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Murder, We Wrote

The depiction of homicide in popular culture is continuously evolving, and our ceaseless fascination with these narratives says something about us. Human nature being what it is, we can’t ask “where is murder going?” without also asking “where are we?”

Ringer illustration

Where is murder going? The depiction of homicide in popular culture is like the depiction of anything in popular culture: It responds to the needs of the moment it grows out of, and so exhibits stylistic evolution over time. Killing, like sex and streetwear, has a trend cycle. If it isn’t regularly refreshed with new ideas and approaches, it goes stale. There are, of course, geniuses of murder, Shakespeares and Hitchcocks and Christies whose imagined slayings stand the test of time, but for the most part, murder dates quickly. The murder fantasies of earlier eras are often only slightly less embarrassing than their sex fantasies. Possibly this is because pop culture has historically seen murder as the second most frightening thing in the world.

In the past several years, three large trends in pop culture murder narratives have helped to do this work of stylistic renovation—have injected fresh life into homicide, so to speak. Not that these are the only such trends; far from it. Murder is such a constant presence in media, is so pervasive at all levels, and across all forms of human storytelling that any generalization about it can only be incomplete. There’s always more death in the next app. But these are the three that stand out, at least to me, and it might be useful to look at them all together because I have a sense that each is at the point of beginning to seem worn out. Each has grown a little dull and predictable compared to the version of itself from a few years ago. The liveliest forms of murder are beginning to look a little corpse-like themselves, and I’m not sure what this means for the future of murder, or what it says about the issues culture uses murder stories to work out.

The first trend I’m thinking of is the vogue for true crime that went mainstream after the podcast Serial, Sarah Koenig’s Peabody Award–winning investigation into the murder of a Baltimore-area high-school student, launched in 2014. True crime has been around for decades—centuries, in fact; sensationalized accounts of executed killers like the ones published in the Newgate Calendar of the 18th and 19th centuries even influenced the development of the novel—but the current iteration is distinct. It comes from the internet, and in many ways emulates the experience of using it. It plays games with information, foregrounding the search for truth as a fragmentary, obsessive, frequently self-defeating plunge down a rabbit hole of irreconcilable fact. It uses murder as a focal point around which it can explore the complex ways in which communities fit together and societies function, but its interest in the large ambiguities of class, race, gender, and power often seems less urgent than its fascination with the self-critical 2 a.m. Google session of its own narrative form.

It’s a genre that spread from podcasting to TV, where it spawned a teeming subindustry of docuseries and dramatizations: HBO’s The Jinx, Netflix’s Making a Murderer and Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, FX’s American Crime Story anthologies, and ESPN’s OJ: Made in America, among many (many) others. Increasingly, though, the form seems to have VH1-ed itself. There’s been a marked turn toward greatest-hits recaps of already-well-known murders, which are probably clickier at the top of a streaming carousel, but which feed the perception that contemporary true crime is “murder porn,” designed to sensationalize and exploit its subjects in a context drained of empathy. And if the true subtext of these shows is often the internet, maybe it’s fitting that there’s an algorithmic mad-libs quality to the way the series seem to be put together lately. To the fourth-dimensional chess masters in Netflix’s orbital data-mining citadel, ESPN’s acclaimed 30 for 30 on O.J. Simpson revealed not that people appreciate smart TV shows about complex topics, but that people will consume Issue-Driven Docuseries About Football Players Accused of Murder. So here, audience, have Killer Inside: The Mind of Aaron Hernandez.

The second trend is so-called prestige TV, many of whose most revered series (The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Breaking Bad) turn on murder and its effects, as do many of its still-revered-but-not-quite-top-line ones (Dexter, Fargo, Hannibal, Rectify, among others). Many of these shows are often lumped together as antihero dramas, which I think is a bit of a misnomer: A real antihero is meant to serve as a thorough rejection of and challenge to the existing social order—Milton’s Satan doesn’t shop at Brookstone—but in many of these dramas, it’s precisely the character’s “bad” qualities that enable him to thrive within normal society. Criminality, hypocrisy, and selfishness don’t get you cast out of heaven, or sent into a Byronic exile in Venice; on Golden Age TV, they’re more likely to get you a house in the suburbs and a membership at the golf club. The relationship between evil and normalcy isn’t turned on its head, as it might be in, say, a Patricia Highsmith novel; instead, it’s queasily blurred.

In the same way, the portrayal of murder in prestige drama tends to involve strategies for preserving the ethical horror of the crime while limiting the power of that horror to disrupt identification. That is, you have to know that what Tony Soprano does, or what Al Swearengen does, is monstrous, and like him anyway, or at least see the monstrous deed as in some sense necessary. Then the show can turn back around, as The Sopranos does, and implicate you for feeling the sympathies the show itself has constructed for you. Murder is portrayed as profoundly wicked, but also an act with the potential to make the soul of the murderer richer and more nuanced, haunted by more moving possibilities of grief and remorse, drawn toward more expansive possibilities of (rarely attained) redemption. But even noticing these depths—that is, being susceptible to the show’s own techniques for arousing empathy—also makes you, the viewer, and possibly civilization itself, inescapably corrupt. This is a strange thing to take from television, but then, the past 20 years have been a strange time.

The prestige-drama approach to murder isn’t quite dead—there are still shows that want you to see their killer-protagonists as wounded avatars of civilization’s brokenness—but it’s clearly in deep decline. It seems wrong for the present moment, largely due to its overwhelming emphasis on masculine perspectives. It now exists largely in the form of trickle-down escapism (The Witcher, which estranges its hero’s violent deeds from the taint of murder by inflicting them mostly on monsters, but their moral toll amounts to the same grim thing) or gender-reversed rewrite (Killing Eve) or seriocomic postmodern inquiry (Barry). The best shows of the past year—Fleabag, Watchmen, Succession—were interested in entirely different questions.

The third trend I’m thinking of is the wave of psychological thrillers often lumped together under the heading of “Girl books”—Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train, The Woman in the Window, and so forth. These novels, and their various film adaptations, have often provided a counterpoint to prestige TV: female perspectives rather than male perspectives, a focus on the victims of violence rather than its perpetrators (though there are exceptions to this), a formal emphasis on uncertainty, indefiniteness, and the subjective limits of knowledge rather than the objective moral omniscience of the golden-age show-runner. Prestige drama says, “This happened; the question is, how do we feel about it?” With their plot twists, unreliable narrators, and suggestive blanks, Girl-book thrillers ask: “How do we know it happened at all? Did it happen? Can we trust what we think happened? Can we know what we saw?” They use murder as a test case for questions of women’s sanity and credibility in a world where male aggression is normalized and gaslighting is commonplace. Where prestige drama focuses on the traditional murder-story roles of killer, victim, and law enforcer, the Girl thrillers tend to widen their view to encompass peripheral figures—witnesses, family members, people incidentally caught up in the web of trauma and memory that murder spins.

In many ways, these stories seem deeply relevant to a cultural landscape that’s still reckoning with #MeToo, one that’s more and more open to narratives that foreground women’s perspectives. If anything, though, as the slightly cynical sameness of their titles suggests, the Girl thrillers increasingly seem somewhat limiting within a landscape that’s broadening. They’re overwhelmingly focused on white women in affluent, often suburban, backgrounds; they’re obsessed with the allure and the danger of conventional heterosexual marriage; they’re prone to imagining acute subjectivity as something that happens most naturally inside Volvo SUVs. Not that stories of this kind aren’t often valid, but there’s a faintly cynical sameness here, too; watching the trailer for the new Woman in the Window adaptation, in which Amy Adams plays a phobic, trembling, conventionally fragile woman shut up in an expensive apartment, her gaze alighting on the missing piece of expensive jewelry that will prove the Persuasive Male Killer is guilty, her hand trembling as she pours another glass of wine, I had the unnerving feeling of being trapped in a time capsule from the very recent past. (This feeling probably wasn’t helped by the credible allegations that the author of the novel, Dan Mallory, who writes under the name A.J. Finn, stole the story from another book, nor by the many other reports of his troubling behavior, but that’s a story for another red carpet.)

In 1827, the brilliant English essayist and opium addict Thomas de Quincey published a long piece of satiric writing called “On Murder, Considered As One of the Fine Arts.” This essay, which became one of the most weirdly influential pieces of writing of the entire 19th century, purports to be an address delivered before a club of “dilettanti in the various modes of bloodshed”—that is, men who get together and critique real-life murders in the same way they might critique a picture or a work of music. The joke, as de Quincey conducts a gruesome series of refined aesthetic appreciations of horrific killings, is that it’s absurd to analyze murder in the same way you would analyze a sonnet. But the deeper and more chilling joke is that it’s possible to analyze murder in the same way you would analyze a sonnet. Kant had argued that the aesthetic sense was one of the wellsprings of ethical judgment; parodying Kant, de Quincey saw that when you take aesthetic sense beyond a certain point, when you value good taste over empathy, it’s capable of obliterating the aesthetic sense altogether.

The transgressive horror of murder is what makes it fascinating, in other words, but once you pursue the fascination for its own sake, the horror changes, becomes less horrifying; potentially, it recedes entirely. The tension of de Quincey’s insight—that you care about murder because you value human life, but thinking about murder can make you callous toward life itself—has driven more than one literary genre over the next 200 years, from horror (the terror of Edgar Allan Poe’s work, for instance, is always at least partly grounded in the fact that you’re enjoying it) to mystery (think of how little you’re expected to sympathize with the corpse in the classic whodunnit, where you’re instead invited to savor the ingenuity of the puzzle the murder presents). It’s a tension that’s extremely difficult for a narrative to resolve, which makes it a bottomless source of storytelling energy: Where it’s evoked, there’s always an instability, a discrepancy, a sense of slight oddness or wrongness to drive a narrative forward. It’s just about manageable, for writers and filmmakers and audience members, because of the deep-seated assumption that we all really think murder is wrong and that the catching of the murderer ends the story. There is always a natural mechanism for the restoration of order, even in genres whose disruption, suspension, and challenging of order is the whole reason for their existence.

The three kinds of murder narrative I’ve been talking about, however, all pursue strategies for resisting the restoration of order—none of them are entirely confident that the murderer should be caught. Contemporary true crime is fueled by the ambiguity of knowledge and by the sense that social structures, and not individual agency, may play the decisive role in violent crime. Prestige TV drama is fueled by the idea that justice is essentially just as corrupt as criminality—it’s merely another venue where the strong prey on the weak. Girl thrillers are drawn, like true crime, to extreme ambiguity, and skeptical, like prestige TV, about justice being just; they’re also interested in the idea that murder might sometimes be a form of justice, especially in cases of abuse.

I don’t know whether this uncertainty about the proper outcome of the murder narrative explains the general wanness of such narratives at the start of 2020. I know only that the zeal with which murderers are caught in fiction usually says something about the faith in the social order underlying the fiction, and at the moment our murder stories seem to be fraying at about the same rate as most of our less overtly macabre institutions. (Just about the only reliable dispensers of justice in homicide narratives these days are also very, very depressed.) I would rather watch one more season of a show like Fleabag, which explored actual possibilities of grown-up guilt and grief and redemption, than five more superheated serial-killer dramas where (gasp) the killer is also a great dad. But I also think there’s a trick hidden in that wish. Because—human nature being what it is—we can’t ask where is murder going? without also asking where are we?