As I’ve said before, we’re in the era of the serialized true crime story — the initial story gets told, and then the documentary crew circles back around to trace out the next stages of the saga. In the case of The Murdaugh Murders, there’s a particular momentum to the second season: Just as with the second season of The Vow, the show turns to one of the most tried-and-true formats for suspenseful storytelling: the courtroom drama. It’s less a television season than a documentary film broken into three forty-ish-minute chunks, catching up the first season’s narrative to the present moment.
This second season isn’t introspective or expository in the same way as the first season; this is clean, straightforward true crime in the most direct form of the genre. The painstaking details of the crime and the path to proving those details to a jury.
In the present tense of the documentary, Alex Murdaugh stands on trial for the murder of his wife and son. And it’s pretty clear from the get-go: he’s guilty as hell. He’s also scary as hell. His behavior is so calculated, so artificial, it’s disturbing to watch even from a distance as we see his reactions in real-time via bodycam footage, courtroom recordings, and interviews. He’s someone play-acting innocence badly but with the expectation that he’ll be believed and allowed to get away with literal murder because his word, as a dynastically wealthy and influential member of the small southern community his father and grandfather dominated, is law (in his own mind). It’s wild to watch him trading on the expectation of privilege, even as his guilt becomes resoundingly clear.
But the thing that truly threw me in this sprint of the second season was Murdaugh himself — not his social posturing, not his strange behavior — but his demeanor. He has what I call shark eyes — flat, emotionless, cold. If that sounds overly dramatic as a characterization, I assure you it doesn’t feel that way looking into them, thankfully through a TV screen.
This second season moves step-by-step through the trial, its evidence, and the gruesome details of the murders. To the show’s credit, it doesn’t tumble into sensationalizing. It rests on the interviews of prosecutors, journalists, family friends, witnesses, and law enforcement personnel who are directly involved. The horror of the crime speaks louder than any sensationalized posturing ever could.
But it’s also a vision of the kind of exploitative fascination crimes like this attract. In one segment, an auction of the family’s household possessions draws true crime fans and curious onlookers in a perverse tourist trade. One woman purchases a vacuum at the auction with a full bag; she giddily explains she hasn’t opened it yet, with the air of someone saving a Christmas present to dig into later.
The documentary seems aware that it’s part of that same greedy, scavenging industry. However, it does its best — at least in my estimation — to be the most calmly, journalistically clear that it can be while doing the mandatory pulling of heartstrings that makes the machine of the true crime genre running.
Throughout the trial, the difficult work of standing up to Alex Murdaugh is done by, centrally, the women (primarily women of color) who the Murdaughs employed as housekeepers and caretakers-women embedded in the lives of this wealthy white family and who bravely spoke truth to power even in deeply frightening circumstances.
For true crime fans and especially those who were drawn into the drama of the first season, season two delivers a satisfying and chilling conclusion to the story of the Murdaugh clan … at least, so far.
The Murdaugh Murders is streaming on Netflix.