The Confession Killer could well be Netflix's smartest crime saga yet

Stuart Heritage
The Confession Killer could well be Netflix's smartest crime saga yet. A grisly new series rehashes the tale of notorious serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. But is it a new low for the true crime epidemic, or a genius dig at our obsession with bloodshed?

Back when true crime documentaries existed on the margins of culture, tucked away on late night TV, the genre was pretty easy to ignore. But now that we’re swamped with endless films and podcasts and series about people who kill people, or people who got away with killing people, or people who were convicted of killing people they didn’t actually kill, it’s hard not to feel a little queasy. These are horrible, terrible acts of violence, and they’re also the source of a seemingly neverending stream of mass entertainment.

The newest, thoroughly grisly addition to the fold is The Confession Killer. A five-part documentary that recounts the story of Henry Lee Lucas, it is currently among Netflix’s top 10 most-watched shows in the UK. This won’t count as a spoiler if you haven’t seen it – after all, it’s called The Confession Killer – but Lucas is famous for being the man who claimed responsibility for hundreds of murders. In 1983 and 1984, Lucas’s apparently unstoppable urge for killing helped a taskforce of Texas rangers clear 213 unsolved cases from its books. It didn’t matter that the victims, methods and weapons appeared to be chosen at random, nor that actual tangible evidence was scarce. Lucas had confessed, and that was enough. As such, The Confession Killer is less of a whodunnit and more of a ‘hedunnit?!’

It is, in every way, a classic Netflix true crime documentary. Structurally, it could have been created by an algorithm. The visuals are all grainy archive footage mixed with new interviews. There are clips of sensationalist old documentaries about Lucas that drip with cartoon blood. The theme tune is a wobbly video nasty number. It’s much longer than it needs to be, with three episodes of good material padded out to five. If you saw Making a Murderer, or The Confession Tapes, or The Keepers, you could quite easily sleepwalk through all the major beats of this.

Crucially, it also offers up no new information. That’s because Lucas isn’t some obscure little serial killer – he’s one of the most infamous criminals in US history, whose death sentence was pardoned by George W Bush. Several films have been made about his life. One of them – Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer – is so notorious that it took 17 years to be released uncut in the UK. The Confession Killer is in many ways the ultimate boilerplate true crime documentary, dredging up a case that’s already been dredged up countless times.

However, there is a different way to read it, and it makes the whole thing more palatable. Perhaps – just perhaps – it’s a comment on us, and our unquenchable thirst for murder. Looking back, it’s clear that Lucas was more than just a potential killer – he was fascinated by death, and had a willingness to be whatever people wanted him to be. To the police, he was a bucket in which to throw all their unsolved crimes, with Lucas often appearing to cold-read investigators like a seaside clairvoyant until he’d gained enough details of each murder to suitably pass himself off as the killer. He became a media sensation thanks to his happiness to fit into the profile of a serial killer. The term was still new and sexy in the early 80s, and the public was desperate to cram anyone they could into a mould they were yet to fully understand.

And now he’s back again, right as the true crime documentary epidemic is at its peak. We’ve become a planet of armchair investigators, doling out sentences left and right between mouthfuls of crisps, based on nothing but what the television tells us about a case. We cannot get enough of murder shows. We want more of them, all the time, no matter what. Like the police who took Lucas’ word that he had killed 600 people, we’ll lap anything up.

If The Confession Killer was simply intended to be a series about Lucas – a man who has already had more screentime than many other serial killers put together – it’s a mediocre one at best. But if it’s actually a sly jab at us and our obsession with reheating gruesome deaths, then perhaps it’s Netflix’s smartest true crime saga of them all.

  • The Confession Killer is available on Netflix now

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