“Did you ask god for forgiveness,” Marta asks, “for making José the man that he was?”
Kitty Menendez’s sister has secrets as well. In a conversation with Leslie, she says that their father was a violent man. “Our house was chaos,” she says; amid the chaos, someone molested Kitty when she was a young child. “I don’t think I ever saw her truly happy again,” she adds, and so the chain of abuse receives another link. If we could, no doubt we would discover that the chain extends back further still. It’s the nature of violence to multiply; in Lyle and Erik, that violence simply found its critical mass, and its most perfect expression.
And thus is the morality play complicated, as happens with all true-to-life dramas under close inspection. Lyle and Erik inherited their violence, it’s true. But so did José and Kitty. For as sympathetic as the portrayal of the boys has been, the reality raises the question: Suppose Lyle and Erik hadn’t killed their parents and went on to father children of their own: What kind of fathers would they have been? Lyle already acknowledged having perpetuated the abuse as a child, and murder doesn’t exactly qualify as ending the abuse cycle. Could they have ended it otherwise?
One would hope. What a shame, then, that Erik’s attempts to undo that cycle, however belatedly, played a part in his and Lyle’s ultimate undoing. It was clear from the start that his second testimony on the stand lacked the force of the first. The tears were still there, but there was little of the visible conflict that came with going public for the first time — less still of the agony of Lyle’s original testimony, which the defense forewent this time for strategic reasons. As any therapist will affirm, telling and retelling a painful story has a normalizing effect on it, and it was probably unavoidable that Erik’s testimony would appear less fearful and traumatized the second time around — a shift that was immediately apparent in Gus Halper’s performance.
More surprising was Erik’s crise de conscience, which has the unintended consequence of obliterating the entire strategy of imperfect self-defense. “I realize that now, that it was a horrible mistake,” he says about killing his parents. And suddenly I’m reminded of Erik’s attachment to his Bible, his conversations with the priest. I wish the writers had explored Erik’s transformation more and better, but the clues, at least, were there.
We’re in familiar territory, it seems: a story about a young man, forsaken by his father, betrayed by his friends, who rises up to overthrow his inheritance and now must forgive those who condemned him to this fate, past and present. He’s no Jesus. He’s not even Oedipus. But maybe there’s still some room for redemption.
• Writing about this show was a distinct, if sometimes disconcerting, pleasure, in part because true crime is a longstanding interest of mine. I’ve covered murder trials before, and like many people, I got an early taste from Truman Capote — I once even made a long detour through Holcomb, Kan., on a road trip out West. A unique feature of writing about a show based on real life has been the contact I’ve had on Twitter with people close to the case. I can’t fathom how difficult it must have been to actually live through this tragedy; but this show shined a light into some very dark corners, and I can only imagine that it must have provided solace and vindication to some of the people involved.
• The writers had their work cut out for them. And although I’ve been critical at times of the pace and character development, I’m impressed that it all came together given the vastness and complexity of the case, which spanned two trials and over six years. I’ll miss my late Tuesday nights watching and writing. Thanks to everyone who’s been reading — like me, I imagine you’ll miss the actors playing Leslie, Erik and Lyle the most. Edie Falco didn’t disappoint, and no doubt Gus Halper and Miles Gaston Villanueva have bright futures ahead.
• Could there be a better final image of Leslie than one of her flipping off the press? We should all be so lucky to have that opportunity. And I write that as a member of the press.