Jessica Roach was 15 years old when Larry Hall murdered her. This episode of Black Bird tells two stories about her.
One of these stories is Larry’s to tell. As his “friend” Jimmy Keene sits listening, visibly holding back tears and choking down disgust and sadness — unmistakably so, unless you’re as absorbed in your own world as Larry Hall — Larry reveals how he encountered Jessica as she walked her bike down a country road with a flat tire. He offered her a ride, and she took it. She showed interest in his bike, in his “burnsides” (she called them “sideburns,” he laments), and possibly in his cleaning supplies, though it seems likely this was his own delusion. She was nice, he said, right up until she wasn’t — until he kissed her.
Then he knocked her out with a rag soaked in starter fluid, again and again. He beat her and raped her. Eventually, he marched her out to a tree, tied a pair of belts around her neck, and twisted them with a stick like a tourniquet until she died.
At some point, she cried for her mommy.
That is Larry Hall’s version of Jessica Roach’s story. For all intents and purposes, she didn’t exist until she crossed his path, at which point she was subsumed by his own story, the story of a serial killer. For as long as I’ve been familiar with the concept of serial killers, this has struck me as the ultimate injustice — that women and girls with rich, full lives of their own become footnotes in someone else’s Wikipedia entry.
But this is not the only story of Jessica Roach that we hear.
Courtesy of writer/creator Dennis Lehane, we hear the story of Jessica’s life from Jessica (Laney Stiebing) herself. She was once a little girl who went to the ocean — the only time she ever saw it — after her grandmother’s funeral. She was a seventh grader, and a boy with a crush on her told her she was nice. She was a 12-year-old, and she and her sister got their new sneakers dirty and washed them out, walking and talking as they dried. She got a mountain bike from her parents for her birthday.
“You can die,” she says, “but you can’t un-live. I lived.”
She concludes, “It was great.”
With this simple act, this insistence on giving Larry Hall’s sole legally accredited victim a voice in her own story, Black Bird earns my undying respect. Why should the killers monopolize the stories of the lives they snuffed out? Why shouldn’t their victims, vibrant and alive and full of their own hopes and fears and dreams, have a say in how they are remembered? If a show about the murder of girls doesn’t treat them as fully human and possessing agency, who will?
The plight of Jimmy Keene, an all-American cop’s-son drug dealer and gun-runner, is nothing compared to what Jessica went through; you can handwave it away and never think about it again. But it’s very real to Jimmy, who, at this point in his undercover stay in Larry Hall’s prison, sees suspicious glances from everyone he passes in the hall or in the yard.
At first, this is revealed, in a striking edit, to be just paranoia, the fearful supposition of a guy who knows he’s on borrowed time until the guard he crossed outs him to his fellow prisoners. But that guard does have it in for him and starts spreading the word — particularly to Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, the former Five Families mob boss who was, however briefly, Jimmy’s rabbi on the inside. “Snitch” is clearly audible in the guard’s conversation with the mafioso, and with that, Jimmy’s living on borrowed time. He can ill afford the additional setbacks placed in his way — the new prison psychiatrist taking the place of the vacationing doctor who’s one of the only people who know who he really is and why he’s there, the telephone account mysteriously cut off to prevent him from reaching the outside world, or vice versa. (Ray Liotta, as his dad Big Jim, is particularly affecting as he sits outside the prison, glowering and tearing up and completely unable to contact his son.)
But could Jimmy possibly stomach much more of being Larry Hall’s “friend” regardless? Not after this episode, I don’t think. The conversation during which Larry confesses the details of Jessica’s rape and murder takes a visible toll on Jimmy even as it’s still taking place. His eyes water and twitch. His smile jitters around the edges as if surface tension prevents his face from taking the right shape. When it’s all over, Jimmy retreats to his cell and sobs into his hands, nearly retching. At long last, the horror of what he’s come to this place to reveal has hit home. It’s no longer just a mission to shorten his sentence, a challenge to be overcome, or a subject of morbid curiosity. It’s real, and actor Taron Egerton conveys that reality with every tool in his arsenal. After this episode, I’ll follow him wherever he goes — he’s that good, that sad, that devastating.
But he’s also, it needs to be said, funny, in a dark way. When he encounters the new psychiatrist (Melanie Nicholls-King), she asks him, “Why are you here?” When he repeats the question back at her, she says, “To treat mental illness.” “You came to the right place,” he deadpans. He quickly understands that her primary concern is not him but the harmful effect he might have on her other patients’ mental health — presumably Larry Hall’s. She cuts the appointment short when he can’t get her to specify who she means. You can feel his horizons of hope shrinking with each passing second.
Even while all this is happening, Detective Miller and Agent McCauley are at work on the outside, trying to put together more evidence against Hall. Their long and winding road takes them to a bait and tackle shop where the owner’s daughter recalls Larry’s creepy attempts to sidle up to her, culminating in the gift of, you guessed it, a mountain bike. It’s clearly Jessica Roach’s, but with no chain of custody and the serial number scored off with acid, the district attorney refuses to accept it as evidence. The likelihood that Larry buried another victim in a construction site that’s now a gas station just a few miles down the road is even less productive in the case against this guy.
There’s only one episode of Black Bird remaining, and presumably Jimmy will report his findings to his contacts (if he can reach them) and leave a free man. But can he ever be free of Larry Hall? Can he live with being a man who befriended a monster? Will Larry’s story of Jessica be the only one he’ll remember?