Trigger Warning: Death, murder, sexual assault, torture.
Spoiler Warning through Black Bird Episode 5.
Has the reveal of a bike for a child’s birthday ever instilled such visceral horror?
There are many different ways to categorize crime shows, but ultimately it comes down to two types: those where the corpse matters, and those in which it doesn’t. Most detective shows or mystery series are more interested in the crime scene than the victim; most of all, they’re interested in the killer. After all, the psychology of evil can be a seductive thing to investigate—to try and make sense of unimaginable terror, to find order amidst the chaos. It makes it better to believe that there was, somehow, a reason that these things happened the way they did, even if the end result is still a tragedy.
The best crime series, though, are the ones that don’t just start with a dead body and move on; they’re the ones that pull focus to the person who was killed, giving them meaning beyond being a corpse for the purpose of the story. At the very least it reminds us that they were alive, instead of just a body to note before moving on.
“You can die, but you can’t un-live.”
When I started Black Bird, I expected it to go down more of a detective-show route, which I love. While I count a few deeper, more emotional crime dramas among my favorites, they’re hard to watch. I’m not a true crime junkie. I need the certainty of a fictional ending, a carefully crafted story that allows me to emotionally detach, reminding myself that these characters aren’t real people. They might be based on real cases, and almost certainly there are cases that mirror these events. But they can be told soulfully without being haunting.
So, to Black Bird. A crime show about whether or not a prisoner seeking appeal is a serial killer or a serial confessor—interesting! And it all began with the dogged detective and the federal agent trying to catch their man. It was all very familiar. Then we started to spend more time with Larry Hall.
Despite only being six episodes, Black Bird is an effective slow burn to the point of being agonizing. But that serves it well in building tension and atmosphere: long scenes hinge on finely honed work by the actors, underscored by quiet, pulsing music by Mogwai. Jimmy’s (Taron Egerton) unusual job as a convict is to unravel the truth behind Larry’s (Paul Walter Hauser) confessions, and buy himself a get-out-of-jail-free card. Meanwhile, the reality of the crimes, whoever committed them, are investigated alongside this—cases reopened, bodies searched for, one found.
It’s the one that is found, Jessica Roach, that the show’s fifth episode, “The Place I Lie,” focuses on. Here, the long-deceased Jessica narrates a few select happy moments from her young life. These sweet, innocent reveries are juxtaposed, ultimately, with Larry detailing to Jimmy how he first approached Jessica and her flat tire, how they talked, how he bound her up in his van and made her pass out from a rag soaked in fuel. How he beat her, raped her, tied her to a tree and killed her. That she was 15 years old.
Black Bird has been careful to not show any of the atrocities that Larry committed in visual detail. Most often we see the women, or girls, going about their business before disappearing when in proximity to Larry’s van. Plenty is left to the imagination based on what was found and what he detailed; unsure if he “hurt” them, their clothes being removed, him telling Jimmy how he had never been with a woman who was aroused and believed it was a myth.
This is one way that Black Bird actually protects Larry’s victims. Their brutal fates and final moments are not meant for speculative reenactment, especially in such a way that could distract from his evil. Instead, the show relies on Larry’s own telling of events, the audience’s horror reflected in Jimmy’s taught expression, caught between revulsion and a desire to know the truth.
There have been several quietly distressing scenes in Black Bird so far, like Jimmy uncovering Larry’s stash of gory drawings of mutilated women, his hatred as clear as his unhinged creations. Again, it triggers one’s imagination in the worst ways. What was someone who fantasized about this able to do to those women? Through Jimmy, we are given additional hints to the depths of Larry’s depravity as he shares more about his past and his sick world view (specifically his discussion of underage girls, marriage, and sex). Throughout, Hauser gives an immensely disturbing performance that is almost regrettably pitch-perfect for the role.
But nothing comes close to the excruciating scene in “The Place I Lie,” where Larry—in his high-pitched, sing-song voice punctuated with chuckles—details what happened to Jessica Roach. The script is credited to Dennis Lehane (who helmed the series and adapted it from Jimmy Keene’s book), and who is known for his uncompromising, gritty, true-to-life storytelling. The word choice in Larry’s confession scene is crafted intentionally to horrify, and it successfully made me nauseated. That Larry says of the child he killed, “we had sex together,” as if it wasn’t rape. How calmly he discusses “beating her, ragging her, beating her, ragging her,” to make her stop clawing at him. That she called for her “mommy”—the word mommy used multiple times, reinforcing the idea of a child in pain, crying out for help. And finally, his giggle over his own cleverness at “making a little tool” that acted as a tourniquet (Jimmy’s supplied word) that he used around her neck, attached to a tree, and twisted until she “stopped making sounds.” (Again, “making sounds” being Jimmy’s addition).
It made me want to throw up when I heard it, and honestly, it makes me want to throw up typing it. It has left me unmoored; I have been disturbed by the lingering bleakness of this episode for days. There are layers and layers to the disquieting nature of what Larry reveals here: the cold facts of rape and murder, the detail of how he did it (forcing us to confront the granular nature of the crime, that it wasn’t quick; it was long and Jessica suffered), that she was just a child, that this was real. This happened. And then that leads one to thinking about how many times this has happened, to how many children.
There is no other reaction, really, than Jimmy’s to close out the episode. He covers his mouth to muffle the sobs, utterly destroyed over not just having to sit there and listen to Larry say this (like we just did), but to do so with a smile, to relate to him, while now seeing the victims of this pure evil in complete clarity. The horror of Black Bird is quiet, specifically crafted, and terribly haunting. It burrows inside you and sits. And frankly, given the subject matter, it should.
Outside of these moments, though (and Ray Liotta’s heartbreaking portrayal, made even more so by being the actor’s last), the show has faltered some in its evenness and tone. But what ultimately makes it so worthy is two-fold: One, in these human interactions between Jimmy and Larry, where the tension is set to 11 because we don’t want Jimmy to make a mistake and for Larry to be released to kill again. But the second is Black Bird’s respect for the women tortured and brutalized by Larry Hall. In “The Place I Lie,” Lehane lets Jessica tell her own story, with her own minute details—not of torture and murder, but of happiness and splendor. And so we are left with a modicum of peace to cut the pain, to know that there was once a person here—one who doesn’t have to be defined by her death, however tragic.
“You can die, but you can’t un-live.”
“And I lived.”
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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