The story of Jeffrey Dahmer is well-trod ground. Two genuinely excellent movies have been made about the mild-mannered predator and cannibal: 2002’s Dahmer, written and directed by David Jacobson and starring a pre-fame Jeremy Renner, and 2017’s My Friend Dahmer, written and directed by Marc Meyers and based on the compelling graphic memoir of the same name by Dahmer’s high-school acquaintance, cartoonist Derf Backderf, with Ross Lynch in the title role.
While Dahmer bounces back and forth between the serial killer’s troubled teen years and his encounters with several key victims in Milwaukee years later, My Friend Dahmer stays firmly rooted in Dahmer’s high-school days. Both movies depict the infamous murderer with deep wells of pathos and empathy, since by all accounts he recognized very early on in his life that something was profoundly wrong with him and his desires, and he became an alcoholic in his teen years in an unsuccessful attempt to self-medicate against his lethal urges.
It’s with all this in mind that I approached TV superproducer/auteur Ryan Murphy’s stab at the material (no pun intended) with trepidation. Murphy is perhaps the most puzzling of all the big-name New Golden Age of TV figures. He’s responsible for American Crime Story, which in three distinct seasons, each overseen by different creators, established itself as probably the best anthology series in television history. He’s also responsible for…well, for everything else he’s done, from Glee to American Horror Story. These productions did not fill me with confidence; nor did the possibility that, as an attempt to score easy points with the audience, this version of Dahmer’s story would be treated as some sort of corrective to earlier interpretations, painting him as an unmitigated and unrepentant monster while showing little interest in what made him what he was and how he struggled with it. I mean, Monster is in the subtitle, or title, depending on your point of view. Can you blame me?
So I’m happy, if that’s the right word, to report that Ryan Murphy and his co-creator Ian Brennan’s Dahmer is as good an artistic take on Dahmer’s life and crimes as I’ve yet seen. Directed by TV veteran Carl Franklin, the first episode alone brought me to tears. Dahmer is treated as appropriately pathetic, but the viciousness of his crimes is not candy-coated. It’s clear that he knows something’s wrong with him, but he’s past the point of trying to do anything to stop it, and it’s other people — almost entirely people of color — who pay the price.
The plot of this premiere primarily concerns itself with Dahmer’s last would-be victim: Tracey Edwards (an excellent Shaun J. Brown), a fellow Dahmer picks up at a local gay bar mostly patronized by Black customers and brings back to his apartment for a risqué photoshoot, only to almost immediately reveal his murderous intentions by slapping handcuffs on the poor guy and forcing him to watch The Exorcist III at knifepoint. (Dahmer’s taste in cinema will become a recurring theme.)
Brown is absolutely riveting to watch as he struggles with the growing realization that his new friend means to do him harm, means in fact to kill him, has in fact killed people before, as the massive bloodstain on the mattress where Dahmer forces him to sit and lie makes clear. Tears streak down his face, sweat pours down his brow, his heart audibly pounds, yet at no point can he allow himself to give into his terror, not if he means to escape.
And escape he does, beating his way through Dahmer and escaping into the street. There he is stopped by cops who at first view him with suspicion, as all Black men are viewed by all cops. But they do listen to him. They follow him back to Dahmer’s apartment. And they discover a house of horrors.
Its contents are recounted in dry detail to Dahmer’s father Lionel (the great character actor Richard Jenkins), who receives Dahmer’s proverbial one phone call. A taciturn sort who wears gigantic eyeglasses nearly identical to those of his infamous son, he takes the news quietly, sipping from his styrofoam police-station coffee cup. It’s only when the detectives interviewing him leave the interrogation room to allow him to collect his thoughts that the horror of it all finally bests him. Try as he might, he cannot fully contain the sobs he tries to choke back. It’s a devastating moment of absolute misery, any parent’s worst nightmare: that the child you loved, or tried to at least, has become something absolutely unlovable.
That horror is matched, in its way, by Tracey’s reaction when the cops finally make their move on Dahmer, tackling him and arresting him. As Dahmer mutters “For what I did, I should be dead,” Tracey half-yells, half-mumbles from the hallway “I fuckin’ hope you die, motherfucker.” You can be miserable about what you’ve done, as Dahmer sincerely seems to be, but your own misery cannot excuse nor outstrip the misery you’ve inflicted on others.
And the racial component of Dahmer’s crimes is impossible to miss. Whether he moved into a predominatnly Black and poor neighborhood because of his own poverty or because he saw it as an easy stalking ground…who can say. But that’s where he lived, and that’s how he operated, counting on people’s deference to whiteness — and aversion to examining homosexuality up close — as a smokescreen for his crimes. His neighbor Glenda (Niecy Nash, who thanks to her role on the long-running cop satire Reno 911! probably understands the laughable work of most cops better than most working actors) spends the episode at her wits’ end with the horrible smells and bullshit excuses wafting out of her next-door neighbor Jeff’s apartment, until the horror of it all is finally exposed.
Why would anyone have listened to her complaints before? She’s just a poor Black woman in a poor Black neighborhood, an environment explicitly designed to be ignored. Introducing Jeffrey Dahmer into that ecosystem is like putting an invasive species of fish — an animal that fascinates him — into a lake somewhere. The carnage that results is inevitable.
And atop this whole mountain stands actor Evan Peters as Dahmer himself. I’m starting to think that in some ways, this is a rather easy role to play. Take a handsome actor, put him in a mop of dishwater-blond hair, throw some gigantic glasses on him, make him use a comical Midwestern accent and a mopey, slow-motion movement pattern, and there you have it: Instant Dahmer, just add water.
But I think that while it’s simple enough to mimic the killer, it’s a different thing entirely to make him walk and talk and breathe and act like a human being instead of a stock slasher villain. In that light, we’ve gotten very lucky to find a third actor, after Renner and Lynch, capable of turning Dahmer’s stereotypical tics into a recognizable, if terrifying, human being. I keep coming back to the way he lights up and smokes a cigarette after Tracey escapes: He knows that the jig is up at long last, that he is about to be caught and exposed, that his secret life is about to come to an end, and he’s already trying to make peace with it. Smoke ‘em if you got ‘em, he seems to say. Unfortunate, isn’t it, that seventeen young men and boys had to die for him to reach this point.
So that’s Murphy and Brennan’s Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story, a preposterously titled limited series about one of the saddest, shittiest men ever to inhabit these United States. It is not for the faint of heart. It is not for the easily outraged. And yet I feel like these two groups are the ones that would most benefit from exposure to its dark heart.
Sean T. Collins (@theseantcollins) writes about TV for Rolling Stone, Vulture, The New York Times, and anyplace that will have him, really. He and his family live on Long Island.
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