The TV Room: The Jinx, by David Bax
I’m going to miss seeing Robert Durst on my television every Sunday. Saying such a thing about a man who is almost certainly a multiple murderer might make me sound like a creep. But to deny the man’s uncommon magnetism would be to ignore the true engine humming beneath Andrew Jarecki’s The Jinx.
Jarecki, in telling the stories of Durst, the three murders of which he is suspected and how he has managed to avoid being convicted of them, is not doing so in service of an investigative journalist’s thirst for truth, no matter what Jarecki may claim in the series’ occasionally disingenuous last two chapters. No, he knows that he is chiefly making an entertainment and he does so perfectly in the first episode, easily one of the finest hours of television this year so far. Jarecki spends nearly the entirety of the initial entry laying out the third murder, which took place in Galveston, Texas, first by describing the weird, gruesome details (cross-dressing, dismemberment) before dropping the first big reveal, that Durst is an obscenely wealthy New York real estate heir. The next surprise comes when we find out he has also long been suspected in the disappearance of his first wife decades earlier. But the final shocker is the game changer. Just when we feel sure The Jinx is another true crime whodunit, we learn that Durst himself has agreed to be interviewed. The telling of this story will incorporate the vantage point of the man himself. And we’re just getting started.
After that first episode, the comparison that seemed most apt was The Staircase, another docuseries that examined a rich man who may be a murderer. And while The Staircase is something Jinx fans will want to seek out if they haven’t seen it, the two are more different than alike. Whereas The Staircase swings you back and forth in your certainty that its subject is or is not guilty, The Jinx is interested more in the man himself than in building a case. Frankly, it seems it would be nearly impossible to construct a convincing argument for Durst’s innocence even if Jarecki wanted to.
So, if Durst is so obviously guilty, how did he keep getting away with it? That’s the real motivation of The Jinx. The easiest answer would be that he got away with it because of his money. That’s certainly a contributing factor and Durst is on tape saying as much in a prison phone call to his second wife. But, as the fourth episode, which details the Galveston trial, shows, there’s something else. Durst may comport himself like a hunched little goblin. He may speak in an emotionless near-monotone. He may have large, black pupils that make his eyes look like twin gun barrels. But despite these things – or maybe even because of them – there’s something sinfully likable about the guy. How many people can admit to cutting up a dead body and throwing it in the river and then turn right around and make the jury laugh?
That Texas jury was only looking at one murder, though, and not the execution-style kiling of one of Durst’s closest friends in Los Angeles. In the fifth hour of the show, when new evidence in that case comes to the filmmakers, the focus switches from Durst to Jarecki and, by extension, to us the audience. This new information makes it so difficult to even entertain the notion of Durst’s innocence that it causes a nauseous dissonance. We’ve been able to lie to ourselves to some extent but now the show’s central conflict has been transferred to within us.
In order to resolve that conflict, we need Durst to be confronted. We need him to reckon with the same evidence that has thrown cold water into our faces. Jarecki makes that happen and the results are… inconclusive. Many have taken Durst’s accidental open mic soliloquy as a blatant confession. I wonder if those people are just making the conclusion what they need it to be. After all, we’ve seen Durst sarcastically assume the voice of his accusers before. So when he mumbles that he “killed them all, of course,” might that be no different than when he said of his slain friend in Los Angeles, “I shut her up”? Or maybe I’m the one with the clouded judgment. Maybe I’m kidding myself again, already letting Durst’s sinister charisma overcome my rationality. That, I now understand, is how he got away with it.