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The most shocking thing about Conversations With A Killer is how much faith it has in Ted Bundy

Katie Rife Jan 24, 2019. 19 comments
TV ReviewsAll of our TV reviews in one convenient place.  

The title Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes is somewhat misleading. Yes, the producers of Netflix’s new docuseries about serial killer Ted Bundy have tapes. They have hours and hours of tapes, some of them chilling enough to make your stomach drop to your ankles. But they’re not conversations so much as monologues featuring Bundy—a textbook sociopath willing to lie to anyone about anything—opining on his childhood, the murder cases against him, his disgustingly delusional self-image, and anything else that happened to pop into his head—as long as it made him look good.

Most of these tapes come from journalist Stephen Michaud, who traveled to Florida to interview Bundy on death row in 1980. The interviews, as it turns out, were Bundy’s idea; in true narcissistic fashion, he sent out a call for “celebrity bio” writers to come and hear his fascinating life story straight from his handsome, charming mouth. And Michaud humored him for a little while, letting Bundy paint an unrealistically sunny portrait of his upbringing moving around the U.S. before eventually settling in Tacoma, Washington. Those looking for new insight into Bundy’s childhood will be disappointed with the first episode of Conversations With A Killer, as the tales he tells complicate the already conflicting narratives about his life simply by being complete and utter bullshit.

Director Joe Berlinger, who also directed the fictional Bundy biopic premiering at this year’s Sundance , acknowledges these stories as such, clarifying that none of the information—at least, none of the verifiable information—Bundy gives in the first episode is true. (“There was a gap in him,” one classmate says in response to Bundy’s assertion that he was popular in high school.) He uses this as a lead-in to what appears to be a bombshell revelation: After repeatedly trying, and failing, to get Bundy to talk about his crimes, Michaud had the idea of asking Bundy to play amateur criminal profiler, appealing to his intellectual vanity by soliciting his “expert opinion” on “what kind of person” would do these things. That got Bundy talking, leading to chilling statements on how “someone” who views women as “merchandise” could cannily exploit weaknesses in the American law enforcement system to satisfy his bloodlust.

This all works based on the assumption that Bundy is really talking about himself, and therefore the tapes give us an unprecedented look into his mind and methods. But the problem, again, is that we only have Ted Bundy’s word to go on here. If you can’t trust a word Ted Bundy says about himself, his statements on “someone’s” mental state should be similarly suspect. Yet, Michaud believed his gambit to be a success at face value—and so did Berlinger, enough to make a documentary revolving around it. Did they do so because they really believed these tapes to be a valuable addition to our understanding of these inexplicable crimes? Or did they do it because, 30 years after his execution, Bundy’s name still sells papers—or green-lights docuseries, as the case may be?

As the series wears on, suspicions of the latter become harder to ignore. Although Berlinger makes the most of Bundy’s nauseatingly callous statements, pairing them with grainy ’70s-era stock footage and impressionistic horror-movie montage to truly terrifying effect, there really isn’t that much on those tapes—certainly not enough insights to fill four hours’ worth of bingeable true-crime TV. And so, by the end of the second episode, Michaud and his tapes have mostly receded into the background, and the psychological thread is lost.

Berlinger fills the remaining runtime with a variety of documentary techniques, some more successful than others. Most successful is putting Bundy into the social context of the 1970s and the second-wave feminist movement; Berlinger presents him as an entitled white man who lashed out with violence when confronted with his own mediocrity by a college girlfriend who broke up with him because he wasn’t going anywhere in life. (He was also a dedicated Republican who felt that politics were “perfect for him because he [didn’t] have to be real,” in the words of one interview subject.) The fact that more than 30 people died because one guy got dumped, as Conversations With A Killer points out, is the ultimate in toxic masculinity.

The second and third episodes of the series, which focus mostly on the women Bundy killed, also do a good job of conveying the terror women in Seattle (and later in Salt Lake City and at the University Of Florida) felt on a daily basis during his murderous reign, and the incompetence of investigators who re-traumatized survivors by not believing them. It does so mostly through archival news footage and interviews with reporters and detectives who worked the case, including Kathleen McChesney, one of only four female detectives in King County, Washington at the time of the Bundy murders. Conspicuously absent in these episodes are graphic details of the more gruesome aspects of Bundy’s crimes—the word “necrophilia” is only mentioned once—presumably out of respect for the victims, whose names and photographs are pointedly, repeatedly shown on screen.

These episodes can be frustrating at times, but mostly because the investigations being profiled were so poorly handled by sexist law enforcement. Where Conversations With A Killer gets truly enraging is in its last episode, which is just as padded than the second and third episodes, but with one key difference: Instead of interviews with detectives, we talk to reporters who seem a little too proud to have been part of the media circus surrounding Bundy’s trial, and defense lawyers who are a little too pleased with the notoriety they got from representing Bundy. This angle is under-explored, as the series itself seems to become enamored with these new tapes: Bundy giving video interviews, Bundy representing himself in court, Bundy’s previously released death row confessions.

The last episode leans heavily on long, exasperating stretches of video of Bundy, clearly relishing the attention, mugging to the camera as he represented himself in court. It’s instructive to see the leeway Bundy got from law enforcement who coddled him because he was a middle-class, well-dressed white guy. At one point a judge tells him he’d make a good lawyer. But the thoughtful feminist interrogation of the investigation into Bundy’s crimes is disappointingly underdeveloped when the focus shifts to the trial and Bundy’s ensuing celebrity. Promises of finally understanding this monster, and the sensitivity toward the women he killed, fade away, and all that’s left is Bundy, making soulful eye contact with the camera as interviewees talk about the charisma and good looks that made him irresistible to the gaggle of groupies that coalesced during his trial.

Conversations With A Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes doesn’t glorify this despicable man, but it falls short of being truly self-aware when it comes to the trickiest of all true-crime ethical dilemmas: At what point does documenting a narcissist become giving him a platform? Ethical questions aside, the series’ dependence on Ted Bundy to tell the truth about Ted Bundy means that it doesn’t really bring much new information to the table. The most frightening thing about Bundy was his emptiness, his ability to become whatever was most convenient for him at any particular moment. Conversations With A Killer is aware of that void, but isn’t truly comfortable staring into it—allowing Bundy himself to fill that void with lies.

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