When this weekend’s headlines announced the shocking news of Robert Durst’s arrest on murder charges, it was hard not to think that real life was offering up perfect publicity for Sunday’s finale of HBO’s The Jinx. The six-part HBO documentary series offered a chance for Durst, the eldest son of a wealthy New York real estate family, to tell his side of the story — namely, to explain why people keep dying around him. His first wife disappeared; his friend, journalist Susan Berman, was shot in the head execution-style in Los Angeles; and he killed and dismembered his neighbor in Texas, ostensibly in an act of self-defense.
Durst’s Saturday arrest in New Orleans was in connection with the death of Berman. The FBI wanted to catch him before he was expected to flee the country. How that related to The Jinx finale wasn’t clear, but it raised the question of whether documentarian Andrew Jarecki’s final confrontation with Durst had somehow proven that he was complicit in a murder.
As I wrote last week, Sarah Koenig’s Serial podcast made true-crime stories a mainstream trend, with its addictive episodes forcing listeners to wonder whether Adnan Syed was an innocent man, falsely imprisoned. But The Jinx offered an even more powerful central question: why was Durst, a man who probably killed three people, walking free? Jarecki attacked that question through dogged journalism, following the cops and evidence that linked Durst to cases like the death in Galveston, Texas; a lengthy interview with Durst, where we watched the dead-shark eyes of the man himself as he responded to questions about the disappeared; color, with reenactments, interviews with the victims’ families; and the meta-awareness that Jarecki, who had previously worked on a fictional film about Durst (All Good Things, with Ryan Gosling) had lured this potentially dangerous snake out of his hole.
It might have been possible to cut the material that comprised The Jinx into a two-hour film, but the opportunity to watch Durst lie, dissemble, and throw out clues of psychiatric disturbance made for juicy, tawdry, tabloid-style television. It was easy to wonder whether this was all gratuitous: Why should we waste hours of our lives witnessing how this guy’s status as a virtual American prince meant he could literally get away with murder? It felt morally suspect to allow this likely killer a platform to proclaim his innocence in the face of evidence to the contrary — and it took away from the sad fact that three people lost their lives because they crossed paths with this man.
Yet Jarecki’s obsession paid off in the fifth episode, when Berman’s stepson found a letter to his mother, sent by Durst on his own official stationary. It had the same handwriting, and the same misspelling of “Beverley Hills,” as a letter sent to the Los Angeles Police Department, telling the authorities about Berman’s body. It was strong evidence, and the finale kicked off with Jarecki and his team figuring out how to get Durst in the room for one more interview, where he could look at both of the letters he had presumably written.
But it took the bulk of the episode to get to the room where Jarecki interviewed Durst. First, Jarecki went to a handwriting expert to get verification that those two letters were written by the same person. Then he went to his office to discuss just how to snag Durst in a trap, through an interview. They had to bring their A-game, because Durst, as frail and elderly as he may be, is a smart man, and has escaped the law for years. There were even moments of reality show-style grandstanding, where Jarecki told the camera that this interview would be different, since he was now fairly sure of Bob’s guilt, and their relationship had changed as a result. And “Bob is volatile.”
Yet due to a combination of luck and persistence, Jarecki and his team were able to get Durst in the room for one last interview. Again, Durst denied being complicit in the murders, yet his body told a different story, with a strange belch coming out of his mouth as he lied. On the face of it, the interview was not so revelatory — until Durst went to the bathroom and gave what amounted to a confession. “What the hell did I do?” he whispered. “Killed them all, of course.”
As The New York Times wrote about the creepy last words of Durst in The Jinx, “Mr. Durst’s private monologue makes for good television. But it is unclear whether the recording of his comments could be used in court, some legal experts said, since they were made in a bathroom when he was alone and had an expectation of privacy.” It’s true: it was good television. Great television. A microphone ex machina that confirmed this man’s guilt. An answer to the show’s big question. Yet without this lucky confession, what did the episode give us, besides a handwriting expert’s word that the two letters were written by the same person and an old man’s body’s gross, unscripted response to the question of whether he killed somebody?
Jarecki and The Jinx team were always walking a fine line in regards to whether they’d have the information to implicate Durst, and when they would need to tell the authorities. They wanted to preserve their journalistic privilege, as they told The New York Times, but they also felt an obligation to the victims and justice. Yet Durst’s “confession” may well be judged inadmissible in his retrial. If it is, the strongest bit of evidence will likely be the envelope that ties him to Berman’s murder.
Durst is a a man who, thanks both to his family’s wealth and his own sociopathy, felt as if he could get away with anything. But it’s very possible that he met his match in Jarecki and his team — maybe Durst expected that he could charm his way into convincing both the filmmaker and viewers of his innocence, not expecting to be confronted with the evidence out there that he was, actually, guilty. The Jinx was an imperfect, messy show that, through research, grit, and absurdly lucky timing (the date of Durst’s arrest is reported to be coincidental), transcended its original impression as tabloid television. It did what Serial couldn’t do, ending in a way that feels conclusive, at least for the moment. Yet if there’s anything I learned from The Jinx, it’s that Durst has very good lawyers.