Six years ago, I read Gary L. Stewart‘s book The Most Dangerous Animal of All as soon as it hit bookshelves. I remember the publisher had kept it under wraps, as the book offered a promising new theory regarding the identity of the Zodiac Killer. I read it with great interest, but I never saw it as one of the titans of the true crime genre due to its ambiguity. A four-part documentary series based on the book premieres on FX on Friday night (and is available on FX on Hulu the next day), and it boasts some of the same problems as Stewart’s book, in which he posits that his father was the Zodiac.
Who was the Zodiac? A guy who was responsible for roughly a dozen murders in northern California in the late ’60s and 70s. He taunted the police for years, and to this day, he has never been found. Stewart was convinced that his biological father Earl Van Best Jr. was the Zodiac, and as he learned, there was actually a lot of information publicly available about Van Best, who was 27 years old when he began dating Gary’s birth mother, Jude Gilford, who was only 14. Their relationship was dubbed the “Ice Cream Romance” by the San Francisco press, even though it was clearly illegal. Within a year, Jude became pregnant with Gary, though it wasn’t long before the volatile couple abandoned their baby, who was subsequently adopted.
Decades later, Gary’s relationship with his mother is strained, as he holds her responsible for the abuse he suffered as a child, even though she was just a child herself when she had Gary. Adding insult to injury, Gary didn’t even give her a head’s up about the book. And this was a woman who was coerced by a pedophile into having a baby at 15 years old!
The first episode of this series was a chore to get through, because even though we’re all watching due to the Zodiac connection, the Zodiac is barely mentioned. It reminded me of how ESPN’s O.J. Simpson documentary didn’t mention Nicole Brown‘s murder until the very end of its second episode, except the O.J. documentary was strong enough to work on its own without getting into the gory details, whereas Stewart’s search for his father isn’t nearly as interesting. The idea that his father may be the Zodiac killer is almost coincidental and besides the point, even though to us, the audience, it’s the whole point. Instead, Gary uses the Zodiac as a hook to get us interested in his emotionally charged journey of self-discovery, so he can finally find out who he is.
At first, the evidence, and thus Gary’s argument, adds up. The handwriting looks awful familiar. Both men had a scar on one of their fingers. Van Best also had a background in codebreaking, and if you can break a code, you can probably write one, too. But as the series continues, some of that evidence is called into question, putting Gary’s theory in jeopardy.
Gary isn’t proud of the fact that his father may be the Zodiac, but what’s disturbing about him, and makes him hard to root for as the show’s protagonist, is just how much he seems to want it to be true. As if it will answer every question he’s ever had about himself. He seems to feed off the celebrity that, deserved or not, comes with being the offspring of a serial murderer. I think we’re continually fascinated by the old adage that “the apple doesn’t fall from the tree” — the idea that some part of this insane murderer lives on in his biological child, whether that child knows his father or not.
The other key element here is Gary’s co-writer Susan Mustafa, who clearly feels a bit suckered by some of Gary’s “revelations” in the book, and worries whether the series will affect her credibility as a true crime author. As an author, she merely believed Gary’s story beyond a reasonable doubt, and recognized a good financial opportunity when she saw one. Yes, her name is on the book, but at the end of the day, she was working with something of an unreliable narrator, though it was certainly her responsibility to press a bit harder and recognize that. She, too, wanted to believe, and a belief is a powerful thing.
After all, we’re watching The Most Dangerous Animal of All because we likely also want to believe. Does that make us complicit in Gary’s tall tale? Like Netflix’s Don’t Fuck With Cats, this show asks that complicated question of its audience, and it also uses obsession like currency, banking on our endless fascination with an unsolved mystery.
Stewart is, clearly, something of an obsessive person himself, much like the lead character in David Fincher‘s Zodiac. It’s an easy case to become wrapped up in, simply because it’s so fascinating and the Zodiac was never caught, but there’s something sad about Gary’s hunger for the truth, something a little pathetic, and I’m not surprised to learn he has been divorced four times. It’s like he feels he’s owed something, or that he could’ve stopped his father if he had known — he could’ve been a hero! — but he never seems all that concerned with getting justice for the victims… just justice for himself and the childhood he feels was stolen from him.
The series saves its best episode for last, since like I said, it starts pretty rough. Finally, the producers start to question Gary’s claims, and certain things like a scarred finger begin to appear as what they always were — coincidences. I grew up in a steady home with two loving parents, so I can’t begin to imagine what it feels like to be adopted, and how that feeling of abandonment as a child can still be hard to reckon with as an adult. I understand why Gary is on a quest to find out more about his father — because he wants to know more about himself, where he comes from, and why he is the way he is. Until then, he’s lost, and at the end of this series, he remains lost. And that’s heartbreaking. Those looking for well-earned emotion will find themselves satisfied, but crime junkies hoping the show will shed more light on the Zodiac will walk away disappointed.
Grade: ★★ 1/2
The Most Dangerous Animal of All premieres on FX on Friday, March 6th at 8pm ET/PT and will be available on FX on Hulu the next day.