. And Gilberte Najamy is one of a quartet of Kathie’s friends who tried to figure out what happened to her during the decade-plus timeframe when the authorities weren’t pursuing Robert. Najamy is the conscience of The Jinx, reminding viewers that as entertainingly strange as these cases may be, they all resulted in bloody murder and grieving families.
It’s the proliferation of funky details related to the murders and the inability of the courts to get a hard conviction that makes the miniseries so compelling. Najamy and her band of hobbyists found a major clue when they discovered a note in Robert’s handwriting that began “town dump, bridge, dig, boat…,” apparently sketching out his plans for getting rid of Kathie. Pirro’s aggressiveness may have played a role in Robert’s acquittal in Galveston, since his attorneys painted her as an ambitious New York woman trying to make a name for herself at Durst’s expense. As for the Berman case, it’s strongly implied that she may have helped the suspect by pretending to be Kathie and calling in sick after his wife had gone missing. In return, Robert may have tipped off the LAPD that she’d been killed by sending an anonymous note, crudely attempting to disguise his handwriting.
That’s not the only example of Durst’s bizarre behavior. He dressed as a woman named “Dorothy Ciner” in Galveston. He calmly bought a bow-saw to cut up Black. After he failed to show up for court for his arraignment in the Black case, he shaved off his hair and eyebrows, then was caught trying to shoplift a sandwich — even though he was carrying plenty of money at the time. At the trial, he admitted to hiding Black’s head so that his remains would be harder to identify, and when pressed on the matter, he dispassionately testified, “I did not kill my best friend. I did dismember him.”
The co-founder of Moviefone and part of a family of filmmakers, director/co-producer Andrew Jarecki made an audacious debut as a documentarian in 2003 with Capturing the Friedmans, which — like The Jinx — digs into a complicated criminal case. The Oscar-nominated movie deals with the slipperiness of memory and the sliding scale of bad behavior, telling the story of a family man who’s caught with child pornography and then accused of far more heinous crimes that he probably didn’t commit.
After Capturing the Friedmans won wide acclaim, Jarecki made his first dramatic feature, 2010’s All Good Things, based loosely on the Durst story (with Ryan Gosling in the lead). That’s how the director met Robert: Having gotten the impression from this true-crime thriller that Jarecki would be fair-minded enough to let him defend himself, Durst offered to sit for a no-topic-off-limits interview. This would become the foundation for The Jinx, and a big part of the appeal of the series is how odd its main character appears during his conversations with his interrogator. He talks slowly, blinks constantly, and confesses just enough to seem honest without ever fully indicting himself. He also describes horrific crimes without ever showing any emotion beyond mild perturbation.
The miniseries is co-produced by Marc Smerling, who also serves as its cinematographer and has worked with Jarecki on all his fiction and non-fiction films. Though the director is the one conducting interviews on-camera, the two men are mutually responsible for the show’s style. Between the reenactments, the archival footage, and the insinuating, minimalist music score, the duo have created something with the look and feel of a snazzy procedural, but with all the actors playing themselves. In HBO terms, The Jinx is like a documentary version of True Detective.
Underneath that slickness and sophistication, however, lies a nuanced depiction of the protective bubble around the super-wealthy. The show suggests that Durst is out of jail today mostly due to lucky breaks and lack of evidence — but a big reason for the latter is that he’s been given the benefit of the doubt largely due to his social status. Not until Robert masqueraded as a nobody in Texas did he really get his comeuppance. Jarecki has promised that when the series ends on Sunday, viewers will get answers to some of the big questions that have surrounded these murders for decades. Fans are hoping that even if Durst never faces justice in a courtroom, he’ll be convicted by the camera.