A person known as the “Golden State Killer” terrorized Californians for over a decade in the late 20th century. Now, in the same week that Joseph DeAngelo finally confessed to the string of horrendous actions, HBO has released the first episode in a six-part documentary series following one crime writer’s journey in uncovering the heinous trail of the man whom she gave the infamous nickname.
Based on a book by the late author Michelle McNamara, the series “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” — the title based on words DeAngelo spoke to one of his victims over the phone — centers on McNamara’s research methods while collecting data on the East Area Rapist, another of his many spine-chilling nicknames, after his Sacramento-area crimes were connected to similar situations occurring in Southern California.
The series opens in April 2018, where Patton Oswalt, McNamara’s husband, is seen signing copies of his wife’s book, which holds the same title as the show. Throughout the episode, passages of the novel are read by Amy Ryan as viewers are introduced to EARONS, an acronym for the East Area Rapist and Original Night Stalker.
Although McNamara unfortunately passed away in 2016, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” shows analogue footage from 2011 of her talking about the Golden State Killer. “The great tragedy of this case to me is that it’s not better known,” she says in the recordings, noting how the Zodiac Killer is not the only horror Northern California had experienced in the latter half of the century.
Some of DeAngelo’s victims were as young as 15 years old, and a few of these survivors were interviewed about their experiences and how DeAngelo’s abuse affected them later in life. From a documentary perspective, calling on survivors to recount their trauma on camera is always in poor taste. While the stories make you want to double check all of your door locks immediately, they serve no other purpose than to exploit the fears of these women.
Alongside highlighting the reporting and interviewing involved subjects, the documentary explores McNamara’s developing passion for following true crime stories and posting blogs with her latest findings and theories. Interviews with current crime podcasters and friends of the author who were inspired by her drive are also peppered throughout the show, honoring the work she had done right up until her death.
The series is written to be in six parts, but based on the pacing of the first episode and repetition of information, it seems like this story was stretched to fill space more than anything. Unless the next five episodes are packed full of engaging interviews and information, the premiere seemed to be a sparse introduction focused on the hows and whos rather than the whats and whys.
To stretch the premiere episode even further, the show unnecessarily illuminated Oswalt’s comedy career and sidetracked from the case by following how Oswalt and McNamara met and eventually married. While this piece of the show was delicate and heartwarming, it seemed to serve as a filler episode that was already reaching for whatever it could grab.
While the show says it focuses on the case’s exposition, there is a surprising amount of time focused on McNamara alone. It is understandable that Oswalt wanted to honor his wife with extensive features in this documentary, but ultimately, the placement feels inappropriate paired with so many somber details about a serial rapist and murderer. People may be coming to hear the haunting history of the Golden State Killer, but it may take a long time to truly get there.