Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story is the first season of the American true crime anthology series, Monster, created by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan for Netflix. The first season focuses on the serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and his infamous murders between 1978 and 1991. The series dramatizes instances where Dahmer was nearly apprehended until his ultimate conviction and death. It also explores how police incompetence and racism enabled his crimes.
Dahmer begins at the end, in 1991, as prolific serial killer, necrophiliac and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer (Evan Peters) picks up Tracy Edwards (Shaun J. Brown) at a Milwaukee-area gay bar and brings him back to his dingy apartment, where absolutely everything is a warning sign: There’s a drill drenched in blood, a tank filled with dead fish, a festering stench, a mysterious blue shipping drum and a VCR playing The Exorcist III. When you see the apartment, it is hard for you to not ask the question, as a rational human being, why Tracy Edwards didn’t get out immediately. Anyways, after some extremely creepy events, Tracy — historical spoiler alert — escapes and gets the police and it’s quickly discovered that Dahmer had, over the course of three decades, murdered and done horrifying things with the bodies of 17 young men, mostly young men of color.
From there, we trace Jeffrey’s evolution from antisocial young boy (a superb Josh Braaten) to dissection-loving teen to serial killer without a conscience. We witness his relationship with his caring-but-distracted father (Jenkins’ Lionel) (although when we see the father teaching his son, dissection of road kill, it makes you question the family traditions of extreme weirdness), his unstable and poorly treated mother (Penelope Ann Miller) (who took so many pills, that it is tough not to think, the kid wouldn’t inherit something nasty), barely sketched-out stepmother (Molly Ringwald’s Shari), church-going grandmother (Michael Learned’s Catherine), various victims and the neighbor (Nash’s Glenda) who kept calling the police about the smell and kept being ignored (and who is the second best reason to watch the show after Evan Peters).
For five episodes, directed by Carl Franklin, Clement Virgo and Jennifer Lynch, Dahmer makes the same loops over and over again through Jeffrey’s behavior, which I’d call “increasingly hellish” and “depressing“. So it’s all just a hellish-but-monotonous reel in which Jeffrey drinks cheap beer (and he drinks a lot), fixates on somebody, masturbates inappropriately and then does something horrible, though at least the series keeps us in suspense as to what horrible thing he’s going to do. This developing of tension through “Is he going to eat this victim?” or “Is he going to have sex with this victim?” or “will this victim manage to escape?”.
The focus on Dahmer through a repeated viewing of his process of luring targets from gay bars doesn’t accomplish as comprehensive of a narrative as was intended. The redundancy of the illustration of Dahmer’s out of control loop rather insensitively demeans the victims through their pain as merely one among a host of other depicted murders.
The episode “Silenced” is the one I felt was the best among all the episodes. Written by David McMillan and Janet Mock and directed with more empathy than voyeurism by Paris Barclay, “Silenced” tells the story of Tony Hughes (excellent newcomer Rodney Burnford), presented here as perhaps the only victim with whom Jeffrey had traces of a real relationship. It’s easily the best episode of the series, an uncomfortably sweet and sad hour of TV that probably should have been the template for the entire show. Tony was deaf and, in placing a Black, deaf, gay character at the center of the narrative, the series is giving voice to somebody whose voice has too frequently been excluded from gawking serial killer portraits.
Or take “Cassandra,” the episode built around Nash’s Glenda (the actress delivers two or three lines of incredulous dialogue that will have some viewers cheering). It’s a good episode because Nash is so good, but it can only get into Glenda’s head with the help of a subplot involving Jesse Jackson, there to spell out themes that the writers are insecure about having previously established. Glenda’s story showcases the incompetence of the police and her struggle to make sure Konerak, the underage teen who had his skull drilled into by Dahmer, was safe.
There are also pointless and lengthy and manipulative asides about Ed Gein and John Wayne Gacy, for example, that get more screentime than at least 10 victims. The John Wayne Gacy bit seemed unnecessary and felt like it made Dahmer look “normal” and that is an impossible thing to do. It panders to the serial killer obsessives and undermines several themes of the series, by making it less “monster” and more “misunderstood“. I’d add that concentrating on things like that and reducing most of the victims and their families to their pain is closer to exploiting that pain than honoring any memories.
The second half of the season aims to nail down the wholly non-controversial assessment that Dahmer was able to get away with his crimes because he was a white man preying primarily on economically disadvantaged men of color. The Milwaukee police, possibly the real villains of the piece, missed many opportunities to stop things because they weren’t interested in the race and economic status of the people going missing, wanted no part of the sexuality of anybody involved and couldn’t be bothered to show support in the neighborhoods impacted.
The show’s strongest points lie in its ability to create and sustain tension that keeps the viewer engaged and on-edge throughout. Evan Peters lives up to expectations in playing Jeffrey Dahmer as he expertly mimics the killer’s eerie mannerisms. Peters emulates the muffled, apathetic cadence distinct to his character impressively well, and the juxtaposition of Dahmer’s awkward uncertainty in manner with his adeptness at killing is enough to inspire a queasy shudder in even the most avid of horror fans.
Seeing an actor who looks nothing like the person they’re supposed to be portraying completely takes a person out of the viewing experience. But I cannot say that about Dahmer, and I think if anything, the casting was too good. Evan Peters’ performance as Dahmer was terrific and terrifying all at the same time. He did a phenomenal job with what he was given, and I think if there is one thing Evan Peters will do well, it is a terrifying serial killer role.
While the series is incredibly gratuitous in its violence and makes the violence and Dahmer’s evil, the focal point of most episodes, the series also showed the negligent Milwaukee police department that allowed Dahmer to get away for so long. It showed how the police gave one of Dahmer’s victims, fourteen-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone, back to Dahmer despite protests from bystanders who had a feeling Dahmer was lying. The series shows the homophobia and racism of the Milwaukee police department that allowed for this to happen, as well as allow for the murders of numerous gay Black and Brown men to slide under the radar.
I think when talking about true crime, the police are often depicted as the “good guys” who were working tirelessly to get the killer off the streets. However, with Dahmer, this was not the case, and it’s important to show that the police did not prioritize this situation as it was going on.
As far as acting goes, Dahmer is a work of art due to Evan Peters. However, avoid if glorification of mass murderers and evil human beings is not what you agree with.