The odd thing about the characters in Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal, the latest true-crime documentary from Netflix, is how familiar they are from fiction. A powerful family ruling over a small town. An indulged and entitled son who thinks he’s above the law. Corruption and murder in a Deep South setting. We have seen this in countless dramas, but here it all is in real life.
The Murdaughs are big fish in the small pond that is Hampton County, South Carolina, running the town’s most prestigious law firm. They have ties to judges and sheriff’s deputies, and a knack for smoothing over any trouble that comes their way. Episode one (of three) begins with a boat crash involving six young friends on their way home from a night out. One of them, 19-year-old Mallory Beach, drowns. Paul Murdaugh, reckless and blind drunk, was at the wheel, according to the others on the boat.
Allegations of a cover-up follow. Paul’s father, Alex, and grandfather, Randolph, turn up at the hospital and attempt to take control. Blame is pinned elsewhere. There were various omissions in the police investigation: “That is not an indication that there was incompetence,” says a lawyer for the Beach family, “because you couldn’t have that much incompetence.”
Mallory’s grieving parents appear in the programme, as do her friends and their parents, building up a detailed picture of the Murdaughs’ grip on the town. Netflix documentaries always expand beyond one simple story, though, and gradually we learn of other deaths linked to the family.
The series is competently told and I binged it in one sitting. It gives a strong sense of this corner of South Carolina, a world of oyster roasts and hunting trips and small-town gossip. But, without wishing to give away the ending, it reaches no conclusions. A criminal trial is yet to come, which begs the question of why the documentary has been released now when it is frustratingly short of answers.
And the final line of dialogue is proof, if it were needed, that Netflix documentaries have begun to eat themselves. “Hey,” one character says in a phone call from their prison cell, “I meant to ask you: did Netflix put something out about all this?”