The six-part HBO docu-series “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” has one title, but it contains two stories. One is a true-crime tale about the long search for the Golden State Killer, suspected of raping at least 50 women and committing at least 13 murders in California in the 1970s and ’80s. The other is an intimate look into the life of true-crime author Michelle McNamara, who was working on a book about searching for the Golden State Killer when she died in 2016, at 46, two years before a suspect would be charged. After her death, her husband, the comedian Patton Oswalt, got a crime writer and a researcher to finish her manuscript, which became the 2018 bestseller “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.”
The powerful series, which premieres Sunday at 10 p.m., also contains a multitude of smaller stories as it builds to a climax, veering in and out of the lives of the victims and their families. We see rape survivors recounting attacks, sometimes with the kind of emotions that are more affecting for being held back. We hear a tape of one survivor’s hypnosis session; we listen, in episode two, to a woman recount her rape in excruciating detail; and we see the stricken face of the husband who was tied up while his wife was being attacked down the hall. When the series, from Liz Garbus, runs dangerously close to some of the coarse and fear-mongering-for-ratings impulses of the true-crime genre, these touching moments with the victims humanize it.
A number of the survivors are clearly still in the process of facing what happened to them as they’re interviewed, despite the decades since the crimes. We hear one woman explain that after she was raped, her parents refused to talk about it, and it became a charged secret over the years — until, after former police officer Joseph DeAngelo is arrested in 2018, she felt comfortable coming forward. It’s disturbing to see clips from the 1970-80s in which victim blaming and shaming runs rampant, and to listen to the survivors now describe how that primitive cultural tendency played out in their own lives. The lack of understanding about rape and systemic sexism only enabled the crimes.
The more procedural parts of “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” are fascinating. Through McNamara’s years-long research, we see how the police, out of both self-interest and a lack of inter-agency communication, failed to see that the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker, and other nicknamed criminals from different but nearby cities and towns were the same man. McNamara, often credited with coining the name Golden State Killer, read all of the many case reports and spent time making connections online, shocked that the crimes were not better known nationally. Before she dies of an accidental drug overdose and undiagnosed heart condition, we can see her getting closer and closer to creating a profile of the guy, whose rape and murder rituals included wearing a mask and raiding his victims’ refrigerators. The series has been thoroughly researched, so that there are clips and photos illustrating almost everything.
The McNamara parts of “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” are slightly less successful, and there were times when I wondered if the series might have been stronger if it hadn’t put them on the same narrative level as the crime story. But they are nonetheless moving in their own way, as we see McNamara, who is ensconced with a community of “citizen detectives,” become obsessed with her intensely dark project. She seems to slip into her own world, and away from Oswalt and their daughter, all of which is chronicled through texts, e-mails, and phone messages. She had her own demons, including a sexual assault when she was in her early 20s and a contentious relationship with her mother, which is what may have brought her to her calling in the first place.
I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK
On: HBO. Premieres Sunday at 10 p.m.