Unsolved Mysteries: Volume 2 has landed on Netflix.
For fans of the original series, Volume 1 was a shock to the system as it chucked much of the formula along with a host. However, the mission to solve a mystery remains. In Volume 2, Netflix entrusts a series of established documentarians to tell these stories their way.
Here’s our ranking of how that turned out, from worst to best.
Death Row Fugitive (Dir. by Robert M. Wise and Clay Jeter)
This episode will break your heart then stitch it back together with fiery, impotent rage. It begins with remembering Mary Ellen Deener, a 14-year-old Black girl who went missing one November night in 1965. One minute, she was helping her sister at the laundry mat. Not long after, her slain body was discovered on the sidewalk, a short walk from her grandmother’s home.
The mystery here is not who killed Deener, but where he is now. Lester Eubanks would confess and be convicted in the child’s murder, but then would escape by abusing a well-intentioned prisoner improvement program.
The details of how he ducked justice are infuriating. But making matters worse is how recklessly the ep’s directors unfold this information. They paint the program in question as a bleeding heart mistake that ultimately allowed a dangerous man to easily run free. No attention is paid to the good such programs have done in helping those who’ve served their time to reintegrate into society. Instead, the filmmakers offer a narrow focus to incense us. Similarly, they regard Deener’s grieving sister repeatedly as a prop for tragedy porn, aggressively prodding at her darkest days. Thereby, they treat the viewers’ emotions like a punching bag, game for pummeling.
Running from justice for nearly 50 years, cracking into the top 15 of America’s Most Wanted, and being a confessed child killer who was rumored to be working with kids, Eubanks should be caught. It’s wise to focus an Unsolved Mysteries episode on him. However, my years of watching the original series suggest there was a way to tell this story that focused on relevant info and action, as opposed to taking wild swings that ultimately promote the prison industrial complex’s dehumanizing view of its inmates.
Death in Oslo, (Dir. by Robert M. Wise)
In a posh hotel room in 1995 Norway, a mysterious white woman is found dead by a gunshot wound to her forehead. She booked the room under the name, “Jennifer Fairgate.” Yet who she is and how she ended up there is a mystery that persists. This episode follows one journalist who is determined to find answers and her true identity.
Wise’s background is in true-crime TV, where he’s helmed episodes of Unusual Suspects, The Family That Slays Together, and Deadly Dentists. However, these shows tend to deal in solved cases, which might explain why he struggles with a story structure here.
The case is morbidly intriguing, including strange details like clothing robbed of its tags, a unique gun-grip, and a double-locked door. However, the crucial details are summarized by the halfway point. After that, Wise’s interviewees lean hard into speculation. In the classic format, it’s easy to imagine this story scratching at such wild theories before sweeping into a fresh vignette. However, in this longer format, speculation swiftly overtakes evidence, making for an eyebrow-raising entry.
Washington Insider Murder (Dir. by Don Argott)
Argott has built his reputation as a documentarian with features like Last Days Here, Believer, The Art of the Steal, and Batman & Bill. In this 47-minute episode, he aims to breakdown the confounding murder case of former White House aide John “Jack” Wheeler, whose body was found in a Delaware landfill in 2010.
Once more, the mystery presented is fascinating and deeply unnerving. Interviews with police, press, and Wheeler’s family paint a portrait of a passionate man, who battled mental health issues and may have made powerful enemies. Then, video footage recounts the strange movements on his last days, before ending in a plea for new evidence.
It’s competently done, balancing tribute to the lost man with details on the enigmas he left behind. However, Argott seems to struggle in this shorter format, belaboring beats and repeating points, as if he doesn’t trust that he has the audience’s full attention. Perhaps he’s accommodating for the presumed distractions of watching a doc at home, as opposed to in a theater.
Lady in the Lake (Dir. by Skye Borgman)
Skye Borgman helmed the much-talked-about Netflix doc, Abducted In Plain Sight, which told a harrowing story of gaslighting, child abduction, and rape. In that film, she showed a profound empathy for a family many might rush to judge. Here, she employs that empathy along with a thoughtful examination of the evidence to walk through the final steps of JoAnn Romain, who went missing in Grosse Pointe one cold, dark night in 2010.
The police were quick to dismiss the case as a suicide. However, Romain’s family pleads their case with the help of experts in an episode that shines fresh light on the decade-old mystery. Much like in Volume 1’s Mystery on the Rooftop, the details here are too strange to just dismiss. Things get murkier when Romain’s daughter tries to divine what might have happened. However, as she actually knew her mother and those she accuses, this speculation doesn’t feel strained or cringe-y like that seen in Death In Oslo.
Stolen Kids (Dir. by Jessica Dimmock)
Jessica Dimmock formerly helmed Netflix’s Flint Town, a doc series that followed Flint Michigan’s police force. Here, she takes on cases of child abduction that are strikingly similar. Two Black baby boys were snatched from the same Harlem housing project months apart in 1989. Dimmock transports us to this tragic time with archival news footage and interviews with the mothers who, thirty-one-years later, still hold out hope they’ll be reunited with their sons.
Like Death Row Fugitive, this episode is heartbreaking, involving a child ripped away from their family and interviews with those still aching from this heinous loss. However, Dimmock does not get bogged down by slinging senseless blame. Through interviews, she reveals how the children were gone in the blink of an eye, and how the NYPD went to great lengths to try to recover them. Then, Dimmock offers cause for hope, pointing to a recent case where a baby snatched from a hospital grew up and found her birth parents on her own. Finally, the episode ends with how you can help, a touchstone of this franchise that feels beautifully hopeful here. Careful artist renderings are offered, hoping you can help reunite a family.
Tsunami Spirits (Dir. by Clay Jeter)
Curiously, Jeter (Chef’s Table) was at the helm of my most hated and favorite eps of Volume 2. However, where Death Row Fugitive feels fueled by blind fury, Tsunami Spirits is spun from sadness and remembrance.
In 2011, a 13-foot tall tsunami crashed onto Ishinomaki, Japan. Archive footage shows how cars were washed down streets, playthings to the storm. In new interviews, survivors recount their stories. One tells of being swept out of his office, with no control or idea what might come next. Another takes Jeter’s crew on a tour of where he discovered the remains of his children. Then, a mirthful monk tells us about the lingering ghosts, who do not realize that cruel wave ended their lives.
Stories of the supernatural have long been an integral part of Unsolved Mysteries. Yet Volume 1’s Berkshire UFOs didn’t impress long-time fans. This episode; however, would do Robert Stack proud. These stories literally gave me goosebumps. The re-enactments are spooky, yet never so spectacular that they feel like they are exploiting the real-life horror of Ishinomaki. Instead, Jeter leans on the monk, who offers oversight, emotion, and a defiant serenity as he shares his stories. But it wouldn’t be Unsolved Mysteries without a skeptic. So, a professor pops in to gently explain how the psychological trauma experienced by the living might be why they claim to see the dead.
This episode perhaps hit me hardest because of where I’m from. I grew up in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which is known chiefly for the world-rumbling flood of 1889. We are a town poor in much, but rich in ghost stories. So, those told here shook at the nightmares I’ve had since I was a child who knew enough to fear the rain. Their ghost stories were new to me, yet familiar. They spoke to a terror and tenderness I know all too well. For we did not fear the ghosts, just as few of those in the episode do. We saw them as lost and in need of understanding. The fear we experienced was not of their presence, or their wails but of the unpredictable tragedy that separated them from us, and the possibility we could be next. They are a reflection of who we were and who we might be. They deserve our respect and empathy, and this insightful episode gives them both.
Unsolved Mysteries: Volume 2 hits Netflix in October 19.
Header Image Source: Netflix