S-Town, a stunning new podcast hosted by This American Life producer Brian Reed and produced by the creative team behind Serial, is brilliant, complicated, frequently troubling, and often painfully beautiful.
I’m not convinced it should have been made.
The first few episodes of the seven-part series comprise a baffling, rapidly expanding set of mini stories, involving one narrative twist after another about murder, mental health, impending societal collapse, and clocks. But they almost serve as misdirection away from a larger, more central thread. Indeed, it’s not until episode four of seven that S-Town’s theme finally articulates itself. At that point, a rare clock restorer describes his friend, a fellow rare clock restorer, as having “made an insurmountable challenge out of living.”
The friend he’s talking about is John B., a dizzyingly eccentric, real-life Southern gothic hero whose turbulent unrest fuels the series and constantly wars with his drive to create change and beauty in his rural Alabama community.
But it’s important to be clear that despite its Serial roots and an investigative premise that initially seems like a journalistic jaunt into an unresolved murder, S-Town is not a true crime podcast.
On a broader scale, S-Town is about the insurmountable challenge of living that any of us might seem to face at one point or another. It’s this harsh truth that underscores the podcast’s many difficult, brutal, and inevitably controversial topics. These topics come to include isolation and sexual repression, which are shadowed by the looming and overarching threat of societal collapse due to socioeconomic upheaval and climate change. Yet in spite of their complexity and range, S-Town’s coverage of these topics ultimately amounts to a deep dive into one man’s mental health — a journey I don’t believe he ever explicitly invited us to take.
The most eccentric resident in S-Town, a.k.a. Shittown, is also our central character
John B. — the full story of the “B” isn’t revealed until the podcast’s final moments — lives in Woodstock, a small town near Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which he scathingly dubs “Shittown” to anyone who’ll listen. Throughout the narrative, John’s festering rage and the disquieting apathy of the town’s residents seem to feed off one another. But John is much more than just an avatar for rural disenfranchisement.
Reed describes him as a “local Boo Radley,” but he owes far more to Jim Williams — the last semi-closeted real-life antiquarian living on legacy antebellum property to inspire his own Southern gothic tell-all.
John is all of the following: a queer liberal conspiracist who socializes with neighborhood racists; a manic depressive consumed by predictions of cataclysmic global catastrophe; an off-the-grid hoarder of gold who takes in stray dogs; a genius with a photographic memory who’s spent his whole life caring for his mother while designing a massive and elaborate hedge maze in his backyard; and one of the most skilled antique clock restorers in the world.
All that, and he may be sitting on a fortune in buried treasure.
It takes S-Town a while to discover all these facets, and more, of John’s life. When he first emails Reed out of the blue in 2014, he seems like a quirky but typical small-town eccentric, a random This American Life fan who wants Reed and the show to come to Alabama to help him solve a local mystery.
John believes “we have a genu-wine murder” in the pastoral county where he and his family have lived for generations. Firm in his belief that systemic local corruption has allowed the son of a rich family to escape punishment for beating someone to death, John eventually convinces Reed — after a year of occasional back-and-forth emails — to travel to the area to investigate.
Like John himself, “Shittown” starts out seeming weird but conventional, hiding a mystery that doubles easily as a vivid Southern gothic, or, as John puts it, a portrait of regional “decay and decrepitude.” And John is its disgruntled, perpetually turgid center.
Initially, Reed’s attempts to find the truth are a bit halfhearted and mostly unsuccessful. Shittown is a tiny rural community full of complex characters and disconcerting social systems. Reed visits a tattoo parlor where white men maintain a “secret” exit to avoid having to talk to black customers. He observes an unlikely, latent homoerotic bond between John and one of John’s struggling, working-class neighbors. In episode two, flustered by the sheer number of locals who want him to casually confront a possible murderer, Reed sputters, “This town!”
Like many aspects of S-Town, however, the initial mystery turns out to be merely an entry point for something much stranger, sadder, and more bizarre. “This town,” like John himself, is both unique and universal. And as Reed soon realizes, to John, the whole world is Shittown — and he’s trapped in it.
The tension between the individual and the collective is S-Town’s greatest strength
Over the course of S-Town’s seven episodes, Reed attempts to simultaneously comprehend the micro and the macro as they impact John’s life, positioning overwhelming global problems alongside relatively tiny human calamities — the fallout of a missing will, failed romantic opportunities, barely articulable fantasies, untreated mental health.
In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, the media has been awash in attempts to empathize with the downtrodden white working class of regions like John’s, and S-Town initially proceeds as though it will ask us for a similar level of progressive empathy for the heartland. But almost immediately, S-Town takes darker, unexpected narrative turns, and never really stops turning inward upon itself, or John’s life.
Yet the series also turns unfailingly outward, asking us again and again to connect the dots of John’s life to the long-term, looming impact of global issues like climate change, and to see his isolation partly as a product of human existential crisis in the face of uncaring societal apathy.
“The amount of outrage versus the amount of shitty things in the world is totally out of whack,” John tells Reed at one point. His perennial, deep frustration with the state of the universe is palpable; it also increasingly drives his friends away and serves to further isolate him.
S-Town gives us a glimpse of Southern life through the eyes of a man torn between his loyalty to his home, his desire for change, and his bitterness over not having gotten the hell out decades earlier. This all feels a bit trite and clichéd — after all, isn’t that the story of all current or would-be Southern expatriates? — until suddenly it isn’t, and John’s preoccupation with impending global disaster abruptly triggers a personal collapse.
It’s here that S-Town takes yet another interior turn, as if the real mystery is John himself. It’s also here that S-Town becomes both incredibly invasive — and incredibly rewarding despite that invasiveness.
S-Town embarks on a risky, invasive path
The other breakout podcast of early 2017, Missing Richard Simmons, provoked considerable controversy over its creator’s choice to essentially hound friends of the fitness guru for details about his life, ostensibly out of concern that Simmons hasn’t appeared in public since 2014. Since Richard Simmons seems to be totally fine, and has stated repeatedly that he’s just taking a break from society for a while, listeners questioned whether Missing Richard Simmons served any real need. Some suggested it actually caused harm, by invading its subject’s privacy for the sake of others’ entertainment.
Likewise, S-Town prompts us to ask serious questions about the ethics of Reed’s narrative experiment. But to talk about the deeper aspects of S-Town, we have to reveal a major spoiler for the series.
So: Major spoilers for S-Town follow.
At the end of S-Town’s second episode, Reed has already determined that the murder mystery John summons him to investigate never happened. But he seems in no hurry to stop talking to John.
Then a friend of John phones to let him know: John is dead from a suicide.
At this point, Reed’s investigation becomes immediately and completely about exploring John’s life and the events that led to his death. Over the course of S-Town, Reed plumbs the threads he thinks will lead to an explanation for what happened; he examines everything from the way clocks are gilded and the history of sundials to the incorporation of John’s small town in the ’90s and the fallout of many of his closest personal relationships.
The layers he uncovers are simultaneously broad-ranging, extremely personal, and complex. If you believe, as Reed does, that understanding John’s life and death is a worthwhile pursuit, then S-Town, in its intimacy, detail, and ability to use one life to highlight larger social issues and universal truths, is one of the finest podcasts ever produced.
But that is a huge “if.”
At first, Reed focuses on the fallout among John’s friends and family over John’s lack of will and the possibility that John left behind a serious amount of gold. But that path leads to a dead end, and increasingly S-Town becomes an extremely close read of John himself.
We learn intimate details about his sexuality, his faltering and failed relationships with other people (often younger straight men he seeks to aid financially in exchange for an emotional bond), his intricate professional work on clocks, and even the quality of care he provides to his mother, who has dementia.
We’re also treated to an appalling scene in which John’s cousin envisions dismembering part of his corpse in order to access a set of gold rings he was wearing when he was buried. This commodification is echoed in the packaging of the land John owns, which is sold at auction to someone who calls John “selfish” for the choice of suicide that he made. S-Town mainly covers these events to remind us of the treasure hunt for John’s buried gold — but the narrative isn’t seriously interested in determining whether it exists. The real purpose of these tangents is to shock us, entertain us, and maybe get us to question the artifices inherent in public mourning.
And that’s pretty exploitative considering that S-Town is on one level a spectacle of public mourning itself.
S-Town deliberately proceeds without its subject’s ultimate consent — particularly regarding his queer identity
S-Town’s speculation regarding John’s psyche is painful and personal, and often disconcerting in its intimacy. Episode six is largely devoted to ruminating on John’s relationship with another aging queer man with whom he shared a sublimated homoerotic friendship. Using Brokeback Mountain, which John called “the grief manual,” as a parallel for their aborted friendship and lost potential love, S-Town dips into the well of collective universal longing for human companionship to fuel its conclusions about John’s life and the factors that brought it to a close. It’s a poignant, rich, unmissable portrait of repressed queer identity in the South.
This is brilliant, meaningful, ambitious podcasting with the potential to elevate the medium.
But it’s also journalism exploring the life of a private citizen who struggled intensely with mental health issues and never had a chance to consent to some of the facts that S-Town reveals about him. As I listened to the podcast’s final episodes, I really struggled with this aspect of the narrative, feeling as though I was violating the privacy of a man who had explicitly invited Reed to investigate a death — never his own.
At one point, Reed chooses to reveal a conversation John had originally asked be kept off the record, in which John talks about one of his romantic relationships with another man in his town. Reed later interviews and describes the man John is talking about, and ultimately gives three reasons for breaking his ethical standard. First, he’s had on-the-record corroboration from other people about the substance of John’s comments. Second, the information John shared led to a greater understanding of who he was, “and I think trying to understand another person is a worthwhile thing to do.” And third, since John is an atheist, he doesn’t believe in afterlife repercussions, so according to his own belief, he’s dead and buried and can’t be hurt by any of this information.
I’m not so sure, however, that making the choice to undermine the autonomy of a dead man, even if it yields greater understanding of him, isn’t hurtful to others — particularly to those who grew up queer in the South, unable or unwilling to fully explore their identities due to fear of societal repercussions.
And one potential repercussion is a result of Reed’s choice to disclose. John primarily wanted the conversation off the record in order to protect a closeted fellow resident of S-Town with whom he’d had a relationship. Despite not actually identifying the man, whom he later interviews and discusses obliquely after the fact, Reed provides a few details about him that could potentially make it possible to single out someone in a small town, or at least make them a target of suspicion and hostility.
While listening to this sequence, I felt deeply uncomfortable and worried that I was participating in the unwitting outing of one queer man over the dead body of another. And given that the episode’s main storyline was not only incredibly moving on its own, but had little to do with this information, I don’t believe it was worth it, or that we necessarily deserve to understand the parts of a person’s life that they’ve explicitly requested not be shared with the world.
There are also moments in S-Town where the narrative seems to tease out aspects of John's queer and sexual identity as big reveals. First comes the question of whether all his main emotional relationships have been with straight men. Then there’s the question of whether he ever truly had an epic love story of his own. Each of these questions is structured and dealt with as a major dramatic plot point. When tied to the privacy of a dead man — one whose suicide has already been treated as a spoiler — this use of real life as drama feels exploitative.
Finally, there’s the “reveal” that Reed saves for S-Town’s final episode, in which we learn that John has been asking the straight object of his sublimated attraction to help him engage in a ritualistic pain fetish.
This ritual, which John and his friend call “church,” is clearly John’s attempt to practice a form of BDSM known as needle play. Already it’s debatable that we, the audience, needed to know this detail about our deceased main character. But Reed presents John’s ritual in an odd way — not as a known BDSM practice but as an alternative to cutting, something he implies could have been brought on by John’s depression.
As deeply as Reed has chosen to engage with a broad range of subjects in this podcast, from methods of clock gilding to the way a sundial works to John’s love life, his choice to put John’s fetish on the record with so little contextualization feels irresponsible and out of sync with the rest of the podcast. John was attempting to practice an unhealthy, unsafe, and nonconsensual form of structured masochism, in isolation, outside of healthy established BDSM practice. Once Reed decided to use that private information, he should have distinguished John’s pain fetish as disordered without equating having a pain fetish to self-harm and correlating it with mental illness, or implying that BDSM itself is inherently shocking, sinister, unstructured, and dangerous. Instead, Reed frames John’s fetish as a dramatic twist.
Then again, Reed also glosses over potentially illuminating questions about mental health care, such as what resources and attitudes toward treatment are like in central Alabama, and how seriously John sought treatment for the depression that he and Reed openly discuss.
It’s not clear, despite the care and concern Reed seems to show for John after his death, whether he ever seriously asked John if he was getting the help he needed while he was alive.
Is the emotional impact of S-Town worth trading its subject’s control over his own story?
Throughout S-Town, Reed’s affection for John and his community remains clear, even in moments when he seems completely flummoxed by Southern life and the detached apathy of the people around him toward social injustice, human dignity, and material possessions. This was the apathy that ultimately drove John to his death — yet S-Town never really questions whether it’s responsible to use John’s death as a means of challenging that apathy.
S-Town is a very, very good podcast. John is eminently fascinating and compelling, but also eminently troubled; S-Town tries to honor him by giving him a voice again and again, even shortly before he dies. But even as it’s allowing John to tell his own story, I question whether that story should have been told at all. Would John have wanted me to hear his final note? Would John have wanted the world to know he had his heart broken by the man who stopped returning his calls after John confessed his love? Should we have the right to speculate over the cause of his depression, or hear him enjoying himself in the middle of a BDSM scene?
I’m not sure that S-Town ever argues successfully that the public is entitled to explore the internal complexities of John’s life, particularly after his death. John may have been gregarious, opinionated, and talkative while he was alive, and he may have invited Reed into that life as a documentarian. But the podcast proceeds with the familiar confidence of a production that believes it had open access to all facets of John’s life and death simply because John invited Reed to investigate a town scandal, and I’m not sure it did. I can’t help but wish Reed had questioned his mission more openly.
After all, this is a story where the dominant theme concerns one man’s drive to bring positive change to his community. And as powerful as it is, it would have been even more powerful had its subject been able to consent to its being shared with the world.