Evil Genius: The True Story of America's Most Diabolical Bank Heist, is the work of a particularly obsessed journalist spanning over a decade. It is quite gripping, a bit mystifying and overly long. In that sense, it shares many of the qualities of another Netflix true crime docuseries, the one that made the company fall in love with the genre: Making a Murderer. True crime is having a bit of a moment, with the wild success of Serial and HBO's The Jinx spurring a cottage industry of similar productions that take long, in-depth looks at the criminal justice system and tabloidy crimes.
It's not hard to see why. Ever since Truman Capote pioneered the genre with the un-put-downable In Cold Blood, there has been no lack of market for tales of evil people committing perverse acts for reasons that often remain incomprehensible. Audiences are fascinated by the titillating, bizarre and compelling details of true crime stories. Biographies of serial killers have long captured the interest of a particularly morbid segment of the public because there is an inherent fascination in what makes people commit such horrible acts against fellow human beings. Entire cable networks have sprung up devoted to covering every bloody detail of these cases.
The opening episode of Evil Genius makes it all too clear why. It lays out the basic facts of the case, which are bizarre and tragic and utterly compelling. In 2003, a Pennsylvanian pizza delivery man robbed a bank using a gun fashioned to look like a cane, something straight out of the demented underworld of Dick Tracy. He was quickly apprehended by police, but claimed he had been coerced to commit the crime and had a bomb around his neck. He was carrying detailed pages of hand-written instructions, basically constituting a scavenger hunt he needed to complete in order to unlock and free himself from the device. Before the bomb squad could reach him, the device detonated, killing him. The show includes footage of this utterly bizarre and horrifying sequence of events.
This scenario almost defies belief. It's the kind of thing you see in a movie and think, That can't possibly be real. But it did happen, and is the only recorded instance in which a bank robber actually had an explosive device detonated while committing the robbery, apparently under the orders of a third party. The next three hours of the series set about figuring out who that third party was, and trying to uncover the motivations for the crime and arrive at some kind of explanation.
Ultimately, the show doesn't really clarify the big questions, like why it was done. We can only guess and infer, and the facts of the case are too bongswaggled to arrive at a satisfying sense of closure. This is often the case with these true crime stories, and it comprises an important part of their allure. There simply may not be a satisfying explanation or sense of closure. Maybe people just commit these acts because they are evil. The idea that evil is ungoverned by reason, that it flows throughout society and manifests in unpredictable ways is what makes these shows so hard to turn away from, and also so terrifying.
My main criticism of this series is that it is too long, and too singularly obsessed with the titular Evil Genius: Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong. Marjorie, a woman suffering from mental illness, obviously coordinated and carried out the bombing. The evidence strongly suggests that she and her accomplices never intended for Brian Wells to get to the end of the scavenger hunt. The bomb had a timer, and it would have been pretty much impossible for him to go to all the locations as directed in the instructions. It seems very likely, then, that whoever did this simply wanted to create chaos, challenge the police and demonstrate their intelligence and cunning to the world.
The show is mainly the work of Trey Borzillieri, who had been reporting on the case since the beginning. He struck up a close relationship with Marjorie, almost certainly too close, and his skewed objectivity heavily influences the narrative. The series goes to great lengths to establish that Marjorie is a uniquely intelligent, deeply disturbed person, and it seeks to uncover some mysterious depths in her cold, terrifying gaze (the effect that she had on people when she looked at them is mentioned several times). But that is where the show gets tripped up, by trying to Hannibal Lecterize Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, who died in prison in 2017.
The back-end of the show spends a lopsided amount of time airing interviews that Borzillieri conducted with her while she was in prison. In the interviews, she has the demeanor and mannerism of a fucking batshit crazy person, ranting and raving about her own intelligence and the unfairness of the world (not unlike Donald Trump, actually). Giving this person the platform that they want to erect a monument to their own criminal genius is itself problematic. This is compounded by the fact that Borzillieri is clearly obsessed with this woman, in her motivations, in what we are repeatedly told is her almost super-human intellect, her facility with lying and complete disregard for other human lives.
I saw very little of that intellect on display. What I saw was a mentally disturbed person who committed a fairly clever and sophisticated act of especially heinous murder simply for the sake of it doing it. I would wager, however, that many people are intellectually capable of pulling off a similar murder. They simply choose not to. And the reason Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong chose to do it is not some unfathomable mystery, but simply that she was an insane sociopath with serious mental problems. Watching this person lie with fluency about the evilness of her own nature felt both exploitative and not particularly interesting. The murder itself is fascinating, in a horribly morbid way. The efforts to uncover the people behind it, complete with a dead body in a freezer, were also hard to look away from. But watching this person rant and rave to a journalist who was so obsessed with her that he spent a decade and a half trying to get to the root of what makes her tick - something feels wrong about that.
True crime stories always walk a fine line between being entertaining, informative and exploitative. By their very nature they use human tragedies to create shows that are designed to attract viewers. In this case, I think the show put too much of a spotlight on Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, treating her with almost a kind of awe for the way she unapologetically stands outside the boundaries of human behavior and norms. If the show was slimmed down to just the facts, ditching the cult of personality aspects, it would have worked better and run less risk of delving into exploitative territory. Still, it was hard to turn off so I guess I am complicit with the rest of society in being unable to look away from the scandalizing details of a ghastly true crime story.
All of which, of course, means Netflix is almost certainly going to keep pumping out more of these.