Television

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark Series Finale “Walk Into the Light” – Review & Recap

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I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is distinctive in its genre for its focus on victims and their families, and on Michelle and her loved ones and colleagues. My past reviews have celebrated the diversion from the “twisted mind of a killer” narratives that much of true crime media crafts.

In the series finale, however, we get a taste of this perspective. “All of my work is interest in the human psyche,” says Melanie Barbeau (“The Social Worker,” and Michelle’s friend). “What makes people…turn out the way they are. I’m really interested in what made Joe DeAngelo become the East Area Rapist.” 

When I heard this I was wary—disappointed, even. After all, this show has distinguished itself by steering pointedly away from this tired tradition and toward a more compassionate and deliberate perspective. 

I can understand why shows like Mindhunter receive acclaim, and why so many of the people drawn to true crime develop fascinations with the perpetrators. This phenomenon has been explored compellingly in books like Unspeakable Acts by Sarah Weinman, and Savage Appetites by Rachel Monroe. In this episode, we even follow Billy Jensen, Paul Haynes, and several survivors to the true crime convention Crimecon. We hear about how the genre can help people–especially white women, from the looks of this crowd and the known statistics–face their fears in a safe environment. Some would surely say that a sheltered opportunity to explore one’s own fears is what true crime, and therefore I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, is all about.

But I don’t think that director Liz Garbus, or the rest of the production team, would say that. This episode took the trope of the killer’s past, and did with compassion what she does best: turned the focus toward those affected.

Photo Courtesy of HBO

The episode opens on an interview with DeAngelo’s ex-fiance, Bonnie. “I was eighteen. The good girl. The rule follower. Straight-A student. And I started dating this guy.” She describes how he would bully her into joining him on illegal hunting trips, trespassing ventures, and perilous late-night motorcycle rides. He was casually cruel, once fatally injuring a dog, and shooting animals with no license, and plenty of malice. 

Eventually, Bonnie broke things off with him. Two weeks later, he appeared at her window in the middle of the night, pointed a gun at her, and told her to come with him so they could be married. She ran for her father, and he somehow convinced DeAngelo to leave. Bonnie never knew the details of their interaction. 

In a montage narrated by Melanie and Paul Haynes, whose research helped to compile this information, we learn about DeAngelo’s childhood in upstate New York, and then Germany, as part of a working-class military family (a connection Michelle had predicted). He joined the Navy, was in Vietnam, and then returned to the states to become a police officer and marry twenty-year-old Sharon Huddle.

We are shown a photo from their wedding. The fluffy dresses and fluffier hair are reminiscent of the images from the wedding of victim Manuela Witthuhn and her husband David. Except, nobody in this picture looks quite as happy. DeAngelo’s smile is more like a grimace. 

We learn that he had three daughters, and Melanie asks, “What must that be like in his soul and in his conscience,” to have “committed crimes against women like that.” 

Although Melanie frames this question with bafflement, the answer is simple. DeAngelo is a stunning example of a point many have made over the years, recently articulated by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, in response to vulgar, childish, and extremely unprofessional comments made by Rep. Ted Yoho: “Having a daughter does not make a man decent.” 

In addition to Bonnie, we meet others from DeAngelo’s past. Wes Ryland, son of DeAngelo’s sister Constance, sorts through photos of his Uncle Joe and recounts stories his mother told about how she and her siblings grew up hungry, and were locked away and subjected to corporal punishment. Wes shares that when Constance was a child, she was raped by soldiers at the base in Germany. Young DeAngelo witnessed the assault.

“The very thing that happened to my mother,” says Wes, “my uncle went and did to other women. How sickening is that?” 

Wes’s sorrow for the victims and their families has an added wrinkle: “Can you imagine how we feel, to know that someone we knew all our lives was like this, and we had no clue?” Wes can remember waking up one night as a boy, to see a shadowy, ski-masked man standing in the room. The man told him to stay quiet, and was gone. Now, he realizes the figure was DeAngelo, likely returning from an attack.

Lisa Ortiz was DeAngelo’s cousin, but she also saw him as a surrogate father figure. She shares how, in the wake of a home invasion and assault, and abuse at the hands of her father, she moved in with DeAngelo. The period Lisa spent living with him coincides with the gap in his killings. In 1986, she married and moved out. That same year, DeAngelo murdered Janelle Cruz. 

“I still today have a hard time believing that he did it. I mean Joe’s like, an amazing person. He was loving, and nice, and just the Dad that I always wished that I had had.” 

“I hope you did care about me,” Lisa reads from a letter she wrote to DeAngelo, “because my heart is forever broken.” 

Later in the episode, Patton reads movingly from Michelle’s “Letter to an Old Man,” the prescient missive that also concludes the book. These two letters are in some ways flip sides of the same coin, illuminating the fact that the Golden State Killer did not exist in a vacuum. Wes discovered that his Uncle was a murderer, and in retrospect, the pieces fell into place. Like many others, Lisa is a woman who was affected by the atrocities DeAngelo committed. He meant the world to her, only to destroy that trust and memory with the revelation of his crimes. 

Photo Courtesy of HBO

Another figure we meet from DeAngelo’s past is Nick Willick, his former boss at the Auburn, CA police department. 

“He wasn’t super athletic,” says Willick. “He had a nickname which was “Junk Food Joey.”” With a kind of low laugh, he describes the mocking that DeAngelo faced from his fellow officers. Maybe Willick wants to distance himself, by painting an image of the killer as apart from the rest of the force. However, an environment of aggression seems to be a characteristic of many police departments. Maybe Willick doesn’t even notice the culture of pervasive hostility he is depicting.

From Paul Haynes and Patton, to the survivors and their loved ones, to Michelle herself, those we hear from in this episode have so much positive to say about the detectives and law enforcement officials involved in this case. The retired detectives whom Michelle spoke to, like Larry Crompton, Carol Daly, and Richard Shelby (to name a few), still wanted the truth about these crimes years down the line. Their continued participation in the investigations is evidence of that, and many of their contributions eventually proved instrumental.

At the same time, we have heard from those attacked by the Golden State Killer, like Gay Hardwick, about the callous and re-traumatizing way that the police behaved towards them in the aftermath of their attacks. We have heard from multiple police officers, like Kim Stewart, about the willful lack of communication that plagued their departments, and delayed vital connections in the case, for reasons ranging from sheer stubbornness to a desire to preserve the property value and image of “tough on crime” icon Ronald Reagan’s Santa Barbara estate. 

These past months have seen nationwide uprisings against police brutality and malignance. This fight, which has gone on for decades, continues today with calls for the defunding and abolition of police departments, in order to promote solutions that focus on community needs and help break cycles of violence. 

We hear Michelle’s narration, and watch her powerful words scroll across the screen, subsuming those of the many GSKpolice reports. Watching, I wonder about what true crime’s desire to uncover truths law enforcement cannot parse has in common with the desire to find ways of solving community problems that don’t involve the police; whether there is room here for a coalition. I wonder whether I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, and stories like it, can be read as a call for a new era of community-based crime solving, too. 

Among the survivors of GSK attacks, and their loved ones, a community has certainly been formed. Kris Pedretti, whom we see hosting a backyard meet-up of GSK victims that is somewhere between support group and barbecue, tells the others that, “We’re not just survivor sisters, we are a survivor family.” 

Linda O’Dell, a GSK survivor, says that she wants to be at peace with herself, and share her story, to encourage, “other women, and young girls…to report [assault], don’t be ashamed of it, own it…if you need help, get help.” Many of the women, united in a roil of elation and sorrow and fury and vindication, attended the trial with signs, bearing phrases like, “Now we have the power and the control.” They share their conflicting and intense emotions with one another, the only people who can truly understand.

“I was not happy when I heard he was caught, because I wanted him dead,” says Kris. 

“I wanted him to rot in jail,” one woman asserts, “but I don’t think he’s gonna live that long anyway.” 

Gay Hardwick, whose struggle with PTSD in the wake of the attack on her and her husband Bob has recently led her to therapy, shares that she, “would just like for it to be over…for him to be out of the limelight, and where he should remain for the rest of his life.” 

Patton points out that, considering what they’ve faced, these survivors “had every right to become horrible monsters like Joseph DeAngelo, and they didn’t. So the way that they’re living is such a “fuck you” to him.” Merely by existing, they spotlight a flaw in the too-common true crime logic that the perpetrator is just a victim themselves, merely shaped into a monster by outside forces. “You tried to bring the same damage to us that forever warped you, and it didn’t work…you could’ve chosen to overcome this…Fuck you, Joseph DeAngelo.”

Photo Courtesy of HBO

Of course, damaging circumstances do shape us, and the lives we will lead. But this logic should be pointed toward those who are systematically marginalized and brutalized to the point of desperation, toward cycles of crime and incarceration that are practically baked into our society.

For DeAngelo, the answer is simpler. His mind was not fascinating, and his circumstances do not exonerate him. He’s a misogynist, a pit of fury, and a killer cop. “I’m not afraid of him now,” says Linda. “He’s an old man. But, evil’s evil.” 

Multiple survivors, including Bonnie, mention how DeAngelo’s arrest and the subsequent trial caused a resurgence of stress and trauma for them. As survivor Fiona Williams says, “healings are very complicated in these situations. I cannot remember…the first time that I might have broken down in tears. I don’t know that I ever did in front of any of the officers…this is the thing about these emotions. You couldn’t even intelligently explain why you’re crying.”

She also describes her reaction to seeing the GSK’s home for the first time on the news–what some might describe as a “Suburban Lifestyle Dream.” “And then, when they started showing his…nice, comfy suburban three-car garage house with toys, I thought, you’re kidding me…he’s living the comfy suburban life that he wrecked for so many other people?”

This sentiment rings in my ears as the episode draws to a close, and we watch crew members dismantle the set that has served as Michelle’s office. Family photos, scraps of evidence, drawings by Alice–all are zipped into a suitcase. For some reason, watching the show, I never realized these tableaus weren’t real. That the world moved on without Michelle, and her belongings were packed away. The final shot of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a pan from a photo of Alice, grinning and freckled, to one of Michelle, expression unreadable, before a body of water. We hear waves crash in the background.  

2 comments

  1. Who or what is “GKC?” You mention that acronym about 4 different times. Is that a typo? Do you mean GSK (golden state killer)? Please identify what the acronym is and fix it if it’s supposed to be ‘GSK.’ Thanks.

    Reply
    • Oh wow, you’re totally right, it’s definitely supposed to be GSK! Not sure where the other acronym came from (probably the result of writing at midnight with one terrified eye on the dark corner of the room) but I’ll definitely fix it. Thanks for pointing that out.

      Reply

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