The immense satisfaction that came with hearing Robert Durst seem to confess to the three homicides he’s been accused of on this Sunday’s finale of The Jinx was complicated immediately by the questions raised around the documentary itself. When exactly did Andrew Jarecki & Co. hear the recording of Durst’s bathroom confession? Did Jarecki’s team withhold, tamper with, or manipulate evidence to spike ratings? Were the filmmakers working with the police and, if so, for how long? Is Durst’s bathroom self-talk admissible in court? Is HBO liable in any forthcoming cases? The capture of Durst in New Orleans on Saturday (at a hotel in the French Quarter, under an assumed name) seemed like a perfect bit of narrative closure — but what it really meant was that the story would continue to unfold unpredictably, long after the interminable blackout that closed the show.
When a murder-mystery TV show answers its central question, it sometimes it asks several more, just to keep things interesting for the next season. But The Jinx was intended as a self-contained miniseries. The cliffhanger ending is not meant to stoke interest in any potential future seasons — it’s a consequence of the show’s conclusion overlapping with real-life events, supposedly by pure coincidence. Some suggested that Jarecki manipulated the timeline for the documentary’s benefit, but he maintains that police were given the audio as soon as it was discovered. Jarecki blames the auspicious timing of the arrest on the slow pace of law enforcement, which is entirely possible, too. The LAPD says the timing was pure coincidence, not spurred by the TV show. The problem is that Jarecki is now part of the case. The game of cat and mouse isn’t just about whether Jarecki can prove Durst’s guilt — it’s also about who gets to control the narrative. Durst, of course, is the one authorities believe was planning to flee (likely to Cuba) the weekend the finale aired, and one of The Jinx’s recurrent themes is that he almost seems to want to get caught. After all, in volunteering to be interviewed for the show, Durst is the one who kicked this whole thing off.
Following the messy aftermath of The Jinx has become as engrossing as The Jinx itself was. Andrew Jarecki booked a publicity blitz — the morning–show circuit, a New York Times interview — to promote the shocking finale. But the interviews were strange. Jarecki had to be cautious about what he said, particularly about the timeline of events. Suddenly, it was Jarecki, rather than Durst, in the hot seat — struggling to be careful with his words, sweating bullets under a reporter’s lights. His attempt to do a victory lap turned on him, just as Durst’s decision to do a documentary had. Both men are obsessed with the idea of control — Durst perhaps to the point of homicide. Jarecki seemed uncomfortable watching the impeccably crafted press cycle spin out of his control. He sounded a little like Durst himself — boisterously open, laughing and joking, and then abruptly refusing to answer questions without talking to his lawyer first. By the afternoon, Jarecki had canceled all interviews until further notice, due to Durst’s impending trial in Los Angeles.
The documentary brought up a number of questions about the Venn diagram between entertainment and the law, a topic that was recently up for debate in the public sphere during the Serial podcast’s run. Both Serial and The Jinx follow the blueprint of Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s hypnotic multipart documentary The Staircase, which tracks author Michael Peterson’s quest to prove he did not kill his wife, Kathleen, by pushing her down a flight of stairs. (Be careful if you’re a woman named Kathleen married to a rich white guy!) The Staircase and Serial yanked audiences back and forth between belief and disbelief as to whether Michael Peterson and Adnan Syed, respectively, were guilty of the crimes of which they’d been accused. Robert Durst seemed more obviously and closely connected to the disappearance and two deaths covered in The Jinx, but the lack of hard evidence and prosecutors’ inability to nail him was maddening. As with Serial and The Staircase, the main thrust of The Jinx became not whether Durst was guilty, but how badly the American legal system had bobbled his case.
In all three docu-mysteries, the central storytellers serve as Philip Marlowe private-eye figures, intervening to mete out strict justice where the formal system has failed. A major part of each story is the way they themselves engage with the cases. Following these supposedly objective journalists as they interacted with their subjects in thoroughly subjective ways — Sarah Koenig’s schoolgirl crush on Adnan, Lestrade’s obsession with breaking Peterson, and Jarecki’s strange preoccupation with Durst — was fascinating. All three end up obsessively fixated on the cases they are covering. They can’t help but get sucked into the worlds of their subjects, and neither can we. They draw us in partly because they’re drawn in, too. In these dramas, you can see concentric circles of influence: You have the crimes, law enforcement (bad storytellers), and the journalists (good storytellers but possibly compromised or compromising) — and then there’s everything rippling out from there, not only through the audience but back again through the legal system, like the waves from two stones dropped into a pond colliding and interfering with each other.
You can trace the “murder case as spectacle in which the author is also involved” beat to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, although you could also date it all the way back to Herodotus. I felt relieved during the finale, when Jarecki finally admitted that he cared for Durst in some strange, sick way, that he felt bad for the guy, because I’d suspected all along that Jarecki was working out some Jinx kinks of his own through the doc. Jarecki’s personal history is not invoked in the film, but it looms behind the screen: He, too, is the son of a wealthy and powerful New York City father; he has three brothers — two of whom are also filmmakers — with whom he may feel competitive. Jarecki and Durst’s relationship sometimes felt like two lost boys in search of paternal figures, finding weird comfort in their engagement in each others’ lives. Does Jarecki feel guilty about seducing and destroying Durst? Or is it Durst’s fault for reaching out?
Everything about The Jinx is Shakespearean: the empire divided among children, the moneyed power of the throne, the human inadequacies that can undo even the most well-planned and (relatively) well-executed revenge — even the reenactments, like the play within the play in Hamlet. The Jinx’s finale aired on March 15, the Ides of March. In the sequence in which Jarecki shows Durst the damning block-lettered “BEVERLEY” handwriting comparisons and Durst realizes he may be screwed, I thought of Julius Caesar. Et tu, Jarecki? A friend tweeted me a quote from Macbeth: “When you durst do it, then you were a man,” Lady Macbeth tells her husband, admonishing him to keep his promise of regicide. Durst, in this context, is an archaic conjugation of dared. Throughout The Jinx, we marveled at Robert Durst’s daring, his audacity, the fucking balls on this guy. He seemed protected from his own actions by a toxic cocktail of white male privilege, the nerve that sometimes comes with extreme inherited wealth, and possibly some kind of severe mental illness? The doc gives Durst a lot of leeway, implying that if he is indeed a sociopath, it could be connected to the trauma of watching his mother commit suicide. But Durst allegedly killed seven dogs before his wife disappeared. It’s possible he was, quite simply, wired differently from the get-go. What’s scary is the idea that sociopaths walk among us, without wearing neon signs designating them as such, and that there’s no way to tell who they are until the bodies start piling up. Sociopaths might even be charming. Durst just seems like a harmless weirdo at first, and then grows increasingly more strange as the documentary goes on; he pulls a Columbo at first, encouraging us to underestimate him. Talking to the Times, cinematographer Marc Smerling rationalized Jarecki’s sympathy for Durst: “When you’re in constant contact with somebody, the things you know about their past fall away. In the moment you’re having a relationship with that person.” One friend texted me her theory late at night that Durst had actually killed his mother, too, since there were scant witnesses to her suicide by jumping off the roof. I, of course, went down that rabbit hole with her for a moment, because it was so narratively satisfying to consider: Durst was The Bad Seed, fated to kill from the moment he came out of the womb. So many actual twists in his story seem implausible; you wouldn’t believe them if they weren’t true. What’s one more vaguely implausible twist in a Psycho-ish groove? It felt possible because anything still feels possible. Who knows how much we don’t know?
There’s a desire to shape the messiness of real life into narrative form for the sake of entertainment — or to reassure ourselves that there is some order amid the randomness of life, that mysteries have answers, at least on TV. The Jinx was not a whodunit. It was, like Macbeth, more of a “will he get away with it?” story, with the caveat that so far, he had! Jarecki says the filmmakers found the seeming bathroom confession on a tape while going through the recordings again, in June of 2014,1 and that they gave it to police when they found it. It’s not that crazy to think he and his crew might have overlooked something. What’s crazier is that Durst would have said something like that in the first place. Did he know the filmmakers might hear him talking to himself in the bathroom? Certainly, he was aware that they knew he mumbled to himself, since it was a plot point in Jarecki’s fictionalized version of Durst’s story, All Good Things. (Of course Durst was primed to like Jarecki — Jarecki had cast Ryan Gosling as Robert Durst!) Jarecki told the Times yesterday, “Bob doesn’t seem to feel totally comfortable unless he’s at risk. He seems to like to put himself at risk. It may make him feel more vital. It may be something he’s just compelled to grasp for. In this case, we felt he had a kind of compulsion to confess.” While the confrontation over the handwriting analysis is damning, the bathroom confessional is potentially more damning still. The whole miniseries builds toward a moment the filmmakers very nearly missed.
That’s what he told the Times, though the date has changed in other reports.
I’ve always been one to argue in favor of ambiguous, Chinatown-esque endings. My world was shaken recently when I learned that Chinatown’s famous final scene, in which the bad guy gets away, was not in the original script by Robert Towne, but was a last-minute invention by Roman Polanski and Jack Nicholson. This floored me because Chinatown’s ending is so much of what makes the movie great: It reflects the reality we know, in which bad guys like Robert Durst — or director Roman Polanski, for that matter — walk free.2
Robert Durst, coincidentally, looked a lot like Roman Polanski when he was younger. And the location of Susan Berman’s house, near Cielo Drive, where the Manson family murders of Sharon Tate and friends took place, lends the proceedings a macabre feeling that all media-sensation murders are connected. Susan Berman even once did a This American Life segment about her life as a mobster’s daughter in Las Vegas, connecting The Jinx‘s DNA to TAL spinoff Serial.
But it turns out I underestimated the satisfaction of the Hollywood ending, wherein the bad guy gets caught. Hearing Bob Durst utter, “killed them all, of course” on the hot mic in the bathroom gave me an endorphin spike the likes of which I’ve never known. It was as if the Zodiac Killer or Jack the Ripper had materialized and said, “I did it!” I’m not a particularly vengeful, eye-for-an-eye type of person, or so I like to think, but hearing Durst cop to his actions made me feel like my team had won the Super Bowl. It was so insanely Shakespearean, by way of Francis Underwood, to hear Durst monologue about how he’d been “caught.” It took me a second to realize what his speech reminded me of — ah, yes, Macbeth. It plays into the bigger arc of the Scottish play: that perhaps a killer can get away with it for a while, but that he will always undo himself.
Yet the Hollywood ending wasn’t really an end. The questions still haunt me. Why didn’t Durst try to flee the country sooner — say, when he went to “Madrid” (actually Los Angeles)? What in the hell is going to happen next? A trial in Los Angeles? A new trial in New York? Another failure to convict? The Jinx 2? The audience Bob Durst foolishly wanted (and by god he got) is still glued to its screens.