FX’s new docuseries based on Errol Morris’ book is engaging at points but fails to fully defend its own point.
On February 17, 1970, Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald’s pregnant wife, Colette, and their two daughters, Kimberly and Kristen, were found stabbed to death in their home in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. MacDonald has maintained that he woke to find his home invaded by four intruders who attacked and left him unconscious while they murdered his family. The intruders, according to MacDonald, were two white men, one Black man, and one white woman in a floppy hat who held a candle and chanted “Acid is groovy; kill the pigs.”
Even in a country still reeling from the Manson Family killings, MacDonald’s story didn’t sit well. He was eventually found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. In the years following his conviction, MacDonald has always held to his version of events and has garnered a vocal following that protests his innocence. One of this following is writer-director Errol Morris, who in 2012 wrote the book A Wilderness of Error: The Trials of Jeffrey MacDonald, upon which director Marc Smerling bases his five-part FX documentary.
Smerling was also one of the guiding forces behind HBO’s The Jinx, as were fellow writers Andrew Jarecki and Zac Stuart-Pontier, and the aesthetic connection is immediately clear. A Wilderness of Error is a fast-paced wonder of archival footage, reenactments, new interviews, and a snappy (if Eels-free) opening credits sequence. Morris serves as the centerpiece of the series. Buoyed by his 1988 documentary film The Thin Blue Line and the subsequent exoneration of its subject Randall Dale Adams, he’s understandably eager to seek justice once again.
It’s clear immediately that Morris is passionate about this case, but that doesn’t make him right. Smerling plays this appropriately, questioning Morris about how he came to write about the case, talking through the basics, and letting Morris expound upon his personal ideas. But he still maintains a clear line between the two looming theories: That MacDonald is guilty of murdering his family; or that intruders, including Helena Stoeckley, committed the crimes.
Helena Stoeckley is the ghost in this story, a young woman plagued with addictions who, until her death in 1983, frequently confessed and recanted about her part in the murders. Through reenactment, she, dressed in a floppy hat, blonde wig, and boots, walks in slow-motion down a Fayetteville street numerous times throughout the series. It’s an eerie reminder that maybe the horror did come from outside the house. It seems almost unfair at times that she receives this dramatic treatment when MacDonald doesn’t, but the rest of the narrative manages to overpower this overblown imagery.
“What happens when a narrative takes the place of reality?” Morris asks towards the end of one episode. He’s primarily referring to the popularity of television miniseries Fatal Vision based on the equally popular book by Joe McGinniss, both of which clearly point to MacDonald as the killer. It’s a fair criticism that a generation of viewers was convinced of MacDonald’s guilt based upon that miniseries alone rather than any research into the case. But once again, is that enough? A Wilderness of Error makes some movements towards finding bias in MacDonald’s trials (military and civilian) but not enough so, and almost too late into the series.
True crime is a tricky genre. Victims deserve their stories told and justice deserves every opportunity to occur, but too often these are lost under the blood and the guts and the drama. We’re only a few months out from a national fascination with a saga of black market animal trafficking and attempted murder, a fascination that’s long grown dusty under a pile of fresh headlines and new hashtags. Without giving up any of the twists and turns of the series, it’s not hard to envision the coming weeks of armchair detectives doing their work.
Is one of the goals of this project a social media push to free MacDonald? To try and get him a new trial, at the very least? It’s hard to predict. When was the last time you heard anyone discuss The Jinx, a docu-series that ends with a confession caught on mic? True crime is a booming business and there’s always a new product. It’s hard not to project a certain cynicism at the screen regardless of the quality of the work (and the quality of this work is very high).
A Wilderness of Error makes some movements towards finding bias in MacDonald’s trials (military and civilian) but not enough so, and almost too late into the series.
This is the dilemma of true crime. Suspects and killers become the focal point and the draw. People want to talk about MacDonald and not the victims of a truly horrifying crime. One interviewee, Christina Masewicz, has researched and written her own book on the case, but the series identifies her only as “True Crime Fan.” She speaks of insisting to her husband that she’s going to attend MacDonald’s trial, giddily, presenting it almost like going to see a movie or a favorite artist in concert. Is that how Smerling sees his audience? Are we just “true-crime fans” looking for the next shocking scene?
Many of the people deeply involved in this case—Colette’s tireless parents Freddy and Mildred Kassab, Helena Stoeckley—are dead now. Much like the victims, they’re phantoms, faces in archival footage. They can no longer speak for themselves. It’s telling that while various witnesses condemn MacDonald’s appearance on The Dick Cavett Show for making the crimes all about himself and how they affected him rather than the lives lost, A Wilderness of Error struggles with the same. People are angling for Colette, Kimberly, and Kristen’s justice, but most of the talk returns to MacDonald. (Interestingly, neither he nor his second wife, Kathryn, appear in person here.)
It’s a hard line to walk between presenting a new look at an infamous figure and glorifying them, and A Wilderness of Error too often falls over towards a sort of glorification, if not of MacDonald personally then of the case itself. At the end of the day, did we need another look at the MacDonald case? Will the series change the minds of viewers familiar with the case? Doubtful, on either side that they might fall. A Wilderness of Error is a fascinating and informative look at a notorious piece of American history, but it struggles to defend its own relevance.
A Wilderness of Error premieres September 25th on FX.