Television

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark Episode 2 “Reign of Terror” Recap and Review

This week’s episode opens with hypno-therapy. Lori, a survivor of an attack by the EAR, responds shakily to questions as we watch shadowy tree branches seem to elongate over suburban streets and lawns. They creep silently into Lori’s backyard, where she remembers seeing a man standing on the patio, looking up at her.

“How would you describe his face?” asks the interviewer. 

Lori answers, “Mean.”

Aimee Mann’s eerie cover of “Avalanche” by Leonard Cohen plays over the opening visuals, which elicit a sense of deep unease that is already the calling card of this show, without exploitative or deliberately graphic and upsetting imagery. So far, the first two episodes have followed this template–showing us not the acts of violence, but the seemingly benign tableaus against which they occurred. Window blinds, beer cans, and dinner plates are all re-cast in an ominous light. This style seems strategic: the story is scary enough, and it does not need to prop itself up on the shock-value of gore.

Instead, we are treated to footage from an EAR-era documentary, ostensibly designed to help women avoid becoming the victims of sexual assault. At a place called Vacaville Medical Facility, a group of male rapists are gathered together, describing how they picked their victims, and what made them more likely to kill. “For today’s woman to understand the rapist,” we are told by a narrator, “she’s gotta learn to understand the man.”

Photograph by Courtesy of HBO

Melanie, whom Michelle called The Social Worker, explains that, “rape in the seventies was a crime like a simple assault. It was not considered a big deal.” Retired Sacramento detective Richard Shelby is in agreement, and describes the Sacramento of the 1970s, a place where rape cases received little attention from news outlets.

It wasn’t just the civilian public who regarded these cases as more easily dismissed. Survivor Linda O’Dell shares that in the wake of her attack, it seemed like the male officers were uncertain how to handle her, acting awkward or even cold as they collected evidence. When Detective Carol Daly (now retired) showed up, Linda says she was “so grateful that she was there.”

Survivor Gay Hardwick also discusses what it felt like when the police arrived after the EAR’s attack, and the sense that she and her husband Bob were “just a piece of evidence in our own home…[not] allowed to use the restroom” or go to the hospital, because the precinct had a policy that a female officer must accompany a female victim–and there were no women on hand. 

Gay describes it as “phase two of what goes on after an attack,” the aftermath that plays out after the most dramatic moments are over. “There you are…in shock. And now there are four more men in the room that you don’t know. To have somebody else sit down next to you while you’re still unclothed and take out a knife and have to cut the bindings off was scary, too.” 

Bob, who was bound and threatened by the EAR, has less to say than his wife. He mentions that following their attack, some of his good friends asked him why he wasn’t able to do more. He grips his wife’s hand as he explains that even if he’d had a gun right on the nightstand, he would probably still have been powerless. Today, he just tries not to think of it. “I blocked all that out,” he shares. “It was years ago…my defense mechanisms have blocked everything out.”

“I don’t think a lot of men knew how to deal with it, to be honest,” says Linda, remembering her husband’s reaction and reluctance to talk about what they had suffered together. “I know that he cared and it felt terrible, but I don’t think he wanted to relive it either.” 

Kris Pedretti recalls sharing details about her attack with a friend over the phone, when she realized that her father was listening on the other line, furious with her for divulging what he felt should stay buried. “I think at that moment,” she says, “that would probably be the beginning of the feeling of shame.” 

Nancy Miller, the LA Magazine editor who worked with Michelle on the first piece she published about the EAR, “In the Footsteps of a Killer,” echoes the sentiment that society was ill-equipped. “Fifty rapes,” she reflects, describing the experience of reading Michelle’s first draft. “No one wants to talk about that part of the story really…we just didn’t necessarily have the tools or the culture to treat the victims in the way that they probably needed at that time.”

The emphasis throughout the discussion is on the culture of the time, and how there was not enough support or understanding for survivors of sexual assault. The implication of this point seems to be that we have progressed since then. And in some ways we have—certainly there’s been backlash in recent years against the “boys will be boys” attitude (showcased in the documentary we are shown), which hinges on the universally offensive idea that men are simply inherently prone to assault, and it’s the responsibility of women to ward them off. 

It’s also worth noting, though, that there are still countless recent examples of sexual violence against women not being handled with the gravity it requires, from the case of Chanel Miller, to that of Oluwatoyin Salau. Although society’s indifference toward sexual violence was an important factor at the time the EAR was active, we’d be remiss not to acknowledge that we still have a very long ways to go in this regard.

At this point in the narrative, investigators and journalists still seemed to believe that the EAR might not expand his purview to murder. He was proud and easily goaded, and would often tell his victims to deliver a message that those he encountered next would be killed. And yet, he never seemed to make good on those promises. Still, some expected that he would eventually pivot to killing, and that it was only a matter of time. 

Retired detective Larry Crompton discusses how the lack of cooperation between police jurisdictions was a major roadblock to progress in the case, because each county deemed its cases unconnected and refused to communicate. It was in this way that the murders of the Maggiores, a young couple chased down and shot while out walking their dog, slipped through the cracks. Carol Daly mentions that at one point, it was suggested that the homicide might be related to the EAR’s case–but then the idea was dismissed. Investigators speculate today that the Maggiores  must have seen too much. Police were working diligently to predict when the EAR might escalate to murder, blithely unaware that he had already done so. 

Photograph by Courtesy of HBO

Michelle makes an observation in this episode, about the feeling of willful reluctance when you sense something is wrong, but can’t confirm it. You’re warm in your bed, so far removed. To confront it would be to acknowledge the problem, and make yourself a part of the story. We learn that unknowingly subverting this pattern was how she initially became interested in unsolved crimes. When she was fourteen, a neighbor of hers was killed. “It just seemed so unbelievable to me that someone among us was a cold-blooded killer who had cut this woman’s throat,” she says. Rather than expecting that someone else among her neighbors would take charge, she became suspicious of them, obsessed with the idea that this atrocity could have been committed by someone she knew. “Everyone else moved on, and I just couldn’t.”  

But still, this sort of horror story often unspools in the minds of privileged white people, allowing for a shedding of responsibility. Confronting something unfamiliar is hard, and dangerous. What’s more, how can you justify the effort of involving yourself when you could get hurt, or make a misstep? This mode of thinking can lead people to feel, “This is not my problem, surely someone else will step in if it’s really serious, and I can ignore it and hope that it goes away before it affects me.” 

Perhaps that is part of what made the EAR so scary back in the Sacramento of the seventies. He was so prolific and so steadfast, that he attacked even those who initially felt safe from him. His reach was wide enough that eventually, it was impossible for anyone to feel he wasn’t their problem. His power was in his persistence. 

“I just don’t think he was an evil genius,” says Michelle in this week’s episode. “I think if you’re out every night at 2am trying to break into people’s houses it’s a numbers game. At a certain point you’re gonna be successful.” As we now know for certain, this killer certainly practiced often enough to stack the odds in his favor.

It’s impossible to talk about I’ll Be Gone in the Dark today without acknowledging the trial that took place earlier this week. In the socially-distanced ballroom of his alma mater Cal State Sacramento, where he earned a degree in Criminal Justice, 74-year-old Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. admitted to the charges brought against him and more–taking ownership of the entire odious legacy of The Golden State Killer. His story isn’t that of a dark and tortured genius. DeAngelo was a misogynist, a hyper-focused planner, and ultimately, a man who could not bring himself to meet the eyes of those who suffered at his hand. Like many who hide in shadows, he withered in the light. 

Check out what you missed in the first episode of the docuseries.

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