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Had Robert Durst been arrested 24 hours later, he may have watched the surprising final episode of The Jinx inside his J.W. Marriott hotel room. Series director Andrew Jarecki claims that he knew Durst had been upset about episode five, which aired one week ago. Fans of the show also know that Durst is keenly aware of how his various transgressions have played out in the public space. Durst’s 2003 acquittal in Galveston, Texas, was grounded in his defense’s narrative that former Westchester District Attorney Jeanine Pirro had tarnished Durst’s image and effectively run him out of New York. Durst cared enough about his high profile to disguise himself as a woman; to lie about his trip to Spain; to check into the J.W. Marriott in New Orleans under a fake name.
But Durst believed that he had something to say, and that people wanted to listen. Beyond the confines of the interview room, Durst was confident enough to be trailed by a camera crew as he sauntered through Times Square. As any talented storyteller will do, Jarecki painted a quasi-sympathetic portrait of his subject. But soon enough, Durst emerged as an egomaniac. And by deciding to insert himself into the on-screen narrative, so did Jarecki—at least initially.
Indeed, as The Jinx continued to pick up steam before last night’s bombshell finale, a growing number of viewers seemed to be chattering negatively about Jarecki’s apparent insistence to put himself in front of the camera—and in a way that went beyond mere goatee-hate. Jarecki’s appearance wasn’t a stand-in for the everyman (a la Michael Moore), nor a camera-toting guinea pig (Morgan Spurlock). He wasn’t examining war zones (Jeremy Scahill) nor receiving encrypted messages from Edward Snowden (Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald).
No, Jarecki and his crew seemed to be making a more tradtionally-structured documentary, in which sitting chair interviews and archival footage comprised 90 percent of the finished product. (Sure, throw in a reenactment here or there and pick a badass song for the opening credits; no harm done.) But as the camera occasionally panned from Durst to Jarecki in the interview room, it felt jarring and unnecessary. We’re used to seeing these types of transitions to iconic faces like Barbara Walters or Charlie Rose. And for good reason: Each are storied interviewers who are paid millions of dollars to help assure and orient the audience during new or uncomfortable situations. People like Walters and Rose are our allies, our teammates, our sherpas to the weird, the famous, and the troubling. And while Jarecki is certainly well-known within the filmmaking world, he was not a household name before The Jinx, nor even, really, before last night’s finale. To millions of Americans this afternoon, the name Andrew Jarecki still probably doesn’t mean much.
So, why was he on camera so much? It was the same criticism thrown at Sarah Koenig, who some accused of inserting too much of herself into the Serial podcast. Some felt that her asides overshadowed her actual crime reporting. (Some claimed that a December SNL short with Cecily Strong mocking Koenig’s cadences all but ruined Serial for them.) It’s the subjects we care about, not the hosts. So why add an unnecessary variable to the equation?
In the case of The Jinx, Jarecki’s onscreen presence was wholly necessary. But it wasn’t until midway through the final episode that this started to become clear. Here’s why: In order for that final Durst interview to resonate, Jarecki had to illustrate his own conflicted emotions leading up to the handwriting comparison. By his own admission, Jarecki has been obsessed with the Robert Durst story for years, even before he used it as the basis for his 2010 drama, All Good Things, the film that led Durst to contact Jarecki with the fateful offer to help tell his side of the story.
During their interviews, Jarecki politely hints at Durst’s involvement in various scenarios, though for the first five episodes he never backs Durst up against a wall. Jarecki cares enough about Durst’s story to illustrate the man’s troubled upbringing, his familial shame, his social burden of growing up wealthy. At one point, Jarecki admits that, before the discovery of the letter that allegedly ties Durst to Susan Berman’s murder, he wasn’t fully convinced that Durst was even guilty. (Nor was he convinced that Durst was innocent.) In that sense, if you take The Jinx at face value, you don’t see a predetermined conclusion that Jarecki is angling towards by any means necessary from episode one. You see someone trying to work out the facts while getting very close to his subject, a person many have written off without ever meeting. But when Berman’s stepson first presents the letter, Jarecki runs through a range of emotions. As a documentarian, he has just struck cinematic gold. As a confidante of Durst’s, he seems betrayed by all of the overt lies he’s been told (likewise when he discovers in the finale that Durst did not, in fact, travel to Madrid). But as someone who slowly worked his way into Durst’s sphere, you also sense Jarecki’s innate fear of confronting Durst; he knows what happens when people get too close.
That’s why the show’s final sequence made for such cinematic Sunday television. You see Jarecki prepare for the second interview like a presidential candidate before debate night. You see Jarecki intentionally manipulate Durst’s emotions with old photographs. As seconds tick by, you see Jarecki almost hesitate before pulling out the photographic handwriting comparison. You know what’s coming, and you know Durst deserves it, but in this moment, you’re more nervous for Jarecki than you are for Durst. That is a feat.
The golden age of television, of which The Jinx is surely now part, was built around the idea of understanding the bad guy. It’s why Walter White, Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Marlo Stanfield are more memorable than the good guys who tried to take them down. (Quick: Name an FBI agent on The Sopranos.) And while Durst is almost certainly a “bad guy,” Jarecki may or may not have been the “good guy.”
As of this morning, Jarecki and his team appear to have canceled all further interviews. Accusations have surfaced regarding the possible manipulation of events within the show’s timeline. In addition, the LAPD has refuted the idea that Durst’s Saturday night arrest was related to the conclusion of the series. Jarecki’s fireworks moment—Durst’s quasi-confession on a hot mic inside a bathroom—may end up being inadmissible in court.
Nevertheless, Jarecki’s finished product, a serialized television documentary in an age of stale sequels and fighting CGI robots, has utterly consumed the national conversation. And it’s not just because Bob Durst mumbled the phrase “killed them all, of course,” but because our hearts were beating out of our chests as we watched Andrew Jarecki confront his friend.