FX’s true crime documentary examines one man’s obsessive search for the truth about his birth father.
Is there more to belonging than being told you belong? Is there truly a feeling that we are out of place, out of sync, out of favor with those who surround us? Or is it a lie that gets repeated so often it becomes true? For Gary Stewart of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, these questions are what drive him beyond a simple desire to know and to belong. FX’s new four-part documentary miniseries, The Most Dangerous Animal of All, explores Stewart’s quest for understanding and the fallout of his obsession.
Told in a quiet, confessional style, Stewart stares directly into the camera, his voice occasionally choking with emotion. Abandoned as a baby, Stewart’s trust issues are understandably deep-rooted—and they’re as much a part of his identity as the color of his eyes. Despite being adopted at three months old into a loving family who raised him with strong values, he struggled with the feelings of being unloved, of not belonging anywhere and to anyone. He even has a string of broken marriages to prove it.
One thing that series creators Ross M. Dinerstein and Kief Davidson make clear from the beginning is that identity is a slippery concept. Do our genetics determine who we are or does our environment? Would Gary Stewart have been a more stable adult if he’d never discovered that his birth parents were once a sensational news story, or would the wound of not knowing where he comes from continue to fester?
Some time after reuniting with his birth mother, Jude Gilford, we see the seeds of his obsession begin to sprout. Unsatisfied with his mother’s elusive answers about his past, Stewart presses her despite every indication that the subject is not only painful for Gilford but traumatic. “I didn’t want to hear ‘I don’t remember,’” Stewart says of his mother.
Played out in hazy, Fincher-esque flashbacks, Gilford and Stewart tell the story of how she came to be involved with Stewart’s father. At fourteen years old, Gilford fled her unhappy home with her 27-year-old paramour, Earl Van Best, Jr., in what newspapers at the time dubbed “The Ice Cream Romance” due to their early “dates” at an ice cream parlor. A series of arrests for Best followed, and Gilford found herself in and out of juvenile detention. Eventually, the two ran away, making it all the way across the country to New Orleans, where Gilford gave birth to a baby boy. All accounts from Gilford and others tell of Best’s obsession for her and his unwillingness to give her up. The showrunners are careful to mirror this against Stewart’s own obsessive behavior. “Regardless of the outcome,” Stewart says at one point, “I just had to know.”
As the story unfolds, so too does Stewart’s obsession with his birth father. By the end of the first episode—aptly titled “My Identity”—wraps up, Stewart has convinced himself that his father was none other than the Zodiac Killer. What follows is a long, conspiracy-board style narrative that lays out his “evidence,” which is compelling, but none of it fully holds up. When true-crime author Susan Mustafa enters the picture and pops rounds off a pink handgun, things get a lot more interesting. Mustafa tellingly expresses skepticism for Stewart’s theory about the Zodiac but finds the larger story so compelling that she agrees to help him write what would become his book, The Most Dangerous Animal of All (the title, as it so happens, is a line taken from one of the Zodiac Killer’s deciphered codes.) Stewart and Mustafa appear as a united front against skeptics, right up until you realize just how far Stewart is willing to go to manipulate the narrative to fit his theory, and how eager he is to push the blame off of himself and onto the women in his life.
Identity is a slippery concept. Do our genetics determine who we are or does our environment?
It’s a fascinating look at a person whose circumstances have made him sympathetic while his actions destroy the goodwill he would have garnered otherwise. Stewart is relentless in his need to be right, whether he’s arguing with online dissenters, alienating his birth mother, or tarnishing the reputation of her second husband, Rotea Gilford, who was the first black homicide inspector in San Francisco and a highly decorated officer with the SFPD.
The Most Dangerous Animal of All spends three episodes building the case for Stewart’s theories about Earl Van Best, Jr. and the Zodiac killer, including interviews with former San Francisco Police Department officers, handwriting experts, and members of the Best family. Just when you start to think that things can’t get more over-the-top, the fourth episode brakes hard and pulls back with a wider scope. It doesn’t have to work too hard to find the holes in Stewart’s theory and in the end, it leaves the viewer with possibilities. Is Gary Stewart the son of the Zodiac Killer or is he just a petulant egomaniac who desperately wants to feel important in any way he can? Fans of true crime and Zodiac enthusiasts (I hesitate to use the word “hobbyists”) may find this a fascinating enough watch to begin with, but for those looking for a character study of the lifelong effects of abandonment, The Most Dangerous Animal of All is a must-watch.
The Most Dangerous Animal of All airs on FX starting March 6th.