Thoughts on the finale of “The Jinx” coming up just as soon as I get back from Madrid…
What a strange, enthralling, unsettling day for all involved with “The Jinx.” This morning, police arrested the HBO docu-series' subject, thrice-accused killer Robert Durst, in New Orleans to extradite him for the 2000 Los Angeles murder of his friend Susan Berman, making this perhaps the first time that law-enforcement spoiled a Sunday night HBO drama (of sorts).
“Jinx” director Andrew Jarecki had promised closure, and between the arrest and the end of last week's episode – which had Berman's stepson find an old letter from Durst that seemed to finally draw a real evidentiary connection to him for the murder – it seemed that closure would be what we would get in the finale.
We just had no idea how damn much closure this episode would provide – and, at the same time, how little.
The finale clocked in at under 40 minutes, and the meat of it lasted less than 10, with the second interview between Jarecki and Durst that gave the episode its title. Everything up until that just followed Jarecki and the other filmmakers as they wrestled with how best to use the damning letter to their advantage, then wondered if Durst would actually be foolish enough to walk into the lion's den with them one more time.
The interview itself, or what we saw of it, was fairly brisk. If it had merely ended with the final question and answer – after Durst protests that he wrote only one of the two letters with similar block lettering, Jarecki asks, “Can you tell me which one you didn't write?” and Durst admits, “No” – it might have been satisfying climax enough.
Then Durst went into the bathroom and – as he had already done in a prior interview (and been admonished for it by his lawyer) – forgot(*) that he was still wearing a live microphone, and seemingly gave everything away.
(*) Or did he forget? That he would participate in this documentary at all could mean that Durst on some level wanted to be caught, and if he'd messed up with a hot mic once, he might have used this as an opportunity to finally unburden himself after Jarecki so artfully cornered him. Or he could simply be a smug monster who had gotten away with three murders, assumed he was invulnerable, and really did forget about the mic pack a second time. (To paraphrase an Andy Greenwald joke from Twitter tonight, if Durst had watched “The Naked Gun” as many times as I have, he would have known better. That, or, like Frank Drebin, he would have said “Whoops!”)
“There it is: you're caught,” he could be heard saying, before shifting into a stream of consciousness rant that seemed to pivot between self-admonishment for doing the interview and answers to a hypothetical interrogation about the facts of the interview and the case: “You're right, of course. But, you can't imagine. Arrest him. I don't know what's in the house. Oh, I want this. What a disaster. He was right. I was wrong. And the burping! I'm having difficulty with the question.”
Then came the killer summation, in every sense of things, as Durst said, “What the hell did I do? Killed them all, of course.”
Those expecting something further – maybe Jarecki post-gaming the interview with his colleagues, or a series of title cards detailing the steps Jarecki and company took following this interview, or (had it been technically feasible in less than 12 hours' time) one acknowledging Durst's arrest earlier in the day – got nothing. All that was left was the symbolic turning out of the lights of the conference room where the interview had taken place.
On the one hand, I can see Jarecki feeling that no more needed to be said. “Killed them all, of course” seems to answer every question he and the entire “Jinx” team had going into the project. Turn out the lights, hand over the evidence to the LAPD, and move on.
On the other, there is so much that was left unsaid in the finale about the level of interaction – or lack thereof – the filmmakers had with law-enforcement at various stages after Berman's stepson gave them the letter. Durst's arrest for violating the restraining order taken out by his brother Douglas – the incident that greases the skids for him to sit down with Jarecki one last time – happened in August of 2013. A story tonight in the New York Times says that the filmmakers “began speaking to Los Angeles investigators in early 2013,” but also says that “more than two years passed after the interview before the filmmakers found the audio” of Durst in the bathroom, which doesn't seem to track with anything else about the timeline. And the filmmakers suggest that their lawyers told them if they brought the letter to the police too soon, “they could be considered law enforcement agents in the event of a prosecution, possibly jeopardizing the material”s admissibility in court.”
It's a muddle, the whole thing. Exactly how much did the filmmakers tell the LAPD, and when? Is it mere coincidence that the arrest happened on the morning of the finale – the police perhaps needing quite some time to get all their ducks in a row – or did Jarecki and company withhold information from them until last week's episode aired? Given that Durst has both gone fugitive before and allegedly killed people to preserve his freedom (including the Galveston incident that “The Jinx” chose as its starting point), how did the filmmakers feel about leaving Durst out in the world for months or even years?
There was a level of transparency to so much of the series, particularly as Jarecki wrestled with his own feelings about Durst. That the film appears to have played such a central role in his arrest – but only well after filming had ended, and right as the series was finishing its run on HBO – feels like it should be part of the narrative as well. Jarecki spoke with the Times, and he's doing other interviews (Fienberg will be speaking with him tomorrow morning), but the text of “The Jinx” was so filled with Jarecki and the ethical and legal complications of the thing that it feels strange and slightly hollow to leave this part out of it.
And yet… I find it hard to imagine that a moment in television this year is going to floor me quite as much as Durst's bathroom confession. That was a riveting conclusion to what was a master class in non-fiction storytelling for television. “The Jinx” in a way filled the void that “True Detective” left in HBO's winter lineup because season 2 took so long to get going, and it was every bit as gripping as so many of the channel's scripted Sunday dramas.
I just have many, many questions about the ending.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org