Insightful, moving, and a stirring tribute to the hard work and diligence of a woman whose untimely death remains one mystery that might never be solved.
This recap of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark episode 5, “Monsters Recede but Never Vanish”, contains spoilers. You can check out our thoughts on the previous episode by clicking these words.
In its bittersweet fifth episode, “Monsters Recede but Never Vanish”, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark reaches two momentous moments: the capture of Joseph James DeAngelo, aka the Golden State Killer, and the tragic, untimely death of Michelle McNamara. While the latter occurred before the former, the two are inextricably linked; Michelle was not a victim of the infamous serial rapist and murderer, but his heinous exploits consumed her and almost certainly accelerated her death. Her efforts allowed for his capture, though, and while she never got to see the outcome she predicted and helped to facilitate, her family, friends, and the victims on whose behalf she campaigned all knew that justice was brought about in large part by what she was willing to sacrifice – her own health and ultimately life included.
McNamara’s death was a surprise to everyone, despite the cocktail of prescription medications in her system; at one point, Patton Oswalt describes the casual way she’d mention what she was taking and why, and how little attention he paid to it, in that classic way that people do when they fastidiously analyze a situation in retrospect, wondering where they went wrong. But the truth is probably that nobody could have predicted the precise confluence of stressors that tipped Michelle over the edge – everything from a family history of depression to a possible sexual assault of her own to being so immersed in the exploits and psyche of a deranged serial killer. She was loved, deeply, and well-respected, but none of that light was enough to permeate overwhelming darkness.
Michelle speaks of that in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark episode 5; a looming specter hovering over her deadlines, her marriage, her life, even when the GSK entered a period of inactivity after May 1986. A similar pall descends over Patton Oswalt following Michelle’s death, and he speaks candidly about trying to salvage shreds of normality in those times, and especially about having to break the news to their daughter, whose own insights are surprisingly profound. Oswalt’s Netflix comedy special Annihilation is frequently excerpted, to sometimes jarring effect, and he speaks relatably about the sudden loss of a loved one to a moved crowd.
But grieving wasn’t the only responsibility Oswalt took on in Michelle’s absence – he, alongside her research partner Paul Haynes and true-crime specialist Billy Jensen, endeavored to finish her book, which was a lengthy, complex process for everyone and an especially painful and personal one for Oswalt. He immersed himself so thoroughly in her headspace and combed so minutely through her words that it must have felt as if she never went anywhere; a particularly cruel sentence to bestow upon oneself.
But it was worth it. Renewed interest around the case and Michelle’s interest in tracing genealogy through DNA helped to narrow the potential suspect pool. Eventually, Joseph DeAngelo was caught, thanks to his own arrogance and mistakes and Michelle’s diligence, even when, in her absence, it was being applied second-hand by people who loved her enough to inherit it. I wish Michelle herself could have written an ending to her book, but I’m glad her death wasn’t its conclusion.