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PaulMurdaugh.jpg

The Alex Murdaugh Murders and What Exactly Is True Crime Doing in Real Time?

By Alison Lanier | TV | June 27, 2023 |

By Alison Lanier | TV | June 27, 2023 |


PaulMurdaugh.jpg

Alex Murdaugh definitely killed his wife and son for sure and was absolutely part of a massive web of corruption and harassment, wielding generational power as a weapon.

How do I know that? Not because I followed the trial closely or read the news. I know that because HBO (Low Country: The Murdaugh Dynasty) and Netflix (Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal) both raced to put out rapid-fire docuseries that piece together that narrative, in that shape.

By the time I began to hear about the actual trial of Alex Murdaugh, I’d seen at least two thorough documentaries reiterating video evidence and witness interviews breaking down the timeline and stories of his alleged crimes. That feels like it should be a surprising statement. In hindsight, it feels even weirder. That kind of sprint to tell the story (or let’s be real, sell the story) feels like tabloid pacing, rather than documentary.

To be clear, this isn’t me being all, ‘Oh poor Mr. Murdaugh, he never stood a chance!’ Nah.

For those of you who missed the drama, it’s a long and winding road full of tragic twists: the important part is that the recklessness, privilege, and power of a South Carolina family that had a brutal grip on law enforcement and the judicial system in their local county led to a number of violent deaths over a number of years. The Murdaugh name was ubiquitous in the area. I won’t be diving into both the Netflix and HBO documentaries in much detail, but the basic outline of the narrative is that the youngest Murdaugh son, Paul, killed one of his teenage friends after drunkenly driving a boat into a bridge.

Later, after Paul’s family connections have gotten him off all but scot-free, his father steers events toward their brutal and tragic conclusion. Alex would eventually murder his wife and son, then try (badly) to stage his own shooting. The voices of Paul’s ex-friends, who spent time with the family, outline the narrative, giving insights into their time in the Murdaughs’ sphere of power.

Because these are young people in the age of smartphones, there is a seemingly endless amount of video footage, selfies, and other in-the-moment artifacts. Part of the damning evidence against Alex Murdaugh was a video Paul recorded at home shortly before his murder: Alex can be heard on the recording, during the window of time when his own father had falsely alibied him as being with Paul’s grandparents.

The amount of first-hand recordings and messages turned over to the documentary makers lends an extra sense of proximity to the stories these shows are telling. To see is to believe and all that. The Netflix series ends with Buster, Paul’s brother, on the phone with his father in jail, awaiting trial; Alex asks, “Have you heard about this Netflix thing?”

There isn’t exactly a fourth wall in this situation to knock down in the first place, but the subject’s awareness of the documentary that you yourself are now watching, ahead of his trial, feels like a powerful statement in itself: this media is far-reaching, damning, and does not exist in some abstract world of story.

I’ve walked through true-crime follow-ups before like the “season two” phenomenon of The Vow or The Way Down, where a true-crime documentary project follows the ongoing saga of their initial hook story. There’s going to be plenty to follow up on within the Murdaugh story too. Has uprooting the Murdaughs’ power done anything to alleviate the corruption they thrived on? Not to mention, there’s plenty of other blood on the Murdaugh family’s hands, including the death of a fifteen-year-old gay boy whose death is repeatedly linked to Alex’s other son, Buster. But there are no charges … yet.

I guess this is all to say: this kind of real-time true crime feels like a new breed of trial by media, fueled by the insatiable true crime genre.

Is the frame here a story about filmmakers and storytellers cashing in on a trend, or using their platforms to tear into (and down) a powerful and dangerous family, as their secrets begin to come into the light? Can we ascribe any such noble intentions to true crime? One might be overly optimistic to say yes. But one can also take a bit of righteous glee in watching the well-deserved scrutiny of the justice system, as well as millions of Netflix subscribers, bear down on the rich, powerful, and guilty. At least one once-impervious braggart is going to prison. Now let’s do Trump.