The beauty of I'll Be Gone in the Dark is that the depraved serial rapist and murderer at the docuseries' center feels like a footnote in Michelle McNamara's story. In fact, Joe DeAngelo's name is not explicitly stated until very late in HBO's limited docuseries from director Liz Garbus. Instead, we spend the majority of the show getting to know McNamara, the dedicated true crime blogger whose grassroots investigation led to DeAngelo's eventual capture, and the lives she touched in her quest for justice.
McNamara died of an accidental drug overdose in 2016, before the mystery to which she dedicated her life's work was solved. She never got to see her posthumously published book hit No. 1 on the New York Times Best Seller list, and she never got to witness the 2018 arrest of the person responsible for more than 50 rapes and 13 murders from 1974 to 1986. As tragic as those circumstances are, I'll Be Gone In the Dark feels in part like a victorious, uplifting tribute to the sincere, pioneering web sleuth who invested everything in finding justice for total strangers. Through journal entries and heartfelt storytelling, we learn that McNamara, who was married to comedian Patton Oswalt, treated the survivors she met with the kindness that they weren't offered in the sexist culture of the 1970s, in which women were subjected to victim-blaming and isolation after the attacks.
The Golden State Killer's rape victims — rather, survivors, as they are more aptly referred to in the doc — are treated to three-dimensional storylines that the true crime genre doesn't always afford its subjects. Their stories do not end and begin with their encounters with their attacker. For instance, survivor Gay Hardwick explains the seldom-told horror of what unfolds in the immediate aftermath. "There you are, bound, incapacitated, in shock, and now there are four more men in the room that you don't know," she says, referring to the police officers who came to the scene. "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." Another survivor, Kris Pedretti, explains how the effects of her assault, which occurred when she was just 15 years old, have manifested in her adult life: she's an obsessive gardener and works twelve hours a day, a self-proclaimed overachiever who prefers to keep her mind busy to avoid having it wander.
Telling the story of DeAngelo's reign of terror from the perspective of the women who suffered through it, and the woman who helped put him behind bars, reclaims some of the power that the Golden State Killer stole from dozens of families. It's easy to hook an audience with the salacious details of a real-life boogeyman who left breathy phone messages, crept around backyards, and broke in through unlocked windows. It's harder to get the women who lived through that nightmare to feel comfortable relaying their most traumatic experiences to people they don't know. But Michelle McNamara did exactly that, and this HBO series does, too.
I'll Be Gone in the Dark airs Sundays at 10/9c on HBO.