A year ago, HBO’s “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” emerged as something truly special — a true-crime series with a sense of probing curiosity that extended beyond the lurid. Based on the work of the late writer Michelle McNamara, the series achieved a sort of double feat. It worked both as an exacting and meticulous recreation of McNamara’s work to identify the man she called the “Golden State Killer” and as a moody, unsettled examination of McNamara’s life, and the ways in which her work consumed her.
The series was a small, nearly perfect thing in a genre distinguished by bombast and lack of care; had I not been on family leave during list-making season, it would have placed high in my top ten of 2020. That it did not encompass every detail of the Golden State Killer aftermath — that life continued to march on after it was made and released — seemed less a flaw than a part of its overarching melancholy.
But it must have been hard for the creative forces behind the series to resist revisiting the story after the August 2020 sentencing of Joseph D’Angelo, the former California cop who was also the serial rapist and murderer McNamara indentified. And so HBO is to air a special episode, directed by Elizabeth Wolff and executive produced by Liz Garbus (both of whom worked on the series that preceded it), examining the aftermath of D’Angelo’s deeds as well as their ramifications within the justice system. The argument for this episode might include the fact that it provides victims and their families catharsis, through airing their voices and allowing them to begin the healing process. But in the main, the special episode is at best an unnecessary addendum, and at worst a subtle undoing of some of what made “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” such a standout.
This episode builds towards a series of victim-impact statements, delivered in a courtroom prior to D’Angelo’s sentencing. Much has been written about the prejudicial nature of these statements in our justice system, and the ways in which they stack the deck against defendants — defendants who, even when we might recoil when considering them, are constitutionally entitled to a fair trial. Leaving aside qualms about the existence of this device in the American courtroom, the statements themselves are unpleasant, punishing television.
The daughter of one of D’Angelo’s murder victims — someone who has suffered immeasurably due to his crimes — expresses on the stand her dream of seeing D’Angelo “shivering, blindfolded, naked, and exposed every moment from now on.” The next speaker spins out a notion of D’Angelo being repeatedly raped in prison “by masked inmates.” “I would want Mr. D’Angelo to suffer for the rest of his life like my wife has suffered with this going on 42 years now,” this victim says. It is difficult not to minimize the real pain these individuals justly feel while noting that this unburdening of revenge fantasy extends beyond what is useful in administering justice, or bearable to watch.
The episode is brought to its full running time with recollections of McNamara’s own sparking interest in solving crimes in her youth. We see news footage and witness recollections pertaining to the unsolved rape and murder of Kathy Lombardo in McNamara’s hometown in 1984. McNamara’s own voice tells us that as she encountered evidence in this close-to-home killing, “I had a murder habit, and it was bad, and I would feed it for the rest of my life.” This is an insight whose implications we already know — we’ve seen over the course of the first iteration of “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” just how dogged McNamara was. And it doesn’t feel successfully braided into the story of D’Angelo’s sentencing, existing as further context for and amplification of a story that made its case for itself through intriguing understatement.
The best one can say for this new episode — and it’s not nothing — is that it provides a voice for the unheard, both the victims of D’Angelo finally getting their day in court and McNamara, lost to death but with extant recordings continuing to amplify her story. But much of what’s said is either a bit redundant or painfully self-explanatory: We can understand that rape and murder are the deepest traumas that exist in society without hearing survivors unspool their own rape fantasies. And viewers already knew McNamara was brilliant and passionate, thanks to a series that, unusually, matched her rigor and her deep thoughtfulness. That’s a high standard to live up to, and this new episode can’t get there.
The special episode of “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” airs on HBO Monday, June 21 at 10 p.m. ET/PT.