The pivot is key. In the genre of true-crime documentary that Netflix has dominated since Making a Murderer, the moment when the case dissolves from monochrome certainty – he did it! She did it! There is no way they didn’t do it! – into a grey tide of doubts that gradually recede to reveal the jagged rocks of deeper truth is what makes the form so watchable.
You may feel that Netflix’s high-water mark, last year’s The Innocent Man, can’t be topped. It began with video footage of seemingly incontestable confessions by the two supposed perpetrators, plus detailed explanations from investigators of the crimes involved, before executing a remorseless deconstruction and debunking every moment that had gone before.
But there appears to be a challenger to Netflix’s hegemony. A new channel, Sky Crime, has launched with I Love You, Now Die, a two-part HBO film that tells the extraordinary true story of two teenagers from Massachusetts, Michelle Carter and Conrad Roy. They met in 2012, and only a handful of times after that, but built a relationship via thousands of text messages over the next two years before Roy, who had depression during that time, took his own life on 12 July 2014. In the hours, days, weeks and months leading up to his suicide, he received a slew of messages from Carter, later found on his phone by police, offering advice on methodology, timing and general encouragement. “Are you gonna do it now?” “There’s a lot of ways.” “You keeping over thinking it … You just have to do it like you said.” She was indicted for involuntary manslaughter.
It is an unhurried film. It gives time to Roy’s parents and extended family. It gives time to Roy, too, using footage he recorded of himself talking about his depression and feeling as if he were “wired wrong”. It gives us time to sit with the horror and feel the depth of grief.
And then comes the pivot towards Carter and her story. What seems like a simple – horrific, but simple – case of psychopathy is rapidly complicated as the lens pulls back to take in the rest of the story. It restores context to the texts, which were shorn of it by the “black widow” media narrative that sprang up, and by the tight timeframe upon which the prosecutors focused at trial. We see, across the years and the thousands of messages, how desperately lonely and mentally fragile Carter was (she had been on antidepressants from a young age); how she tried for so long to support the young man she saw, or wanted to see (with little encouragement and often outright unkindness from him), as her boyfriend. We see how her inability to solve the problems of an 18-year-old who had already tried to take his own life four times melded with her desire to stay important to him, and led her to become the cheerleader for his most self-destructive impulses. In the end, argued the defence psychiatrist in court, she thought she was helping him.
Along with the moral (and psychological and philosophical) issues raised by Carter’s behaviour that the film bears out – aided greatly by the eloquence and thoughtfulness of the journalist Jesse Barron, who covered the case – I Love You, Now Die also illuminates the more immediate side of the Carter trial. Somewhere in the storm of emotion was the legal matter of whether Carter, whatever ethical responsibility she bore, could or should be charged with manslaughter. In Massachusetts, encouraging a suicide is not a crime. How, then, could her words justify a manslaughter conviction?
The judge found that they could – and did. So did an appeals court. Carter is halfway through the 15-month sentence that was handed down. She was denied parole last month.
I Love You, Now Die is a superbly perceptive study of the endless convolutions and complexities of the human mind – and the proliferation of both when two people in a desperately unhappy state meet. It succeeds in raising questions – gently, but relentlessly – about our prejudices and our readiness to judge, as individuals and through our institutions, from the media to the courts. Without losing sight of anyone’s misery or loss, it forces nuance – a characteristic increasingly absent from discourse – into the discussion, for which we can only be grateful. If it carries on in this vein, Sky Crime will be a force to be reckoned with.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or by emailing [email protected] or [email protected]. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org.