Who is to blame for Jeffrey Dahmer? The simplest explanation, the one ultimately prioritized by his victims’ families, the court, and even Jeffrey himself, is that the real culprit is Jeffrey Dahmer. For Jeff, this is a matter of accepting responsibility for his crimes, the heinousness of which he recognizes; death is the only reprieve he seeks. For the families and the court, it’s a matter of not allowing Dahmer to escape punishment, at least in the sense of a life sentence in prison, by pleading insanity.
“But I’m not insane,” Jeff says with evident surprise when his father, Lionel — whose name gives this episode, written by Ian Brenner and David McMillan and directed by Gregg Araki, its title — suggests this legal tactic. Lionel continues, reminding Jeff that he’s said that sometimes he couldn’t remember what he’d done.
“‘Cuz I was blackout drunk, Dad!” Jeff replies. “That’s why I didn’t remember some stuff. But I knew what I was doin’. Didn’t want to, but I couldn’t help myself. I’m not insane.”
Of course, you or I sitting here can plainly see this is just a silly game of semantics. Jeffrey Dahmer drilled holes in people’s skulls to try to create zombies. He collected human remains from the people he killed. He murdered and ate people, having sex with their corpses in the interim. This doesn’t meet the legal standard of insanity only because that standard is ridiculous, because our justice system is barbaric. You don’t have to have sympathy for the guy to recognize any of this stuff, nor would recognizing it lessen Dahmer’s responsibility (as we’ve seen, he made choice after choice to further his campaign of murder), or somehow mitigate the cruelty and injustice of what he did, or make his victims’ families desire for him to spend the rest of his life behind bars somehow less reasonable or understandable. It just is what it is. (As an aside, it’s always grimly funny to me to see stories in which the likes of the Joker or Hannibal Lecter are found not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect. The latter would have been found guilty like Dahmer and the former would have been shot to death in the street the moment he first pulled a gun on a cop. But I digress.)
For Lionel, though, clinging to the belief that his son was insane when he committed his crimes is important because, for a long while at least, he lives in terror of the idea that he was in some way responsible for it all himself. When Jeff brings up the way Lionel used to help him collect and dissect roadkill, Lionel literally starts laughing in comical outrage over the idea. “You ain’t gonna lay this on me, no!” he says. “It’s not my fault! I didn’t do this! I was a good dad to you!” Of course he wants to believe this. Who wouldn’t, in his position?
Over the course of the episode, though, we watch his resolve against accepting responsibility break down. He’s keen to blame anyone he can: His ex-wife Joyce for taking so many pills during her pregnancy; or comic books about Dahmer’s cultural antecedent, grave-robbing killer Ed Gein (Lionel railing at “the culture” for creating Jeffrey is not unlike what a lot of critics of this show are saying), or for abandoning Jeff during that pivotal post-high school summer.
“Where were you that summer, Lionel?” his supportive second wife Shari asks in response, in an uncharacteristically cutting remark she immediately apologize for. But the point seems to clear the fog surrounding Lionel. He suddenly remembers his own violent childhood urges: building makeshift bombs, trying to hypnotize a girl he had a crush on, fantasizing about murder during church, having nightmares that he’d killed someone and didn’t know what to do afterwards. He comes to believe he passed this part of himself down to Jeffrey.
He says this to Jeff after the conviction, before he’s hauled off to prison. But I think he ultimately gets at where he really was responsible — not by somehow genetically passing down his most macabre fantasies, but through neglect.
“I wasn’t a good father,” he says, choking back tears as he does so often during this episode. (Actor Richard Jenkins is brilliant, creating a sympathetic portrait of a man who’s made it hard to be sympathetic.) “I wasn’t, because I wasn’t a good husband, and you didn’t feel safe. I left you alone! I can’t believe that I left you alone!”
It’s a lot to have on your conscience. But Lionel is not alone in being a family member living with misery and regret. His ex Joyce tries to kill herself. (The uncharitable read is that this is an attempt to recenter the attention on her own plight.) And one by one, members of the victims’ families read their statements in the courtroom. One reads a poem. Another concludes by saying “God bless America.” The Lao family we’ve met before, who had two sons fall victim to Jeffrey in different ways, testify that this has shattered their immigrant belief in the American dream. And one woman screams obscenities at Jeffrey, demanding that he look at her, demanding that he bear witness to her anger and pain, things Jeff can only really understand in the abstract, the same way he understands life itself.
(Another aside: I never picked up on it before, but there are hints of Napoleon Dynamite and Dr. Steve Brule in the quiet, slightly mushmouthed way that Evan Peters talks as Dahmer. It’s as if he’s taking the “lovable loser” toolkit and weaponizing it, like Dahmer did with actual toolkits.)
Of course, there’s one group that accepts no responsibility for what happened: the cops. The two officers suspended for returning Dahmer’s victim to him are reinstated to raucous applause; the chief who suspended them can only stand there and glare. They warned him they’d be around long after he was gone, and they were right.
“Guess I really done it this time, huh?” Jeff says to Lionel when they reunite immediately following his arrest. Yes, he did — to a lot of people, in a lot of different ways, ways that will reverberate up and down society for a long time to come, ways that have ended lives and will ruin others forever.
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.
The post ‘Dahmer’ Episode 8 Recap: The Blame Game appeared first on Decider.