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The Most Dangerous Animal of All Twists Itself into Knots

True crime fans, of which I am certainly one, are obsessed with the Zodiac Killer, a maniac who tormented San Francisco in the late ’60s. Do a brief Google search and you will find regularly updated communities of people espousing their theories on the identity of the country’s most infamous unidentified serial killer. Names like Richard Gaikowski, Arthur Leigh Allen, and even Ted Kaczynski will surface over and over again, but a name that has been heavily spotlighted in recent years is that of Earl Van Best Jr., the subject of a book called The Most Dangerous Animal of All, which has now become FX’s first true crime series, a 4-part examination of a recurring suspect. The series twists and turns in unexpected ways, becoming more of a commentary on how much his case foments obsession than anything else. It actually eventually serves as an interesting companion to one of the best films of the ‘00s, David Fincher’s “Zodiac.” Like the characters in that film, our protagonist here is deeply obsessed with this case. He just happens to be Earl Van Best Jr.’s son.

Gary Stewart’s journey started when he tried to learn the identities of his birth parents. Having been adopted as a baby, Stewart spent most of his life wondering about his lineage, and eventually tracked his way to his mother, Judy. The series premiere of “The Most Dangerous Animal of All” is more about Stewart’s search for his own family tree, which led him to his mother, and the story of how she was once nationally known as “The Ice Cream Parlor Bride” because she was only 14 when Earl Van Best Jr. married her and ran away with her. Arrested several times for the relationship, Earl was eventually separated from Judy, but not before she had Gary, whose father reportedly abandoned him to the state. While looking over his father’s life story, Gary sees a special on TV about The Zodiac Killer, and notices that the police sketch from one of the witnesses bears a striking resemblance to the man he now knows is his father.

The sketch sends Gary Stewart down a rabbit hole of investigations, even wondering if the fact that his mother dated an S.F. police officer who investigated the case of the Zodiac adds weight to his theories. To be blunt, everything adds weight to Gary’s theories. The second episode of “The Most Dangerous Animal of All” had me yelling at my screener due to Gary’s remarkable tendency to connect dots in ways that he believes are definitive but no investigator on earth would. And when the series reveals that Gary wrote the book on which the show is based, the whole project starts to feel like an informercial for a questionable project. There are weird little things like the police sketch and a handwriting sample reportedly tying Best’s marriage certificate to a Zodiac letter and Gary’s belief that you can even see his dad’s name in one of the ciphers, but there’s a lot of bending to make all of the pieces fit.

Luckily, “The Most Dangerous Animal of All” is more ambitious than a mere presentation of a shallow theory as to the identity of the Zodiac Killer. Without spoiling anything, it addresses many of the controversies that greeted Stewart’s book when it was released, and even reveals some new developments in the years since it came out in 2015. It’s ultimately a picture of a man who has become defined by an idea he had one night—what if my father was the Zodiac Killer? And it gets at something truly fascinating in the very concept of this question and how it would add validity to his life story. Wouldn’t it be better to know your father was more than just an abusive, abandoning asshole of a man, and that he was actually a historically important figure? The most interesting question here is why it feels like Gary Stewart wants his father to be The Zodiac Killer. “The Most Dangerous Animal of All” starts off in a frustrating manner, especially for those of us who know a great deal about this case, but eventually becomes a portrait of obsession and the true horror of that which we can never really know.

Whole season screened for review.

 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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