Content warning: This article refers to a serial killer and contains a brief discussion of violence.
With the release of “Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes” (2019–), Netflix at first glance seems to have a powerful premise for their new true-crime documentary: While Bundy was in prison awaiting his execution, he claimed once more that he had been wrongfully convicted and promised journalists Hugh Aynesworth and Stephen G. Michaud exclusive access to his story in return for a re-examination of the case against him. Unfortunately, the promised tapes don’t live up to their hype, and while the show is an interesting look into the mind of an infamous serial killer, it fails to reach beneath the surface of Bundy’s murderous exploits.
The show includes a mix of present-day interviews of those affected by Bundy, the aforementioned recordings of the killer himself and various archival footage — standard fare for a documentary. Inspired by the book of the same name, the story revolves around Aynesworth and his partner Michaud, who traveled to prison to interview Bundy in the hope of gaining unique insight into his mind and motives. Starting with his childhood, Bundy is quick to talk about everything in his life — besides the killings themselves, on which he at first remains mute. Eventually, Michaud suggests that Bundy should talk about the killings in the third person, and the floodgates open (sort of). Bundy begins to talk about some of the murders, and the show’s footage and narration fill in the gaps he leaves, tracing the bloody arc of his four-year murder spree and touching upon the double life he maintained with those close to him.
While there is nothing explicitly wrong with the show’s format, its overwhelming failure is its inability to offer any new insights into the inner workings of Bundy. The killer himself did not admit to the crimes he committed until 1989, years after the tapes the show revolves around were recorded. Because of this, Bundy himself confesses to absolutely nothing over the show’s four-episode run, and while it is unsettling to hear him talk, there is nothing of substance that comes from his recordings. The most startling fact to be gleaned is that he was incredibly narcissistic and considered himself exceedingly intelligent, but his label as a serial killer tells interested viewers just as much.
The show itself is decently well-made, with the present-day interviews ranging from those who considered Bundy a friend to relatives of some of his victims. Hearing people discuss Bundy offers a good contrast to his obvious delusions about his childhood and character, although they don’t achieve anything more meaningful than that. The show itself also does a good job at building suspense, especially before Bundy begins to talk in the third person. It alternates between the series of crimes conducted in the Pacific Northwest and Bundy’s rambling about his childhood, creating a sense of unease as the killer edges closer to discussing the national hysteria he created. However, this suspense is obvious and to a certain extent unnecessary — we already know Bundy committed the crimes — and after he begins to discuss the murders the rest of the show is cut-and-dry, with little experimentation done in the way of narrative creativity.
While there may be nothing wrong with Netflix’s documentary beyond the show’s conception from society’s unending fetishization and fascination with serial killers, the show does nothing extraordinary. The average viewer would already know that Bundy didn’t look like a killer, that he led a double life and that escaping across state borders to commit new murders revealed flaws in the way the police share information between different regions. For the viewer who is unfamiliar with the large details of his life, “Conversations with a Killer” will be engaging enough to warrant a viewing. For most, there is nothing shocking besides the accounts of his murders and some of the footage which is designed to elicit a reaction. The documentary is too safe for its own good, and its lack of depth causes it to border on, well, boredom, perhaps the worst fate for a documentary about one of America’s most dangerous killers.