Written by: Heidi Shepler | May 6th, 2021
The Sons of Sam (Joshua Zeman, 2021) 3 out of 4 stars.
What happens when a charismatic murderer builds such an incredible level of mystique around himself that no one ever fully knows the true extent of his crimes or his true motives? And when, furthermore, the police are far too interested in congratulating themselves for making an arrest to faithfully examine all the evidence? You get conspiracy theories, naturally. Especially when a gifted and relentless investigative reporter like Maury Terry tries to piece together the whole picture of the fragmented story. But conspiracy theories are as dangerous as they are fascinating, much like the famous murderers that inspire them. The Sons of Sam, under Joshua Zeman’s direction, examines the personal toll that a quest for truth and vengeance can take.
Like The Keepers, another of Netflix’s true-crime docuseries, The Sons of Sam discusses the crimes David Berkowitz (the “Son of Sam”) committed while keeping the emphasis on the victims. And there were so, so many. One of the points that this series makes (that is somehow both obvious and easy to forget) is that in a case like the Son of Sam, there are a multitude of victims: the people who died or were injured; their loved ones; and even the public itself; because the sense of safety and security that the average person feels living their daily lives is shattered by violence on such a scale.
The entire first episode is a deep-dive into the history of the Son of Sam case as most people know it. The majority of the runtime is taken up by historic footage: press coverage of the crimes, footage of interviews with police officers, statements from victims’ families, and even commentary from a stylist saying that women were changing their hair in an effort to avoid the killer’s notice. This goes a long way to explaining why the terror Berkowitz inspired could lead a reasonable person to believe that he hadn’t acted alone, and, even more incredibly, that he was part of a satanic cult.
In the 21st century, most audiences roll their eyes at the idea of secret societies devoted to devil worship, animal sacrifice, etc. But in the 1970s, accusations of this kind weren’t so easily dismissed. The Sons of Sam never (thankfully) goes so far as to seriously suggest that these cults actually did exist, or even that Berkowitz was actually a satanist. What it does suggest, however, is that Maury Terry was a talented investigative reporter who had reasons for doubting the official story put forward by the police and by Berkowitz, himself. Later episodes in the four-part series delve into conflicting evidence, suspicious coincidences and the all-too-convenient deaths of Berkowitz’s closest friends.
The overall neutrality and objectivity of the series is what makes one of the weaknesses of The Sons of Sam that much more frustrating. While the shortcomings and political posturing of the NYPD is examined, David Berkowitz’s own career in law enforcement is barely mentioned. He was an auxiliary policeman from 1970-1973, before he joined the military. With such close ties to law enforcement, what seems more likely? That David Berkowitz, working alone, while hallucinating about a six-thousand-year-old demon, shot people at random? Or that he knew how to manipulate the police? Surely he knew that if he spaced his crimes out both in time and location, and wrote ridiculous letters about occultism, he could send the police, the news media and the general public chasing their own tails for months, if not years.
Based on the evidence presented in the show, there does seem to be room for reasonable doubt that Berkowitz acted alone. But with key witnesses and suspects dead, a police department uncooperative at best and actively hostile at worst, and with Berkowitz himself categorically refusing to discuss the case, there never seemed to be much hope for Maury Terry’s investigation. But no matter how hopeless and tangled the story became, Terry could never let go of the case. This is where The Sons of Sam shines brightest: in demonstrating what a tragic waste of passion and talent Maury Terry’s career became. And it was all the more tragic because somewhere in the mire of his conspiracies, there probably was some grain of truth. It was his obsession with finding that “truth” that destroyed his life. Whatever the truth may be, however many people David Berkowitz did or did not kill, it’s fair to say that Maury Terry was his final victim.