The newest HBO true crime docuseries of the many such works on the platform, Mind Over Murder, is a story that stands apart from all that has come before it. This is because series director Nanfu Wang, whose prior documentary work is also all worth checking out, sets out to challenge the conventions of the genre. Even as someone who is quite fascinated with said genre and the stories to be found within it, it has been long overdue for a more critical eye. As we have seen a tsunami of true-crime series seemingly take over all of the streaming platforms, many have fallen into rather predictable patterns that fail to find anything new or interesting in what they uncover. More often built around superficial drama than delving into the darker aspects of our world, they all feel increasingly interchangeable as they lack any actually incisive insights. Wang eschews such sensation to settle on uncovering something that is both more somber and honest, making for a refreshingly reflective work that takes her typical rigor for her subjects into the heart of the genre. The result is one that, among many things, calls into question whether there are actual hero figures to be found in true crime.
This is felt early on in Mind Over Murder as Wang begins to recount the story of a gruesome murder in the small town of Beatrice, Nebraska that went unsolved for years. Long, sweeping shots of the town as well as the surrounding area show just quiet and simultaneously isolated everything we see can be. We begin to observe how Wang is not just interested in the crime itself, but in the broader societal forces that surround it. This is made explicit when we learn what the results of the investigation were, shifting the focus to be about profiling a place and a people. While many true crime stories are built around suspense where answers are kept secret, Wang lays out almost all of the cards in the opening moments of the series. We know that there were six people that were wrongly convicted of the murder and later exonerated. This isn’t a show that is built around shock or surprise, instead opting to explore something far deeper than the typical trappings of the genre. It frees Wang up to provide a more comprehensive analysis of all aspects of the story. She is able to both humanize everything more completely and, as a result, reveal our own flawed nature that too often goes overlooked.
With delicate precision, the docuseries peels back the layers of fear and desperation that would lead to a further tragedy within the tragedy. There are no heroes to be found here and there likely aren’t any to be found anywhere. We often like to latch onto such a hero figure who will come to save the day and restore order to the disorder of the world. Frequently, we are told that this will be the police or other forces of the law that we can count on. Wang complicates this, showing how the police soon did not even seem to care about finding the culprit and let the case go cold. It was the first of many systemic failings that would lead to multiple people being threatened and coerced into confessions for a crime they did not commit. This all begins with a former police officer turned private investigator named Burt Searcey who then returns to the department when he feels that he knows how to get to the bottom of what happened. There is no valor or victory in how Wang captures this moment as a final monologue makes clear that this man is not the hero that will come in to save the day. It reveals the more troubling reality of how the acts of even the most well-intentioned individual can end up causing more harm than good. It reminds us of how people can be incredibly fallible and often make egregious, even life-ending mistakes that they can never ever take back no matter how much they want to.
While true crime looks at the worst parts of existence, it also has a persistent and pervasive investment in giving us a hero to feel safe in rooting for. We want to see how the intrepid investigators doggedly pursue all loose ends when everyone else has given up. When we first meet Searcey, he seems to fit this role. This leads us to think that he will be the one that we follow as he tracks down the truth. Only, the truth is not so simple. Wang turns our assumptions on their head by having multiple other interview subjects remark on how he may have had good intentions but actually made things worse. It slows everything down and even cuts out the music to make sure we remember how bad things got once he took on the case. It is all part of how the series turns a sharp eye on itself. It is not every day that true crime takes a hard look in the mirror, though that is what Mind Over Murder is setting out to do, succeeding where many other series have failed. It forms around everything that Searcey has been saying and calls into question the validity of what he was doing at the time before looking beyond him to the many systemic failings that ultimately hurt everyone.
This more complex understanding of the murky morality of our world and the way Wang brings it to life makes the case for a more honest type of true crime that does not provide easy answers when there are none to be found. It reveals a glimpse of a truth that is painful to confront though no less necessary to do so. This is done in a multitude of subtle ways that shows how the series is sowing the seeds of deeper ideas. Most central is the way that she has various actors behind a recreation speak to the internal tensions that underpin the story as people who lived there knew about what happened. Where far too many other true crime stories would superficially valorize their subjects, this series raises concerns about giving anyone a hero’s portrayal. It breaks down the common conceptions we have about how a crisis like this occurs and what can be done about it, demonstrating how an investment in carceral solutions is just as fragile as the people who must see them out. In doing so, it challenges us to think more critically about whether heroes actually exist and, perhaps even more importantly, whether the stories we tell about our past should create them anyways.