“Reign of Terror” chronicles the exploits of the Golden State Killer from a deeply human angle, laying blame at the feet of a sexist culture that was more eager to blame victims than condemn rapists.
This recap of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark episode 2, “Reign of Terror”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
While I’ll Be Gone in the Dark episode 2 is concerned with its titular reign of terror, the progression of the EAR/ONS from a relatively unknown serial rapist to the Golden State Killer, a notorious murderer who terrorized not just lone women but couples in their homes, it’s equally concerned with the late-70s culture which allowed such a perpetrator to exist unchecked for so long. In that sense, it stops being about one killer or the one woman who devoted the latter period of her life to tracking that killer down and becomes about larger, more insidious, systemic systems of sexism, victim-blaming, and rape culture.
HBO’s docuseries is very good at finding a just-right balance between its true-crime story and the relevant personal and cultural contexts that it’s being told in. The first episode was as much a meet-cute love story between Michelle McNamara and Patton Oswalt as it was an examination of amateur sleuthing as a burgeoning pastime enabled by the internet, and “Reign of Terror” is as much the morbid breakdown of a killer’s meticulous MO as it is a condemnation of dated – though persisting – attitudes to women and sexual assault. Its interviews with real survivors and the splicing in of authentic news reports and archived PSAs creates the impression of a culture that was eager to blame anyone for rape except, of course, the actual rapist.
It isn’t just the attitudes towards women that are detailed in these accounts but the attitudes shared among women, for whom subservience and acquiescence were almost instinctual. I’m not sure I’d have thought about this if I’ll Be Gone in the Dark hadn’t made it explicit, but in highlighting the generally dismissive attitude towards rape at the time, and the overwhelming saturation of men in positions that would be responsible for handling rape cases and victims, it becomes disturbingly clear how these women who had already been violated were repeatedly subjected to further invasions of privacy by more men who didn’t take their plight seriously in the first place.
Because of this, it’s shocking and morbidly fascinating that EAR/ONS began targeting couples rather than lone women. But the way that “Reign of Terror” presents this development is clever and powerful, honing in on the reactions of these men who learned the hard way that rape is not a minor inconvenience for deserving women, but one of the most heinous crimes one human being can commit against another. These men weren’t hog-tied and make to listen to the violation of their spouses because they were flirty or provocatively dressed; they were emasculated and rendered utterly powerless at the whims of a madman for no good reason, and the camera is careful to soak in the horror on their faces as their partners give their accounts.
Through these deeply personal accounts, we also begin to get a sense of EAR/ONS’s deranged personality, taking media reports of his crimes as a kind of dare. His targeting of couples was a direct response to the news claiming he didn’t enter homes where men were present; if that isn’t the starkest example of petty one-upmanship you’ve ever heard, I’d be surprised, but it’s also how he, at a time when several serial rapists were believed to be simultaneously active, he made a name for himself. And his reign of terror was just beginning.
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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.