tv review

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark Sheds Light on a Remarkable True-Crime Crusader

Michelle McNamara, the late writer who investigated the Golden State Killer.
Michelle McNamara, the late writer who investigated the Golden State Killer. Photo: HBO

For storytellers, darkness can be a life force as well as a death force. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, a brilliant retelling of true-crime writer Michelle McNamara’s quest to identify the Golden State Killer, doesn’t just understand this dynamic; it finds simple yet powerful ways to visualize it. Whenever director-producer Liz Garbus’s miniseries revisits one of the 13 murders, 50 rapes, and dozens of burglaries committed by a man who terrorized California for two decades, a scene will begin with shots of the suburban homes where he did his dirty work, and our eye will be immediately drawn to the unnatural way shadows move through the frames, creeping over lawns, walls, carpets, and bedroom doors. Like Blue Velvet’s writhing beetles, Mulholland Drive’s dumpster man, and the sooty hobos of Twin Peaks: The Return, these creeping shadowblankets are figurative representations of the evil that men do and confirmation that a specific, profoundly dangerous man has breached a space that we assumed was safe.

According to victims’ descriptions, the Golden State Killer (previously referred to as the East Area Rapist and the Original Night Stalker) was a 30-to 40-year-old white man of medium build, carrying a flashlight and a pistol and sometimes other implements of death, dressed in dark clothes and ski mask, but only sometimes pants. As we watch crime writers, police detectives, and survivors of the attacks describing the violence while artfully fragmented and obscured crime scene photos flash onscreen, the representation of evil and the physical fact of evil become one. We might as well be half-awake and half-asleep in bed, staring up at the ceiling and wondering if those pulsing splotches are shadows caused by streetlights shining through wind-stirred tree branches, or fist-sized scarab beetles scuttling upside down. Darkness’s opposite is light, and the series offers plenty of that, too. Sunlight or electrical light will sometimes pierce an otherwise black frame, shining through the crack in a doorway or the window of a darkened bedroom or living room. The opening credits distill the show’s aesthetic to a series of shots: illumination banishing gloom.

The dark spaces also represent the dark places in McNamara’s mind, while the light becomes the joy she took in writing and researching the case, even as prolonged exposure to graphic images and first-person accounts of home invasions, kidnappings, and rapes worsened her lifelong struggle with depression and triggered bad dreams and paranoid visions. McNamara, the first wife of comedian and author Patton Oswalt and mother of their now-11-year-old daughter, Alice, died in 2016 of an accidental prescription medicine overdose while writing I’ll Be Gone in the Dark. The series confirms that McNamara took more and different drugs to cope with the disturbing nature of the story that obsessed her, and that, like Prince — who died the same day as McNamara, April 21, 2016 — the fatal trigger was probably fentanyl. Her research collaborators, publisher, agent, and husband joined forces to finish the book in a manner befitting its creator.

But this isn’t a sad story about a story that killed a storyteller. It’s a tough, ultimately inspirational work about how life kicks the shit out of you and you just have to get through it somehow, coping with sadness and regret and PTSD because you don’t have a choice. It’s about how you’ll never know yourself unless you scrutinize the ugliest parts of your experience with support from people who love and understand you. Friends, relatives, and colleagues agree that McNamara’s investigations didn’t just inspire renewed and coordinated action by local and regional police, leading to the 2018 arrest of 74-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo just two months after the posthumous release of McNamara’s book. Her research also forced McNamara to confront suppressed pain caused by traumatic events in her own life, including a murder that occurred in her neighborhood when she was a girl, a “fraught” relationship with her withholding and psychologically abusive mother, and a sexual assault at 23 by a mentor. One of the many touching husband-wife text exchanges re-created by Garbus finds McNamara confessing that the closer she gets to the publisher’s deadline, the harder it is to just finish the damned thing. Channeling imagery of gestation and birth, Oswalt responds, “Every creative object wants the safety and warmth of staying inside your head. You’re trying to drag it out into the light.”

This text message writes itself over blackout curtains in the hotel room where McNamara has gone to complete her manuscript, sunlight slicing the slot where the curtains meet. Soon after that, McNamara drafts “Letter to an Old Man,” addressed to the as-yet-unidentified killer. It imagines him cowering alone in a gloomy house surrounded by cops and ends by commanding him to “walk into the light.” As framed by Garbus, this chapter seems directed at McNamara’s then-unfinished book as well as the human monster it describes. The Golden State Killer despoiled sacred domestic spaces with cruelty as well as sadistic violence, stealing and destroying personal mementoes that had no monetary value and helping himself to food and beverages while his victims were hogtied in bedrooms wondering whether they were about to be raped, or raped again. In McNamara’s “Letter,” the killer and the book about the killer fuse, becoming a demon child squatting in the womb of a writer’s mind. Nine months are up. Pack your shit and get out. 

Garbus and her collaborators — including co-directors Elizabeth Wolff, Josh Koury, and Myles Kane, and series editors Alyse Ardell Spiegel, Erin Barnett, and Jawad Metni — prove just as adept at drawing links between different types of narratives across different eras, some journalistic (here is what happened), others metaphorical or psychological (here is what this might’ve meant). The whole production is organized around moments that could be described in terms of darkness, light, darkness supplanting light, or light banishing darkness. This simple yet effective encoding of human experience encourages us to draw our own comparisons between the lives of its major characters. There’s McNamara, who endured many traumas before she became a true-crime author and started to understand herself better as she interviewed her quarry’s survivors. There’s Oswalt, a thoughtful, gentle person who, in a sense, lost his own wife to the Golden State Killer, via collateral damage caused by time spent in a human monster’s headspace. There’s DeAngelo, who was viciously abused by his own father and served in Vietnam before becoming a cop. And there are all of his victims and survivors, their stories humanized in a manner rarely seen in the crime reportage from the decades when their traumas occurred. Janelle Lisa Cruz, Cheri Domingo and Greg Sanchez, Keith and Patti Harrington, Lyman and Charlene Smith, and 56 other victims of murder, sexual assault, and other crimes are all given names and stories. Most movingly, as I’ll Be Gone in the Dark pushes through the agonies of McNamara’s final weeks and the chaotic aftermath of her death, we learn that many of the people who spoke regularly to the writer were so inspired by her empathy and understanding that they began discussing personal traumas they’d suppressed for decades.

You come away from this production thinking of McNamara not just as an author, detective, wife, mother, and friend but as a rare individual who was able to treat human experiences as a series of mirrors that she could hold up to each person she met, as if to say, Look, this is you, too, even if the details are different. It was McNamara who dubbed the suspect “The Golden State Killer,” in an attempt to connect at least three geographically and temporally distinct phases of terror that had once been thought of as the work of different criminals. It was McNamara who finally brought together law enforcement officials, past and present, who had once worked the case on their own, rarely reaching out to share evidence and theories with peers. The killer told one of his victims he’d be gone in the darkness. His darkness claimed the woman who was determined to expose and punish him. But this story ends in sunlight, the commonality of experience illuminated. McNamara flipped the switch.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark Is a Must-See True-Crime Story