“Murder Habit” details the earliest EAR/ONS crimes, while introducing Michelle McNamara through her work and those closest to it.
This recap of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark season 1, episode 1, “Murder Habit”, contains spoilers. You can check out our spoiler-free thoughts on the season by clicking these words.
“Murder Habit”, the first episode of HBO’s new docuseries I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, opens with the words of Michelle McNamara being typed on the screen. This, it turns out, is a fitting device. The words are being read aloud by Amy Ryan, but they’re Michelle’s – they detail the pull that unsolved crimes had on her, and the so-called murder habit she developed. They establish this first episode as an introduction to this amateur sleuth whose empathy and rigorous attention to investigation led her to become a well-known name in the field of true crime, and almost to catching the notorious Golden State Killer.
What we pick up on immediately in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark episode 1 is that this wasn’t just a fun hobby for Michelle; she cared deeply about the crimes she was investigating and about investigating them in a way that eschewed sensationalism and hysteria in favor of a journalistic comprehensiveness. The words being typed on-screen are clever because Michelle did so much of her investigation on her laptop, on message boards, and forums full of other budding stay-at-home detectives, but we also see her recognize the importance of getting a first-hand perspective. A turning point for her, as explained by her husband, the comedian Patton Oswalt, was when she first visited a crime scene in person.
Oswalt is one of many talking heads in “Murder Habit”; he’s joined by friends and retired detectives who worked on or around the case of the East Area Rapist/Original Night Stalker (EAR/ONS). But enough of this first episode is given over to Michelle’s own voice, words, and methodology that it always feels couched in her specific perspective. That perspective was found most readily in a blog called True Crime Diary that enticed an enthusiastic readership with its similarities to detective fiction, with Michelle cast as the intrepid gumshoe.
EAR/ONS, fittingly then, became her nemesis. This premiere concerns the perpetrator’s earliest crimes, a series of rapes starting in the Sacramento suburbs, and lays out the MO with meticulous detail that’s as riveting as any fiction, perhaps doubly so for its basis in fact. At the same time, the media attention – or, at first, the lack of it – runs parallel to the early stages of the investigation, showing once again that symbiosis between old-fashioned boots-on-the-ground investigative work and a newer form of always-online amateur sleuthing that Michelle helped to popularize.
But what gives “Murder Habit” its touching edge is how it also delves into Michelle’s personal life, especially her relationship with Oswalt, and footage of him performing stand-up beaming with love and appreciation for his wife give her untimely demise an extra sting. We see her burgeoning popularity here, especially online, but she remains a self-effacing figure who toils away in the background and devotes her emotional labor to the victims of the crimes she’s investigating, and not her own role as the lead in this story of real horror presented to the masses.
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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.