Ryan Murphy’s new series asks its audience an unsettling question: can a serial killer be forgiven?
By Isaac Dektor, Editor-in-Chief
If a serial killer wrote themselves a TV show, it would be a lot like “Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story.” Underneath a gripping narrative told through visceral filmmaking, unique screenwriting and transcendent performances is the distrubing reality that the Dahmer murders really happened, and the series takes the antihero a step too far.
The limited series begins from Jeffrey Dahmer’s (Evan Peters) perspective on the night that he was finally caught. Viewers are thrust into the Milwaukee apartment infamously marked by the smell of decomposing bodies. Time is disjointed, bodies litter the bedroom and Dahmer cleans a bloody knife. He then goes to a gay bar, Club 219, and hunts for another victim.
The show uses Dahmer’s polarities, a demure young man and the compulsive monster, effectively to create an unsettling antihero. Dahmer is driven by a compulsion, or so the show alleges at times, the origins of which are a mystery. Entire episodes are spent pondering that exact question. Viewers are led to believe that Dahmer had no control, like Camus’ antihero Meursault in the 1942 novella “The Stranger.”
Both Meursalt and Dahmer are antiheroes; both are central characters who like any heroic traits. Just as Meursalt’s murder of a man on a beach was made understandable because he lost control of himself, viewers watch Dahmer completely lose control to his “compulsion.”
Each episode varies thematically, changing in perspective just before Dahmer’s demise. After becoming attuned to the Milwaukee monster, viewers are catapulted back to his childhood and bombarded by rationalizations of his descent into barbarism. Was his father to blame? Lionel Dahmer (Barry Jenkins), the bumbling man who clearly inspired Dahmer's eyewear, taught his son how to preserve animal bones in formaldehyde.
Creators Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan make a friend of dramatic irony throughout the series as they depict the sloppiness of the Milwaukee cannibal. The police officer, who did not give Dahmer a DUI, would have surely discovered the garbage bag containing decapitated body parts in the trunk.
“I never want to see your face again,” says the cop. Dahmer’s own grandma says “I don’t want any strangers dying in my house,” before kicking her grandson for reasons including a terrible stench coming from the basement. It is through these moments, all the people who should have known (and the few who did know but were ignored), that the series expands outward and really shines.
Changes in character point of view lend a hand in driving the narrative forward. After watching the creators rationalize how Dahmer became the way he was for half of the series, it is a relief to step into the shoes of characters who are disturbed and forever impacted by the murders. Reverend Jesse Jackson even makes an appearance, albeit only as a vehicle for Glenda Cleveland to recall the years of living next to a serial killer, lamenting inaction by the police.
After scrutinizing the justice system in an attempt to remedy the damage done by humanizing the monster who took 17 lives, the justice system is scrutinized for its failure to change after the murders, the series begins to repeat itself. It exploits Dahmer’s demure temperament and statements of sympathy for everything they are worth, even holding up a jarring comparison to John Wayne Gacy’s last words, “kiss my ass,” before being put to death without ever acknowledging his crimes.
“Dahmer - Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story” is a detailed and nuanced account of a serial killer, though in the end, the monster got the last word.