The Jinx: HBO’s Twisted, Compelling Answer to Serial

The network’s docu-series has all the allure of the WBEZ podcast—only this time the subject is stoking doubts about whether the courts should have let him go free.


Since HBO’s true-crime miniseries The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst debuted in February, it's drawn comparisons to WBEZ’s phenomenon podcast Serial, and superficially, the two do seem similar. Both delve into complex tales of murder and courtroom shenanigans; both seem to have broader stories to tell about how social class interacts with the justice system, although they deal with opposite ends of that spectrum. Most importantly, both feature journalists (in Serial’s case Sarah Koenig, for The Jinx, Andrew Jarecki) who develop an almost-personal relationship with the subject, with their interviews becoming a sort of narrative spine to a nonfiction project.

Serial always saw Koenig strenuously try to keep the convicted murderer Adnan Syed at arm’s length and analyze the discrepancies of his case as dispassionately as possible. What makes The Jinx so watchable, but at the same time so unsettlingly lurid, is that it's examining a case where a man walked free: real-estate scion Robert Durst, acquitted of one murder and suspected, but never charged, in two others. Jarecki is no witch-hunter, but there’s an unavoidable edge to the six-episode project, which wraps Sunday. The reclusive Durst, who agreed to speak to Jarecki for reasons that are hard to fully fathom, seems to be daring us to take a closer look, to poke at his supposed innocence. It’s a challenge the reporter, and the audience, has risen to.

Durst is a fascinating and enigmatic subject—small, beady-eyed and raspy-voiced, he has a curiously detached way of thinking about his life, even when discussing the loss of people close to him. But it’s almost too easy to explain him away as a simple psychopath. From minute one, Jarecki digs deep into the Durst family’s gothic history, and Robert’s own feeling that he might have been “jinxed” by the darkest moment of his youth, when he witnessed his mother falling (or jumping) to her death from their roof at age seven. Durst was withdrawn and traumatized from an early age, but more than that, Jarecki seems to argue, he was followed by an almost supernaturally dark cloud from then on.

Durst married his first wife Kathleen in 1973 after a whirlwind romance; the marriage went off the tracks, he himself admits, and she went missing in 1982. Her body was never recovered. It was a tabloid firestorm, and Durst was a chief suspect, but since no body had been found the state could never build a case. Prosecutors tried again in 2000, and just before they were going to question Durst’s good friend Susan Berman about it, she was murdered in an execution-style hit in her California home; another crime Durst was suspected of but never charged with. The same year, Durst moved to Galveston, Texas, and rented an apartment dressed as a woman, seemingly trying to avoid the media spotlight. In 2001, his downstairs neighbor was shot dead and dismembered, his body parts thrown in the Gulf of Mexico; Durst was arrested, skipped bail, eventually stood trial and was acquitted after pleading self-defense.

These are the incidents Jarecki fleshes out in The Jinx, and in addition to his rigorous reporting and fact-checking, he has Durst as an interview subject. Jarecki directed a 2010 film, All Good Things, starring Ryan Gosling as a fictionalized Durst and Kirsten Dunst as his missing wife; this attracted Durst’s attention and he reached out to the filmmaker, beginning a process that by all accounts should never have started. There’s no comprehensible reason for Durst to speak on these matters at all—he's avoided conviction in three extremely suspicious cases, and with every answer he risks upsetting that careful situation. The bizarre dance he initiates with Jarecki, who remains even-handed but pointed throughout the process, is the most compelling aspect of The Jinx.

Like many a true-crime documentary, the show retains the appeal of a wide-eyed friend telling you an increasingly incredible, implausible tale. One can easily imagine the same twisty story on basic cable, and The Jinx even has some of the visual hallmarks of the kind of programming you’d see on Investigation Discovery. There are (artfully shot) re-enactments of the murders, although Durst’s face is never seen; the series’ terrific opening credits recall HBO’s serial-killer drama True Detective as much as anything else.

But through it all it’s Durst who remains the center of attention. The Serial comparisons make sense, but he’s most reminiscent of Steve Carell’s demented John du Pont in last year’s Oscar-nominated drama Foxcatcher. Much like Durst, du Pont was the scion of a rich family who never quite fit into the family business; much like Foxcatcher director Bennett Miller, Jarecki is trying to tell a story of excessive American wealth gone to rot. Durst’s success at navigating the legal system, particularly in his Galveston trial, was mostly due to the wealth at his disposal and the crack legal team he could assemble; even though his well-to-do family will not publicly discuss him with Jarecki or anyone else, it's still willing to quietly offer him its protection.

That said, perhaps the most compelling thing about The Jinx is that it's set the wheels of justice in motion again. Last Sunday’s penultimate episode dropped the kind of bomb most scripted dramas could only dream of: a buried envelope, sent by Durst to his friend, whose handwriting closely matched a missive sent to the LAPD in 2000 notifying them of a “cadaver” at Susan Berman’s house. This, and several dubious statements made by Durst in his interviews with Jarecki, were enough to get the L.A. District Attorney to re-open that specific case. While Adnan Syed still has one specific appeal making its way through the Maryland courts, that isn't a feat Serial has yet managed to accomplish.

Perhaps no further bombshells await, but The Jinx has been compelling enough as sheer storytelling every week to make its Sunday finale appointment television. Not since the heroes of True Detective visited Carcosa has the network had such an original event on its hands. It seems crass to compare fiction to reality, but The Jinx has every element of a great, tragic American tale to it; all that's missing right now is its grand finale.

Update: Well, at least one bombshell awaits. Spoiler warnings be damned: Durst was arrested on charges of Berman's murder March 14, weeks after the Los Angeles Police Department re-opened the unsolved case. When Durst skipped bail in Galveston back in 2001, he was eventually recovered by police when he attempted to shoplift a chicken sandwich from a Pennsylvania supermarket, even though he had $500 on him. It seems he was almost trying to get caught then; perhaps cooperating with Jarecki on The Jinx was a more elaborate repetition of the same behavior. Or more likely, at some point in the course of filming, Jarecki began to share what he gleaned with law enforcement. Even if the show's ending has been tipped by the LAPD, the circumstances remain muddy enough that the finale should be appointment viewing.