clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

"What the hell did I do?" 6 shocking moments from HBO's The Jinx

Robert Durst.
Robert Durst.

When I spoke with director Andrew Jarecki last week, I asked him if his latest project, the HBO true-crime documentary miniseries The Jinx, would have a satisfying conclusion. "When we get to end of The Jinx," he told me, "the audience won't be scratching their heads. They'll know what happens."

The six-episode series, which ended Sunday night, tells the story of Robert Durst, a wealthy man from a family of New York City real estate developers with a connection to three deaths: the killing of his Galveston, Texas, neighbor, the shooting of his best friend, and the decades-old disappearance — and presumed murder — of his wife.

Well, Jarecki was right about the finale. The sixth and final episode ended with the smokingest gun of all time. Durst must have forgotten he was wearing a live microphone, and seemingly confessed to the three killings he'd long been suspected of. This moment was jaw-dropping, as Time's James Poniewozik pointed out: "My gob is numb from being repeatedly smacked," he wrote.

But Durst's whispered confession wasn't the series' only giant surprise. Here are the six biggest WTF moments from The Jinx.

Episode 1: The eyes

If the eyes are the window to the soul, then surely the two dark specks in Durst's face tell us something about him. Durst's eyes are unlike any others. They aren't so much eyes as they are vacant black pools. When you stare at them — and it's impossible not to, accentuated as they are by his many erratic blinks — they seem to grow, to overtake his entire body.

Jarecki plays this up. Indeed, he first introduces viewers to Durst as he's leaving an eye clinic in Galveston.

The climax of the first episode is a long, slow-motion capture of the jumpsuit-clad accused making his way to stand trial. He stares into the camera, his black, darting eyes daring us not to believe him. What is it that we see there? Confidence? Arrogance? Fear?

One thing is for sure: Durst's eyes have seen many things. Yes, they saw their owner dismember a man, and they may have seen him murder two others. But they also saw his mother's suicide. His father's death. His brother's betrayal. And they stared into Jarecki's own eyes, and those eyes have their own hidden motivations.

Episode 2: The suicide

You can't help but feel sorry for Durst when you learn that his father made him wave to his mother as she readied herself to jump to her death. In those few moments of sympathy, you might forget what he's accused of and remember he's human. As Jarecki told me, you can learn a lot about someone "when you start with the premise that you're both human beings who come at life in different ways."

Complicating the villainy of a villain, even and especially when he seems so obviously irredeemable, is a powerful challenge in a media environment often bereft of empathy. It's also a challenge to viewers, who might prefer our villains simple and our anger pure.

Humanizing a bad guy doesn't mean you have to see him as a good guy — it just means you have to see him as a human. And humans, as we all know, are capable of doing really evil things.

This is why Durst's mother's suicide matters. It, no doubt, had incredibly negative effects on his childhood, and might have even affected his relationship with his brother.

As many point out, the enmity between the two Durst sons is so great that it smacks of biblical family feuds. Robert, the firstborn, was the rightful heir to his father's real estate business. But his younger brother, Doug, ended up inheriting the company.

It's understandable, then, given his own tragic family life, that Robert wouldn't want to father children. "I knew I wasn't gonna be a good father," he told Jarecki. "I thought I might be a jinx."


Andrew Jarecki. (Jeff Kravitz/Getty)

Episode 3: The hoagie

No matter how compelling Jarecki's storytelling is, there are things about this case that just don't add up.

Like the fact that Durst, who had more than $500 in his pocket and $37,000 in his car, would shoplift a chicken salad hoagie from a Wegman's grocery store in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in November 2001. (All three alleged murders had happened at this point.)

Even stranger is that Durst would have cooperated with the store's security when they tried to detain him. After all, in his vehicle were two guns and Morris Black's driver's license — certainly enough evidence to connect him to the dismembered Texan.

Why would Durst shoplift something he could have easily bought? For the thrill of it? Durst certainly seems to live as if he's above the law, as if no one can ever catch him. Or maybe Durst wanted someone to catch him? But, if so, then why? Was the guilt too much for him to bear? Did he want the authorities to search his car and tie him to Black?

I'm not a psychologist, and I'm certainly not qualified to comment on Durst's state of mind — but it does seem as if there's more than one "Durst" in there. Is it possible that the frightened, small boy watching his mom jump to her death is trying to overcome the calloused, sociopath with whom he shares a body?

During his interviews, Durst sits very emotionless and still, except, of course, for his furious facial ticks. No matter how confidently he answers questions that cast him in a negative light, you can't forget that he admitted to dismembering Black's body.

Berman's stepson, Sareb Kaufman, understandably has strong feelings toward Durst, with whom he'd become close after his mother's murder. Durst financially supported Kaufman through college. When Kaufman agreed to an interview with Jarecki, he said he had one request: "that we keep the best in mind."

Durst seemed to try this strategy a lot with Jarecki. "I don't know that she's dead," he said of Kathie, his onetime love. "You're saying she's alive?" asked Jarecki. "It's not likely. It's not what I think. I think she's almost definitely dead. But I don't know that she's dead."

Maybe Durst is the one who taught Kaufman how to hope for the best.

Episode 4: The defense

When I first learned of Durst's self-defense plea in the 2001 killing of Texas neighbor Morris Black, I couldn't believe anyone would buy it. Durst hacked Black's body into several pieces, severing the head and limbs from the torso. How are those actions consistent with self-defense? Yet Durst wasn't convicted of Black's murder.

How did Durst's legal team deal with the dismembered body? Simple: they ignored it. Time and again, Chip Lewis and Dick DeGuerin, Durst's counsel, reminded the jury that Durst was not charged with chopping up a body — but with killing someone. And the killing, they maintained, was accidental and in self-defense: Black was going to kill him, so Durst had to shoot first. What Durst did after Black was dead was not the jury's problem. They were simply there to deliberate whether Durst acted out of self-defense.

This was a pretty smart move, admits Cody Cazalas, a Galveston police detective who investigated the case. If there were only two people in the room and one of them is dead, then how do you disprove self-defense? In fact, it was the prosecution's job to disprove self-defense — and it failed. So Durst walked.

The moment we learn Durst was acquitted of Black's murder is pivotal in terms of how the series plays on the audience's sympathies. Up until that moment, Jarecki had done a good job complicating Durst just enough that believing he might not be guilty of what he's accused of doesn't seem entirely impossible.

But then you hear Cazalas say this:

"As a homicide investigator, you work for God. Because the victim is not there to tell his story. You're there to represent the victim, you're there to tell his story. You're doing that for God. There's a lot of truth in that. To this day, I feel like I ... "

And then Cazalas' voice trails off, overtaken with emotion. "Can we stop?" he asks Jarecki. "Thanks."

By the episode's end, sympathies shift again. We catch Durst talking to himself — foreshadowing his later undoing. "I did not knowingly, purposefully, intentionally lie," he recites to himself, methodically, as if he's trying to convince himself.

"I did not tell the whole truth," he later says. "Nobody tells the whole truth."

Not villains, and certainly not the victims.

Episode five: The letter


One of the strangest details of Berman's murder is that police were tipped off to her body's location. In a handwritten note, neatly adorned with block lettering, were Berman's address and the word "cadaver." (One of Kathie's friends suggested Durst would have heard Kathie use the word often during her medical studies.) The tell of the note is its misspelled "BEVERLEY," as in Beverly Hills.

At the end of the penultimate episode, Kaufman contacts producers to talk with them about new information he discovered that might possibly have something to do with his stepmother's murder. While going through Berman's belongings, Kaufman found a handwritten letter Bob had sent her in the year before her death. The address on the envelope is written eerily similar to the address on the cadaver note. And like the latter, it contains the same misspelling: "BEVERLEY."

That discovery was enough to convince Kaufman he was wrong about Durst. And it notably affected Jarecki's opinion of him, too. Jarecki and Durst had become close throughout the interview process. No doubt, the thought that Durst might have been lying to him the entire time weighed on the filmmaker. This tension is heightened during episode six, when Jarecki can't manage to get Durst to make good on his promise of a second interview.

While I realized the similarities between the two letters were compelling, I wondered if and when Jarecki went to the authorities with this information. That was always the risk with making this film: Jarecki obviously couldn't withhold evidence from the state, which would have been illegal, but at the same time, could he just hand over every single Jinx spoiler as soon as he'd discovered it?

This is where things get murky. According to the New York Times, producers of The Jinx discovered the audio of Durst's confession "more than two years" after it was recorded. A different article in the Times confirms this, adding that the producers accidentally stumbled upon the recording in the summer of 2014. But as Buzzfeed's Kate Aurthur was quick to point out, two years haven't even passed since the audio was allegedly made in fall 2013.

Regardless of how long Jarecki waited to give authorities the evidence he found, the fact remains that The Jinx has "played a crucial role in Durst's arrest," as Mike Hale writes in the Times.


Producers Marc Smerling and Andrew Jarecki attend The Jinx premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. (Araya Diaz/Getty)

Episode six: The confession

"What the hell did I do?"

When these words flash onto the screen early in the finale, it's easy to wonder who the "I" is. Obviously, it's Durst, who's overheard whispering those words to himself when he thinks he's out of earshot. (Or did he know he was being recorded? Is this another example of self-sabotage, like the hoagie?)

But you might see the "I" as Jarecki. What the hell am I doing? That thought had to cross the filmmaker's mind many times during the course of making this documentary.

What kinds of ethical calls did Jarecki have to make? In the last episode, he says his first priority is making sure justice is done. But, with respect to Jarecki, that isn't quite right, is it? He's a filmmaker — his first priority was to make a film.

Whatever evidence Jarecki unearthed while making this series, it was subsumed by the fact that it was presented during a televised special. The evidence, in other words, is entertainment. Informative? Yes. Investigative? Absolutely. But also undeniably entertaining. Just take a look at that hauntingly beautiful opening credits sequence. Or the teasers. Or the music, which would make a pretty good playlist for working out.

We have a cultural soft spot for true-crime programming right now. Serial, the uber-successful podcast that many compare to The Jinx, was one of the most downloaded podcasts of the past year. Week after week, we tune in to whodunits because figuring out who done it is fun.

That brings us to another possible "I" — the audience.

"What the hell did I do?" I asked myself, chastising myself for ever giving Durst the benefit of the doubt, but also feeling slightly embarrassed for taking such gleeful delight in a show about a real filmmaker who caught a real man who killed at least one real person. (Yes, seeing Jarecki as the star of the show is one way of looking at it.)

There's something just a bit unsettling about the new age of the whodunit. Sure, it's important that we revisit closed cases to determine if the prosecuted were unjustly convicted. And if a documentary's filmmaking process unearths evidence that can help investigators solve a decades-old mystery, then that is undoubtedly a good thing. But we need to remember that before these shows are anything else — they are shows. They are enjoyable. And they are bringing in a nice chunk of money for their producers.

The cut-to-black ending of The Jinx was one of the most mesmerizing finales of any television series. As Durst went into the bathroom, Jarecki and his crew turned off the lights in the main room and filed out. Here is Durst's complete monologue:

There it is. You're caught. You're right, of course. But you can't imagine. Arrest him. I don't know what's in the house. Oh, I want this. What a disaster. He was right. I was wrong. And the burping. I'm having difficulty with the question. What the hell did I do?

Killed them all, of course.

As I sat, drop-jawed, listening to Durst hang himself, I couldn't look away from one image lingering in the corner of my screen: a boom mic.

I wasn't accidentally happening to overhear Durst talk about killing people. That experience was doctored for me. Just like any Hollywood explosion or car chase or space journey, The Jinx was painstakingly constructed to offer me an experience that was at once compelling and enjoyable.

What the hell did I do?

Durst's words continued to echo in my head after he'd said them, after the screen went black. It didn't come to life again until what seemed like an eternity later, when the names of three people flashed onto the television:

Supervising Editor. Co-Editor. Additional Editor.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.