“I’ll Be Gone In the Dark”–Don’t Watch This Alone at Night

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, a six-part HBO documentary series based on Michelle McNamara’s  book,  explores the author and  her obsessive investigation into the dark world of the “The Golden State Killer”  who terrorized California in the 1970s and 80s.  It is mostly due to McNamara’s investigative reporting that this cold case was kept alive and solved.  Incredibly,  that didn’t happen until  late 2018 when the perpetrator was identified, charged and convicted of 50 rapes and 12 murders out of more than 100 known rapes.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark paints  an intricate tapestry of a convoluted flawed investigation that challenged police for decades. Bureaucratic dysfunction was rampant.  The lack of interjurisdictional cooperation, unwieldy early phase DNA technology, and a blatant sexist culture enabled the Golden State Killer to roam free for close to 40 years.  Victims were treated as responsible in part for  their rapes by the way they dressed and the way the women freely walked through their own suburban neighborhoods at night.  The  extensive archival footage as well as interviews with detectives, survivors and family members of the killer are riveting.  More than forty years later, the viewer sees the horror of the crime itself as well as the sustained impact  on the victims and their families.  Interviews with the husbands or boyfriends are similarly unsettling as many of them were traumatized or in denial in a culture in which rape is not yet fully viewed for what it is…a violent, heinous crime.

One of the least expected features of  I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is the backstory of McNamara. Her sensitive uncovering of the cold cases of the women begins with her True Crime Diaries blog.   She hones her  skills as an amateur sleuth more competent than some of the police she deals with as she crosses the state looking for clues.  The subtext is her obsession with finding the rapist and murderer. She suspects from the beginning that the rapist is a solitary agent personifying “alchemized hate” for the victims.  It turns out that the victims are  stand-ins for a fiancée who broke off the assailant’s engagement.  His violence grows and the viewer sees him trespass, invade a home, violently assault his victims in the middle of the night, and then reach for a beer and food in the kitchen refrigerator.  Chilling indeed.

After more than  ten years of dogged analysis of internet clues, hunting for mementos the killer sold online, and visits to the victims’ homes, her determination to find the killer and rapist eventually exacts a toll on McNamara.   At first,  she feels that she manages the horrors of the crimes at arms-length.  But eventually, McNamara has to take sleeping pills and  anti-anxiety drugs, gets a gun and installs a complicated security system  as she is encouraged to write a book about her research. Tragically Michelle McNamara died of an accidental overdose while in reach of the deadline for her book.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a depiction of the most evil and poisonous of human acts, in scene after scene of crushing helplessness and the courage of the survivor, even when that horror was half a lifetime ago.  I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is not for the faint-of-heart–and keep the lights on, if you decide to watch this!

Note: Joseph James DeAngelo, now seventy-four,  was finally identified, partly through McNamara’s detective work, in close collaboration with retired detectives, forensic specialists and geneticists who used a gene/ancestry database to track DeAngelo down.  He pleaded guilty to more than a dozen murders and scores of rapes on June 29 and was sentenced to eleven consecutive life sentences without parole.

Note: Barbara Rae-Venter, a renowned geneticist,  is the main resource for solving the genetic puzzle that  emerged in the Golden State Killer investigation.  She has since inspired others skilled at solving family history puzzles to offer their services to law enforcement. While this has resulted in  arrests, not everyone in genetics database technology is  comfortable with the alliance with law enforcement.  See the August 29, 2018 article on Venter and the June 28, 2020 article on genetics genealogy and its methodology to identify the DNA.

“Game of Thrones” — “Rome” Meets “Lord of the Rings”

Depending upon the viewer’s tolerance for over-the-top nudity and gratuitous violence (albeit infrequently), this Emmy-nominated HBO series created by David Benioff and D.B. Weiss can be a guilty pleasure. An entrancing, seductive ten-episode TV miniseries, “Game of Thrones” is a compelling, carefully crafted drama about a mythical, magical medieval world.

Nicknamed the American Tolkien, George R.R. Martin has authored the best-selling fantasy epic series A Song of Ice and Fire. “Game of Thrones” is based on the first book in the series. Episode One opens with one of the most harrowing and genuinely cold-blooded scenes I can remember ever watching, especially for a fantasy drama. Amputated arms and legs are strewn across a stark, snowy forest glen, filmed overhead with slow, gliding camera movements. A man wanders from his two friends to discover the carnage but when the three men return, the body parts have vanished.

As is true for many sci-fi and fantasy novels, I needed an organization chart and a family tree for each of the main characters and his or her families–in this case seven kingdoms or clans struggling for the Iron Throne of Westeros, a medieval world facing an impending forty-year winter.

I don’t know if it was an intentional casting move to feature Sean Bean as a main character in “Game of Thrones” based on his previous role in “Lord of the Rings”, but the comparison between the two epics is obvious. In both epics all main characters are outliers. In “Game of Thrones” one character is a sole survivor of a family massacre, one is a bastard, one part dragon, one a girl who wishes she were a boy, to name only a few.

Some of the subplots are convoluted too, only to pull this viewer into its recesses. For example, one princess is forced to marry a king of a “barbaric” tribe but she is determined to understand her husband’s culture and eventually…and contentedly… fits into his society. The rape and pillage, not even subtly associated with Attila the Hun, allows the viewer not only to sympathize with the princess but also with her husband–no mean feat!

Arguments can be made that this series reduces some characters to racist or misogynist stereotypes. However, if the viewer focuses on the handful of intricately drawn portraits, especially those of the dwarf (Peter Dinklage) and the heir to the Stark clan (Sean Bean), moral ambivalence about the world they fight to preserve yet wish to transcend is clearly maintained.

I have never been a “Dungeons and Dragons”, Tolkien, or “Watership Down” fan but this fantasy miniseries feels more like an epic history of mythological proportions, analogous to the retelling of the generational conflicts, political intrigue and betrayal in the “Rome” miniseries, also from HBO (2005). All the requisite blockbuster devices of bloody battle scenes, nudity, political corruption, and even humor are present in each episode. However, the superb writing, mostly noteworthy acting, and stunning cinematography contribute to the tremendous appeal of “Game of Thrones”. Like “Rome” or “Dexter”, there may not be a socially redeeming, “intellectual” component, but the story is addicting and highly spell-binding. This is no “Mildred Pierce”, also a strong Emmy contender (see my last blog post) yet the white snow and dark shadows of this story made “Game of Thrones” a winner for me!

“Mildred Pierce”–Definitely NOT “Mommy Dearest”

“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child!” King Lear bemoans in the famous Shakespearean scene. And so does Mildred Pierce as the mother who must suffer the unbearable pain of loving her decidedly unlovable elder daughter Veda. “Mildred Pierce”, the five-part HBO miniseries based on a 1941 book by James M. Cain, is a remake of the Academy Award-winning 1945 movie starring Joan Crawford (of Mommy Dearest fame) and turns Mommy Dearest upside down. Nominated for a record 21 Emmy awards, Kate Winslet mesmerizes in the title role.

After divorcing her philandering husband, Mildred learns to develop her self-worth first through waitressing, slowly understanding and appreciating what the working class woman must endure. Her older daughter, Veda, however, venomously taunts her mother about their lack of money, their reduced social status, and living in Glendale instead of a tonier part of Los Angeles. Veda even assumes a British accent to fantasize about the life she thinks she deserves, not the life she is living.

Mildred is vehemently blind to the sacrifices she is making for her two daughters, forgiving the unforgivable. Desperate to maintain her home and her daughters’ future, her only marketable skill seems to be making pies. I had to suspend my disbelief that Mildred Pierce could be so successful owning and managing three upscale restaurants during the Depression.

The mother-daughter relationship is the heart of this series, with deep wounds on both sides. Mildred encourages the arrogance and self-entitlement in Veda, even against her better judgment. There is a hint that Mildred believes some of the accusations her daughter makes and is ashamed. Veda is angry and resentful, but we are not quite aware of how ugly her sense of abandonment is nor how lonely she must have been. Veda’s mind is irreparably sinister and damaged and Mildred never quite grasps the daughter’s true nature.

Mildred lacks common sense too. Blind to her own neediness, she falls for the slacker, Monty (smarmily portrayed by Guy Pearce), a man of great wealth who seems to enjoy playing polo and drinking, but not much else. Soon Mildred’s life starts spiraling downward in assuming a more lavish lifestyle to please Monty and Veda, now a young and promising singer (played chillingly by Evan Rachel Wood).

Director Todd Haynes explores Depression-era economic hardship and the pettiness of married life, with scathing scenes reminiscent of the intimate detail he brought to the superb “Far From Heaven.” Here he again captures the mood and time of a given period with intricate details and faithful attention to the nuances of life’s options for those of a given social class. After a very slow-paced start we have come to expect from a Masterpiece Theater miniseries or other BBC costume dramas, “Mildred Pierce” becomes increasingly riveting. There are a few unfortunate lapses in dialogue that jerk you into wondering what the writers could possibly have been thinking. For example, “Want to get stinko anyone?”

Winslet underplays the role, allowing the subtleties of her transformation to surface slowly, resulting in startling and powerful responses to acts of betrayal from those she loves so blindly. Evan Rachel Wood is every bit Kate Winslet’s match in scene after scene in their snake-fanged relationship.

This HBO series enters virtually uninhabited territory, the disintegration of a fundamental relationship–between mother and daughter–into one of terror and agony. Far from the commercial blockbuster theatrics we are exposed to over and over again, “Mildred Pierce” deals with the unmentionable and incomprehensible. I loved it!