I’ll Be Gone in the Dark combines memoir and mystery in an intimate, riveting exploration of Michelle McNamara’s work and home life.
This review of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (HBO) is spoiler-free.
Liz Garbus’s new documentary series I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, a six-part adaptation of Michelle McNamara’s same-titled book about the “Golden State Killer”, is as much a memoir as a mystery, which is what’s so effective about it. It’s about many things, several of which have been covered before in various true-crime films and series’; the amateur sleuthing made possible by enthusiast message boards and other online archives (as seen in Netflix’s runaway hit Don’t F*ck With Cats), the meticulous process of combing over crime scenes and reports and accounts of those involved with the heinous crimes, and that very specific feeling of unease you get from knowing these events actually happened. But its examination of McNamara’s life, relationships, burgeoning popularity, and untimely death two years before the publication of the book are what give this new show its specific power.
If there’s a question looming over all this, it’s to what extent this version offers new insight into the original work, but that seems needlessly picky given how well each informs the other. McNamara’s manuscript was put together and published by a team, including her husband, the comedian Patton Oswalt, who feature strongly in this series as they help to unpack Michelle’s personal life alongside details of the case that occupied so much of her time and attention: That of the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker (EAR/ONS), more commonly known as the Golden State Killer, Joseph James DeAngelo.
The true-crime appeal of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is, obviously, the progression of the investigation into this notorious serial rapist and murderer; but the intimacy and emotion come from the fact that McNamara didn’t live to see that killer’s apprehension, largely on the strength of her own efforts. The whole thing is rich with tragedy, felt deeply for the victims but also for McNamara herself, who by all accounts seemed a warm, empathetic, and self-effacing truth-seeker whose valuable work saved lives – but not her own.
HBO’s series is determined to unpack both of these aspects. It’s rigorous in its details of the crimes, folding in oodles of evidence and testimony from the current and retired detectives who were involved in the case, while also tracing the parallel story of McNamara’s increasingly popular work and the culture of amateur sleuths who looked to her as the figurehead of an enthusiast subculture only made possible by the development of technology. But within all this is a moving love story between McNamara and Patton Oswalt, whose frequent appearances always have a ring of sadness about them. He loved his wife dearly, and for good reason; that essential connection gives I’ll Be Gone in the Dark an intimacy that most true-crime shows, even the best ones, sorely lack.
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Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.