By Kristy Puchko | TV | February 12, 2021 |
By Kristy Puchko | TV | February 12, 2021 |
HBO Max’s documentary mini-series The Lady and The Dale will conclude this Sunday with episode 4, “Celestial Bodies.” At this point in the fascinating story of con artist/aspiring automotive innovator Liz Carmichael, she’s on the run again. Will she be caught? Will she be a surprise interview for the show’s big finale? For a hint, let’s look back to a vintage episode of Unsolved Mysteries.
First, some context. As discussed in my earlier article about the doc-series’ secret villain, Carmichael faced brutal transphobic prejudice as she prepared to defend herself against fraud charges. Most heinous of these might have been the court’s decision to put this trans woman in a men’s prison. There, she was isolated in solitary confinement, supposedly for her own safety. Yet, this did not save Liz from a vicious beating that blackened her eyes and split open her forehead. Following her conviction, she was facing jail time without knowing if she’d been housed with men or women. Ahead of sentencing on December 3, 1980, Carmichael fled to parts unknown. That’s all we know at the end of Episode 3.
This is where we turn to Unsolved Mysteries.
Airing on April 5, 1989, Episode 1.22 featured Liz’s story, eight years after her escape. Host, Robert Stack begins by setting the scene of the gas crisis of the ’70s, and how Liz’s promise of a high-mileage car—called The Dale—could be godsent to the average American. Then, questions about whether this car was possible or a pipedream spurred investigation from the authorities.
The segment initially addresses Liz by her chosen name and she/her pronouns. However, Unsolved Mysteries loves a twist, and this episode was produced under the shadow of the transphobic propaganda promoted by prejudiced news anchor Dick Carlson. As such, the segment treats Liz’s transness as a shocking reveal, playing into the “evil deceivers and make believers trope,” explained in my previous piece. While there are interview subjects who respect Liz’s gender identity, others misgender and deadname her and even insist Liz’s womanhood was an elaborate alias intended to escape her criminal past. This damaging angle is bolstered in the re-enactments, where a seemingly cis-man plays Liz and is shown removing a wig, as if being a woman was a masquerade for her. The segment includes other galling elements of transphobia, including a problematic age-progression image.
Check out the Unsolved Mysteries segment below, and then we’ll talk about potential episode 4 spoilers.
The unsolved mystery at the center of the segment is what became of Liz. What The Lady and The Dale didn’t reveal about her running off is that she didn’t do it alone. Like she had for years before, Liz took her five children with her. Liz’s eldest daughter, Candi Michael, has been a major voice in the HBO MAX series. So, we anticipate she will give insight into this on-the-lamb era of the Carmichael family.
What we know from Unsolved Mysteries is that a viewer tip led to Liz Carmichael being arrested again on April 19, 1989, two weeks after the episode’s broadcast. She was working at a flower shop under the name Kathryn Elizabeth Johnson. Funny enough, she had moved her family to a Texas town called Dale. From there, Liz was returned to California and sentenced to one-to-ten years in prison. She served 2 and a half, then was released, becoming a private citizen. She seemed to live in relative anonymity until her death in 2004 from cancer.
Such dry facts can be found in Unsolved Mystery wikis. However, The Lady and The Dale has never rested on the dry facts. Instead, the series has used experts to give context to the legal battle and trans struggles Liz faced. Directors Nick Cammilleri and Zackary Drucker spoke with colleagues of Liz who still champion her intentions, rejecting the popular narrative that The Dale was a flat-out scam. Most importantly, the documentarians gave plenty of screentime to Candi Michael and her uncle, Liz’s great friend/brother-in-law Charles Richard Barrett, both of whom have shown a deep understanding of this controversial anti-heroine. Through all of this, The Lady And The Dale has transcended the dry facts and tabloid headlines that defined her narrative for decades, uncovering the untold story of a complicated figure who was not just an infamous con artist but also a mother, businesswoman, and trailblazer.
The final teaser for Episode 4 suggests Liz was up to more than just working at a flower shop in Dale. However, considering the rich empathy the series has shown in reframing Liz Carmichael into a transgressive folk hero, we expect there’ll be much more than another zippy scam to this final chapter. Will Liz find happiness? Will she find a new enterprise into which she can channel her ambition? Of course, her 2004 death means Liz can’t give a contemporary interview about her life and times, but the show has been laced with tapes of past interviews, giving her voice. So, will The Lady and The Dale give Liz the final word on all this? We’ll soon find out.
The Lady and The Dale’s final episode premieres on HBO Max on Sunday, February 14.