What to Know Before Watching A Wilderness of Error

FX’s new series investigates Errol Morris’ investigation of Janet Malcolm’s investigation of Joe McGinniss’ investigation of …

Errol Morris, surrounded by copies of A Wilderness of Error, Fatal Vision, and The Journalist and the Murderer, along with a newspaper and other photos and documents.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by FX. Books by Vintage, Berkley, and Penguin Press HC.

A Wilderness of Error, the new FX miniseries directed by Marc Smerling and premiering Sept. 25, tackles one of the most-argued-about mysteries in the history of true crime. At issue is who killed Colette MacDonald and her two young daughters in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in 1970. Her husband, Jeffrey MacDonald, is currently serving three consecutive life sentences in federal prison for the murders, but he has long maintained his innocence, and he has his champions. Among them is Errol Morris, the Academy Award–winning documentary film director whose work includes The Thin Blue Line, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons From the Life of Robert S. McNamara, and Gates of Heaven. In 2012, Morris published a book about the MacDonald case, from which this documentary takes its title.

“What’s really interesting about the Jeffrey MacDonald murder case,” says Morris in an interview during the first episode of A Wilderness of Error, “is how many, many people have gone back over this. It’s a case that resists definitive explanations.” Most true crime documentaries offer a twist or two, but this one, which begins with a basic description of the initial investigation, is a labyrinth because that’s what the case itself is. Here are a few things to keep in mind while watching A Wilderness of Error. (To avoid spoilers, we’re withholding our review of the five-episode series until after the finale airs.)

The crime scene was a mess. Much of the debate the MacDonald murders have generated can be traced back to the lack of trustworthy physical evidence from the MacDonald home, where Colette and her daughters were killed. Military police handled the initial investigation, allowing many people, including random gawkers, into the house, contaminating the scene. Several key pieces of evidence vanished. As a result, the arguments for MacDonald’s guilt or innocence relies to a large extent on which witnesses can be judged credible. Nevertheless, Morris’ book devotes considerable attention to such forensic evidence as fibers, much of which is not addressed by the miniseries.*

There are takes on takes on takes with this thing. The FX miniseries takes a skeptical look at Morris’ position on MacDonald’s guilt. (Morris tells the filmmakers that while he can’t be certain MacDonald is innocent, he nevertheless believes that he is.) Morris’ book criticizes Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, which in turn scrutinized the work of yet another journalist, Joe McGinniss, who wrote a bestselling book on the crime, Fatal Vision. A “docudrama” based on McGinniss’ book was televised in 1984 and watched by millions of viewers. MacDonald sued McGinniss for fraud for pretending to believe in his innocence while researching the book and enjoying extensive access to the defense team during the trial, only to publish a book asserting MacDonald’s guilt and accusing him of being a psychopath hopped up on diet pills.

MacDonald’s version of events sounded a lot less preposterous in 1970 than it does now. MacDonald claimed that he awoke in the early hours of the morning to find four “hippie” intruders—three men and a woman—in his house. He said he struggled with the men and was knocked out, but not before hearing his attackers chant, “Acid is groovy, kill the pigs.” An excellent documentary that aired on Inside Edition in 1989 does a better job of conveying the gritty street life in the area at that time, which featured heavy use of multiple hard drugs, many Vietnam War veterans with histories of violence, and nihilistic dabbling in “satanism” and the occult. The Manson family murders had been committed in Los Angeles six months earlier. On the other hand, a magazine with a feature story about the Manson killings was found in the MacDonald house and might have given MacDonald the idea for his story.

The anxiety of influence may shape what we’ll see. A Wilderness of Error is directed by Marc Smerling, co-writer and co-producer of 2015’s The Jinx, the HBO true crime documentary series about accused murderer Robert Durst. Anyone who’s seen Morris’ seminal 1988 documentary film The Thin Blue Line, a movie that helped free an innocent man from death row in Texas, can see how powerfully The Jinx was influenced by such signature Morris techniques as the repeated use of stylized reenactments. But The Jinx came under heavy criticism for its gratuitous use of such reenactments (including from me). Meticulous to a fault, Morris uses reenactments to illustrate key points in witness testimony, often to highlight contradictions and inconsistencies. Like The Jinx, the FX miniseries is much, much looser in its deployment of reenactments, relying on them to generate atmosphere and chills at the risk of seeming to endorse particular versions of events. Early scenes of Morris sitting down to be interviewed on camera suggest he’ll be subjected to some grilling, the master placed on the hot seat by a disciple. Will he feel betrayed? If so, it will be far from the first time that someone drawn into this case ended up believing he’d been double-crossed.

Correction, Sept. 11, 2020: This piece originally misstated that forensic evidence such as fibers is addressed in the book version of A Wilderness of Errors but not at all in the documentary adaptation. The series does address some forensic evidence, although not as much the book does.