The new docuseries shines a spotlight on how serial killers exploit a broken system.
Between 2010 and 2011, police uncovered ten bodies meticulously buried on Gilgo Beach, a strip of marshland on the Southern shore of New York’s Long Island. When was revealed that the bodies belonged to sex workers, the local tabloids went into a frenzy. Whispers of Joel Rifkin, the East Meadow, Long Island-based serial killer who had been sentenced for the murder of nine sex workers in 1994, immediately came flooding back. Could there be a serial killer hiding in the suburbs again?
Josh Zeman, the director of Cropsey and Killer Legends and native of Long Island himself, also took notice. “I saw that it was ten bodies and thought this thing is gonna get solved, I mean you don’t find that kind of exaggerated serial killer story in this day and age. But then year one passed with no arrests, and then year two, and then I started to hear that there was some question whether it was two killers or one and at that point, I picked up a camera.”
The result is The Killing Season, an eight-episode docuseries four years in the making. The series, executive produced by Academy Award-winning documentarian Alex Gibney, starts out by digging into the four identified victims found on Gilgo Beach, searching for any clues towards the killer’s identity. But as Zeman and fellow documentarian Rachel Mills (Killer Legends) begin digging for answers, they start uncovering a string of similar murders down the East Coast, stretching from Long Island to Atlantic City to Daytona Beach. Was Long Island only the beginning?
The answer is complicated and lends itself to the series’ title. As Zeman and Mills begin to uncover, the serial murder of sex workers has become increasingly frequent across the country. While four murdered women found in a drainage ditch behind a no-tell motel in Atlantic City might seem similar to the four identified victims on Gilgo Beach, their connections have more to do with how our brains work than a multi-city conspiracy to hide a serial killer.
“Part of what we tried to show is our tendency to create patterns where there are none,” Zeman said. “Our tendency to want to think of it as part of some master plan, our tendency to believe that all of these murders are related because that fits in with our need to create patterns. It’s much easier to say that it’s a super serial killer than it is to realize that common individuals are murdering four women here and four women there.”
The Killing Season, in some ways is like diving down the best Wikipedia rabbit hole, where one story inevitably spirals into many, each thinly held together by a similar thread. For the series, that thread isn’t just the victims, but it is also the terrifying commonality of serial killers. While investigating a series of murders in Daytona Beach, Zeman and Mills uncover a string of similar murders along the interstate stretching across Florida’s interior, from one coast to the other.
But as it turns out, it was much bigger than this. Unsolved murders stretch across the country, clustering the large network of highways and interstates that matrix the United States. These are the “missing” missing, victims disappear without anyone knowing because no one is looking and no one files a missing persons report. But even beyond this, these are victims that never receive justice (or even simply identification) because their killers cross state lines and information sharing is not mandated for any law enforcement agency in the country. “These killers know police and law enforcement agencies don’t talk to each other,” Zeman said. “They know they don’t share information and they use that information to commit more crimes.”
It is this deep-dive into a broken system that makes The Killing Season so compelling and such necessary viewing. As Zeman and Mills zig-zag across the country, uncovering possibly narcoterrorism in New Mexico and potentially three unidentified active serial killers in Cleveland, the series gives just enough answers and tantalizing questions to keep viewers hooked and wanting more. The series is often tense, as the pair confront potential suspects named in cases, biker gangs and even correspond with a former long-haul truck diver and convicted serial killer, John Robert Williams. There is also plenty of heartbreak, as they take the time to talk with the families of many victims, including the children left behind to wonder why their mother was murdered.
This respect for the victims is what grounds The Killing Season, as Zeman and Mills strive to give victims back their humanity, refusing to reduce them to a profession or an addiction and instead showing that they were mothers, daughters, sisters, wives and so much more. And they are conscious and vocal about the fact that this is a dignity the press who report on these crimes do not afford these victims. “We do this thing called victim blaming and this is why these cases don’t get solved,” Zeman said. “You set the narrative as the reporter; as the journalist, you’re the one who’s got to educate. We have to think about sex workers in a different way and if we can do that, we can really start to solve the crime by changing how we think about the crime.”
The Killing Season premiered on A&E on Saturday, November 12 at 9pm EST. The first two episodes are available to stream now online: http://www.aetv.com/shows/the-killing-season