clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries is different from the original. But one episode restores its pulpy aesthetic.

The new series mostly avoids the macabre camp of its predecessor — with one major, skull-clutching exception.

Grieving husband Rob Endres is the unlikely scene-stealer of Netflix’s Unsolved Mysteries.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Netflix’s new Unsolved Mysteries revival occupies an interesting position within the true crime zeitgeist as it tries to serve two finicky masters.

In one corner, we have fans of the original 1987 series, which ran for 14 seasons and more than 500 episodes before petering out in 2010. These fans love the original series for its slightly campy ’80s aesthetic, its often quirky cases mixed with frequently eerie reenactments, all overseen by host Robert Stack’s famous trench coat and dusky-voiced narration.

In another corner, a new generation of true crime fans who’ve mostly cut their teeth on serious presentations of the genre, from Serial to numerous deep-dive Netflix documentaries and podcasts.

Perhaps if Tiger King had aired before Unsolved Mysteries’ production was underway, the show might have leaned more into the more eccentric elements of the true crime genre. As it is, the season’s first half of six episodes — another six episodes will drop later this year, reportedly in October — takes a much more solemn approach. Gone are the chilling reenactments, the spooky narration, the melodramatic background music. The new Unsolved Mysteries favors sober on-camera interviews and staid pacing with loaded silences. Apart from the familiar opening theme music, you might not recognize the spirit of the original series at all — with one notable exception.

Unsolved Mysteries has the daunting task of making its audience, well, care about unsolved mysteries

One of the difficulties in this new era of complex crime storytelling: Many fans resent learning about unsolved cases. As true crime podcasters will tell you, modern audiences tend to get antsy when cases are unresolved; lots of people have come to think of true crime as an improbable kind of comfort genre. Unsettled crimes with no conclusions make it harder to treat the stories as entertainment.

The new Unsolved Mysteries approaches that difficulty from a few angles. The original series usually combined multiple short segments that fit a theme, covering different mysteries, into a single episode. The Netflix revival stretches those themed segments — a strange death, a missing person, or a wanted fugitive, for example — into full episodes, with one per episode.

One or two of the cases in the first half-season are true mysteries, with both the cause of death and the culprit undetermined — they’re less like modern true crime morality plays and more like the brain teasers from the original series. A few other episodes are nearly conclusive, with the killer all but proven and technicalities like the lack of a body or the inability to locate the main suspect preventing a resolution. (One episode deals with a famous case, the bizarre Dupont de Ligonnès murders, which are believed to have been committed by a family annihilator who then vanished into the French countryside. Another episode tackles UFOs, with lackluster success, while a third episode delves into a harrowing death that some believe may have been a hate crime.)

There’s one case, however, that veers from either path, and instead toys with that age-old rule of true crime: The husband did it. In episode two, “Thirteen Minutes,” the husband in question goes on camera in classic Unsolved Mysteries fashion, and proceeds to make himself seem as suspicious and creepy as humanly possible.

Documentary filmmaker Jimmy Goldblum, in his lone directing credit of the season (each of the series’ six episodes so far is helmed by a different director, with original series creators Terry Dunn Meurer and John Cosgrove acting respectively as showrunner and executive producer), follows the plight of a pain-filled Southern boy with the incredible name of Pistol Black as he tries to find out what happened to his mom. Patrice Endres went missing from the roadside salon she owned in her hometown of Cumming, Georgia, in 2004. A year and a half later, her remains were found a county away. Since then, her son, now transformed from a surly teen into a charcoal-voiced man with a perpetually haunted look, has fought to publicize her case.

A few details make the case unusual, beginning with the number of potential suspects. Because Endres’s salon was right beside a well-trafficked highway, anyone could have stopped and abducted her, and in fact one of the potential suspects was a serial killer known for doing just that. Eye witnesses, including a friend of Endres’s, saw an unfamiliar car parked outside the salon shortly before her disappearance. If anything, this seems to start out as a case where anyone but the husband did it.

But then we get to know the husband.

This guy did what with his dead wife’s remains?

“It made me feel really angry,” Pistol says placidly, speaking of the galling treatment he received at the hands of his stepfather in the days following his mother’s disappearance. Patrice’s husband, Rob Endres, immediately changed the locks to his house and refused to let his then-15-year-old stepson inside — not even to get clothes and other essential supplies.

“I didn’t want Pistol in the house because, you know, I didn’t like him,” Rob, pale-eyed and unsmiling, tells the camera about halfway through the episode. Rob immediately registers as the villain, the Captain Hook to Pistol’s lost boy; after this, we see Pistol wordlessly cutting a bouquet of flowers, the picture of silent grief all these years later.

Rob could be just a jerk — plenty of stepdads are. But his possessive creepiness rapidly escalates. Soon he’s casually relating with a satisfied gleam in his eye that he had the morgue reassemble Patrice’s skeleton, after which he picked up her skull, “carried it around for awhile,” and kissed it goodbye like a Southern gothic Hamlet.

“Was she kept captive for a while?” he muses at one point, as if he were discussing where he misplaced his keys. “I hate to say this, but was she somebody’s ... toy?”

Unlike a series like Tiger King, or the original Unsolved Mysteries, the new season of Unsolved Mysteries doesn’t treat any of Rob’s interviews with campy glee but rather with deferential sobriety. Because the show clearly wants you to take its cases seriously, it’s initially a little annoying that the episode fixates on Rob when there’s really not much evidence to support his guilt — or at least it’s annoying until Rob volunteers the fact that he kept Patrice’s ashes in bed with him.

In his zeal to keep his wife’s remains entirely away from Pistol — who we learn wasn’t even able to claim family photos, much less his mom’s ashes, from Rob — Patrice’s husband has held onto her ashes for years, leaving them unopened in a cheap box, on a shelf in his closet like a pair of forgotten shoes. But for a while, he says, he slept with Patrice’s ashes next to him in bed. Every night.

Insert record scratch.

Unsolved Mysteries has always loved an eccentric suspicious husband, and for just this one episode, the new series leans all the way into that trope

A smile that says “Person of Interest.”

“Thirteen Minutes” immediately reminded me of another famous Unsolved Mysteries case where the husband seemed to be too skeevy to believe. The case of Dottie Caylor, who went missing under mysterious circumstances in 1985, appears in the original series’ very first episode. What makes Dottie’s case stand out in the annals of true crime is the utter callousness with which her husband, Jule Caylor, behaved when he was filmed for the show.

Showing a complete lack of remorse or concern, Caylor describes an incident where he attacked his wife with a typing stand. He says, with boredom, he “wouldn’t even have wanted her” to move with him to a new city, and similarly describes dropping his wife off at her last known location, a subway station from whence she may or may not have vanished. In a manner bizarrely similar to Rob Endres’s studied casualness, he speculates that his wife may have planned her disappearance or perhaps been abducted.

The real clincher, however, comes when he discusses his life after his wife’s disappearance. “Since ... that whole problem is behind me,” he drawls, “things are really pretty good.”

Since there’s just nothing you could say to top that mic drop of a non-confession, the producers of the original show chose to end the whole episode right there.

The Jule Caylor segment of that first episode is one of the original series’ most notorious, for obvious reasons. Caylor was eventually formally named a person of interest in his wife’s disappearance in 2004, though because she was never found, no charges were ever brought. So it’s no wonder some fans of the show were immediately reminded of Caylor when they watched Rob Endres placidly wondering if his wife became her killer’s toy.

And while the new Unsolved Mysteries mostly abandons the familiar trappings of the old series, “Thirteen Minutes” shows that it still knows what longtime Unsolved Mysteries fans want. Though many of those fans have complained about the aesthetic changes, some have flocked to gawk at Rob Endres along with newer audiences. There’s already a subreddit dedicated to hating the guy.

Virtually nothing is currently resolved, or likely to be resolved without the discovery of new leads, about Patrice Endres’s case. (If you do have new leads, contact the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.) But thanks to the random macabre magic that resulted from giving her husband an unexpected spotlight, Unsolved Mysteries manages to satisfy both its old and new audiences and deliver at least one case that’s as unique as it is baffling. The rest of the half-season is weaker, but “Thirteen Minutes” gives fans plenty to work with. Don’t be surprised if the next six episodes lean even harder into this mix of campiness and the macabre. For now, “Thirteen Episodes” will do until the next Tiger King — or the next smug, un-self-aware husband — comes along.