The phrase “mic drop” was invented for the last three minutes of HBO’s six-episode documentary series The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst. For five episodes and most of the sixth, the New York real-estate magnate Durst spent the majority of his screentime reasserting his innocence in the three separate murder allegations that have been dogging him for more than a decade. Then the screen goes black, a title card explains that Bob is headed to the bathroom, and all hell breaks loose.
Viewers watching The Jinx as it unspooled over six weeks last February and March got to see that moment without knowing what would happen. I didn’t have that luxury, as I didn’t start the series when it originally aired and then couldn’t avoid the barrage of spoilers and interview coverage in the days following the finale. Had I not known what was coming, I might have had nightmares about the final sequence. Even with the foreknowledge, the moment took my breath away.
Minutes or maybe hours later, after shaking off the visceral impact of Durst’s rambling restroom soliloquy and gorging on reviews and analysis of that moment and the arrest that preceded it by only a day, I moved past my aesthetic appreciation of the filmmaking choices and started questioning some of the decisions that went into making The Jinx a television phenomenon. Creator and director Andrew Jarecki, whose fictionalization of Durst’s story prompted the alleged murderer to ask for a follow-up on-camera interview, has insisted multiple times that his editing crew didn’t find the audio footage from Durst’s toilet sojourn until a year or two after it was filmed. I find that hard to believe, especially since the finale so obviously and expertly builds to that moment in a way that wouldn’t have been possible if it were tacked on at the last minute. Then there’s the question of the film crew possibly withholding crucial evidence of Durst’s culpability from the police in an attempt to generate a more powerful onscreen moment. The final episode glosses over the time between Jarecki getting his hands on the “Beverley Hills” letter that seems to link Durst to the murder of his longtime friend Susan Berman and when he turns that letter over the Los Angeles Police Department. But the previous episodes ends with the crew pondering whether it would be more exciting for viewers to see Durst react to the newly discovered evidence live on camera, rather than from the confines of an interrogation room. Every second the letter was in Jarecki’s hands and not with the police was another second in which the almost certainly guilty Durst was roaming the free world, ever capable of committing another heinous crime.
Even beyond the timing questions which appear to remain unanswered as the investigation into Durst’s crimes is ongoing and Jarecki resists interviews for fear of compromising court proceedings, the entire premise of the documentary deserves some scrutiny too. There’s no doubt that this series paints an unflattering portrait of Durst, but it also turns him into a love-to-hate TV villain along the lines of Hannibal Lecter. His disaffected speech patterns, devilish black eyes, sensible sweaters, unnerving eye twitches and otherworldly burping are as irresistible as they are unpleasant. I couldn’t stop watching this guy, even as every second I spent with him only confirmed my worst suspicions about his actions. Jarecki even says on camera during the series that he began the interviews with an innate sympathy for the man, likely exacerbated by the similarities in their family lineage and upbringing, It’s enough to make you wonder where the camera lens ought to be trained in a show like this. If the intent is to help viewers get to know a man they ought to hate, it would seem to come at the cost of keeping the man at a healthy remove. On some level, to know Robert Durst is to reach some understanding with him. That’s a tough ask for the 99.99 percent of TV viewers who have never killed someone.
If the series were comprised entirely of interviews with Durst, these complaints would be far more central to my ultimate takeaways from the show. Thankfully, Jarecki devotes plenty of time to the many other players who actually deserve sympathy, from the family of Durst’s missing and presumed dead first wife to the police officers and amateur detectives who have committed large chunks of their professional careers to the Durst case, all in the hopes of helping the direct and adjacent victims of his actions reach peace and justice for the wrongdoing they endured. As noted above, everything that went into the telling of this story appears to have been handled with care, intelligence and attention to detail.
Everything, it seems, but the murkier implications of dealing in matters this grim in a medium generally classified as escapism. Whether that classification is reductive or accurate (it’s reductive), the structures and rhythms of serialized television just might not be suited to the kinds of life-and-death issues in which The Jinx traffics. (The wildly popular podcast Serial also dealt with this tricky balance in its first season, occasionally struggling to reckon with its position of influence in the scope of the case it was covering.) Beyond trashier true-crime counterpart and the documentaries of Errol Morris and Joshua Oppenheimer, there’s little onscreen precedent for mingling policing and entertaining in an product designed to attract viewers and attention. The Jinx did the latter in spades, but the fervor surrounding its unique and unsettling features seems to have died out. I watched the series nearly eleven months after it originally began, and based on the Google News searches I’ve conducted and the scant interviews I’ve read, I don’t feel confident that the dust has settled on the parts that were controversial as soon as it aired. It’s a consequence of the endlessly churning modern news cycle, and the ever-shifting priorities that drive it, that the particulars of The Jinx haven’t undergone further rigorous interrogation from the well-resourced reporters capable of assessing its value and its failures.
I, as a viewer who found it at least as gripping as it was ethically or procedurally dubious, am not equipped to conduct such an investigation. But I’m fairly certain one should begin. TV critic James Poniewozik said it best:
I'm assuming THE JINX 2 will be about establishing the timeline of THE JINX.
— James Poniewozik (@poniewozik) March 16, 2015