True Crime Tuesdays: Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal
Helen Archer | On 07, Mar 2023
Just over a week before a jury took 45 minutes to unanimously find Alex Murdaugh guilty of the murder of his wife, Maggie, and younger son, Paul, Netflix released Murdaugh Murders, a compact three-episode series that looks at the increasingly nefarious deeds of the generationally wealthy South Carolina family. It is not the first to chronicle the Murdaughs’ transgressions – there have already been several documentaries, including HBO’s Low Country, as well as numerous podcasts, articles and subreddits. But the Netflix series is surely the most timely, and takes the scandal to an international audience.
Directed by Julia Willoughby Nason and Jenner Furst (the duo behind Time: The Kalief Browder Story, LuLaRich and Fyre Fraud), the series serves as a very good primer for people not already aware of the twists and turns within the case – and for those with more than a passing knowledge, it’s an excellent synopsis. It starts at the point that the family’s fortunes began to turn, after Paul Murdaugh set off on a night out on his boat with five friends in 2019. Drunk out of his mind, and refusing to let anyone else take the wheel, the inevitable crash resulted in the death of 19-year-old Mallory Beach – and would prove to be something of a catalyst for all that came after.
All the surviving friends who were there that night are interviewed, and talk not only of the crash, but of the life of entitlement and privilege at the heart of the Murdaugh family. Their Lowcountry high life – the Murdaughs’ affluence goes back generations, with son after son following their father into law – is told through these recollections, painting a vivid picture of life on the 1,700-acre, $4million Moselle estate, which Paul used as his own personal playground, hunting, fishing, off-road driving, and flying, with planes rumoured to be loaded with all kinds of contraband regularly arriving via the family’s landing strip.
Though it seemed like a life of freedom, with Paul allowed to do exactly as he pleased, festering underneath it was the darkness of his upbringing and his terrible fondness for alcohol; his excessive drinking was completely normalised within the family. Despite being underage, Paul and his friends were actively encouraged to drink in the company of the older Murdaughs, despite its physical and mental effects on Paul – and it’s hard to imagine a worse drunk.
The horror of the boat crash is played out very effectively, using recreations as well as audio and news footage. But it’s the aftermath of the crash – as Mallory Beach was still missing in the river – that tells us what kind of a family we are dealing with. The Murdaughs’ ability to influence law enforcement saw them able to go to the river bank, even as Mallory’s mother was denied access. While she waited for any information regarding her missing daughter, the Murdaughs were able to access the crime scene and remove evidence, before attempting to get one of Paul’s friends to take the blame.
That in itself would probably be enough to fill a documentary series, but – although the boat crash is given the gravity it deserves – it takes up just one episode. If the ambivalence of any of the interviewees is surprising – after all, shouldn’t they be angrier? – the reason becomes evident in the second episode. Having set the scene, the directors go straight to the brutal 2021 murder of Paul and his mother – again, a crime which would take up an entire series, and which here takes up Episode 2.
The final episode deals with two other deaths that have been linked to the family – that of Gloria Satterfield, the housekeeper who had been working for the family for over 20 years, and who died after what the Murdaughs described as a fall at their home. Rumours also started swirling about the possible involvement of the Murdaughs in the death of Stephen Smith, an openly gay young man who was friendly with Buster, Paul’s older brother, and who was found dead by the side of a road in 2015, when he was 19 years old.
A sense of incredulity is a feature of the documentary, as it was when the events unfolded in real life. As the facts come out, piece by piece – including Alex Murdaugh’s financial crimes, the most audacious of which being the theft of the $4million insurance money meant for Satterfield’s children, as well as his alleged drug abuse and, finally, his botched ‘suicide’ attempt which he staged to look like a murder – the sheer audacity of the patriarch’s misdeeds becomes overwhelming.
It’s a testament to the directors that they have managed to parlay this mountain of information so efficiently and, apparently, so effortlessly. While doubtless this will not be the last word on the subject, as more criminal impropriety is uncovered, Murdaugh Murders proves to be both affecting and enraging, while keeping to the brisk, no-nonsense Netflix true crime formula.