After depicting the atrocities of Jeffrey Dahmer, the ‘Milwaukee butcher’, just a few weeks later Ryan Murphy was back to premiere another series on Netflix, one that is not so bloody but not necessarily less ominous. All that happens to the family at the center of The Watcher is that an unknown person sends them threatening letters. Even so, the result is seven episodes full of unease with a prevailing air of psychological terror and bad vibes. And that’s not the only parallel that can be drawn with Dahmer.
The series is based on a true story, but the writer and producer has taken many liberties, going well beyond what was recounted in the New York magazine article that first piqued his interest. In fact, he was so enthusiastic about the piece and its narrative possibilities that he tried to buy the rights, but someone had beaten him to it – his friend Eric Newman, showrunner of Narcos: Mexico. Murphy called him, offered to write the script for free and thus the pact was put in place that led to The Watcher.
The backbone of the story is the Brannocks’ attempt to settle into their new dream home in the upscale suburb of Westfield, New Jersey. But it all goes wrong when someone who calls himself The Watcher, and who claims to be the guardian of the house, begins to send them sinister letters with threats that are at first veiled and then explicit. The couple have well and truly stretched themselves financially in order to buy the property, so leaving would mean losing money – the house’s value had declined, for obvious reasons – and a moral defeat that the husband, above all, is not willing to permit, even if it costs him his marriage and his relationship with his son and daughter.
Finding the culprit, however, will prove elusive. First of all, the police are totally cavalier about the case and reluctant to dedicate the resources needed to investigate it when there’ve been no actual incidents. Secondly, both the neighbors across the road and those next door are strange, hostile characters with a disturbing knack for sneaking into the house that the Brannocks had hoped would be their home and their castle.
Based on this premise, the showrunner creates a creepy whodunnit where all the supporting characters appear suspicious and are unquestionably odd. At times, the atmosphere is reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby, where there was that satanic cult living an outwardly normal life in New York’s Upper West Side. And having Mia Farrow play a role in the series only strengthens that association. At other times, the cinematographic dissonance feels more resonant of Blue Velvet, while the weird characters in it are as if out of Twin Peaks. Add in the fact that the daughter of the great director – Jennifer Lynch – is one of this series’ directors and it certainly suggests none of these things were random.
As a mystery, the storyline is a bit too forced and some of the subplots far too implausible. There are even moments when the series looks like it’s turning into a tale of supernatural terror. But if you overlook this stretching of the plot, its portrait of life in a plush residential neighborhood with perfectly mowed lawns is potent and there’s enough moody realism to make you forgive any flaws.
Furthermore, Naomi Watts and Bobby Cannavale deliver strong performances as the married couple. They’ve overextended themselves economically in order to move into the affluent community of Westfield and it seems the rest of the residents consider them unworthy and unwelcome intruders. This opens a rift between the couple and the portrait of this self-destruction driven by a need for acceptance ends up being the strongpoint of the series.
This is where Murphy’s hand is most evident and it’s possible to see another parallel with Dahmer. The feeling of inadequacy, of not being worthy enough, is one of the themes that the showrunner has most successfully explored, often linked to denouncing the stigmas that LGTBIQ+ people have endured. It can also be found in other, quite different series by Murphy, such as American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace,and in American Horror Story.
In The Watcher there is no portrait of homophobia as in so many of his other works, but there is a look at the macho stereotype of masculinity. The series is especially cruel to the father – who is rather unsophisticated but has a beautiful trophy wife to earn him status, has obvious issues with rage, and is obsessed with keeping his teenage daughter away from the male gaze to the point of being overly possessive and frankly worrying. The mystery involving the house is, in fact, a pretext for exploring a first-rate process of self-destruction.