NBC's limited series Aquarius premiered on May 28, with the remaining 12 episodes going up on NBC.com the subsequent Thursday. Aquarius attempts to add a new spin on the events leading up to the Tate-LaBianca murders that took place on August 9 and 10, 1969.
Opening in 1967, the show follows multiple intersecting narratives: police sergeant Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny) investigates an "off the books" missing persons/kidnapping case for his ex-girlfriend Grace Karn (Michaela McManus). Grace's 16-year-old daughter Emma hasn't been seen or heard from in four days. Her father, Grace's husband Ken (Brían F. O'Byrne) is a well-connected, high-powered lawyer who wants to keep the potentially politically damaging scandal out of the press. As it turns out it's Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony) who has lured Emma away from home. Hodiak investigates the case with his younger partner Brian (Grey Damon), who thinks of Hodiak as a square.
David Duchovny is pretty terrific as Hodiak. As for Aquarius, it's no Mad Men, but I'm five episodes in and so far it's has done a decent job of creating a sense of the social and political unrest of the time period, with ongoing threads about drug use, hippies, and racial unrest, including a character that is a member of the Black Panther party. For those who have read extensively about or lived through the Summer of Fear: 1969 Edition, however, Aquarius doesn't do the best job of toeing the line between fiction and reality as far as Charles Manson is concerned.
Charlie and Cults
Admittedly, it's a difficult balancing act. How does one present a compelling portrayal of the horrific events of the late 1960s to a world in which Manson is seen as a pop culture icon, especially when there have been so many fictionalized versions of the story already? Aquarius is a little more edgy and believable than say, the 2004 version of Helter Skelter with Jeremy Davies, but this is network TV, after all, and the show frequently stumbles, especially with its portrayal of Emma and the burgeoning development of The Family.
Although the Tate-LaBianca murders themselves were savage and unprecedented, even at a time when people were being slaughtered en masse overseas, what makes the Manson murders so unique are their origins. After all, The Family was a cult that Manson concocted after flirting with a variety of New Age religions like Scientology and The Process Church, among others. The intervening years have seen no shortage of cults who've killed in the name of someone or something: Peoples Temple, Heaven's Gate, Branch Davidians. Yet the Manson case stands out because the murder victims weren't actual members of the cult.
There have also been a lot of fictionalized portrayals of these cult tragedies, such as Ti West's The Sacrament, a found footage pseudo-documentary that recasts the events of 1977 Jonestown through the modern lens of Vice journalism. Despite this ambitious premise, the movie isn't shocking or scary at all, especially if one is familiar with contemporaneous news articles and photos.
A much better movie about cult activity and its impact is 2011's Martha Marcy May Marlene, about Martha (Elizabeth Olsen), a young woman who has recently escaped from a cult. The film alternates between the current narrative world of the film and Martha's flashbacks, often blurring the divide between dreams, memories, and even reality. It's one of the most frightening movies I've ever seen that isn't a straight-up horror film. John Hawkes plays cult leader Patrick as a wild-eyed, magnetic sleazebag who is legitimately, skin-crawlingly awful, far more disturbing than Gethin Anthony's clichéd, bisexual redneck on Aquarius.
Manson and the Male Gaze
In "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," feminist scholar Laura Mulvey's seminal 1975 essay on the Male Gaze, she argues that because straight men make the majority of movies, women become objects to be looked at and thus, lose their agency. This is part of why Aquarius fails at this task and why Martha Marcy May Marlene, a movie that isn't even about Charles Manson, succeeds.
Even though it was written and directed by a man, Sean Durkin, the key to what makes Martha Marcy May Marlene so successful at being scary is its focus on Elizabeth Olsen's character: someone who's been completely shattered. We see things through her eyes and it makes everything that much more believable. This is the problem with Aquarius: by taking us on this journey with Sam Hodiak as our guide instead of Emma, we don't get the same perspective. We see things happen to Emma; we aren't privy to how she feels about what happens to her.
In Aquarius, Emma feels like a character in everyone else's story but her own: her parents, Charles Manson, Sam Hodiak himself. It's not about her situation; it's about the problems it causes everyone else. The show lavishes more care on a ridiculous subplot in which it's revealed that Ken Karn is not only gay, but was once Manson's lover, in addition to being his former attorney. It's a little too predictable, when a story about one of the most famous serial killers of all time should be far more wanton in its approach.
Even though it's a recent song, Lana Del Rey's "Ultraviolence" manages to create more of a mysterious, malevolent vibe than much of Aquarius (at least so far). In an interview with Grazie magazine, Del Rey states,
"I used to be a member of an underground sect which was reigned by a guru. He surrounded himself with young girls. He thought that he had to break people first to build them up again. At the end I quit the sect."
Fans have speculated that she's referring to the Atlantic Group, an unofficial offshoot of Alcoholics Anonymous long condemned for its cult-like activities.
With lyrics like "he hurt me but it felt like true love" and "you're my cult leader" set to a brooding orchestral background and the repeated alliteration of the words sirens, violins, and violence, "Ultraviolence" conjures up a more personal and therefore affecting picture of the ways that a cult can destroy, especially young and vulnerable women. Considering that the Atlantic Group is a current entity, it makes it seem like the idea of another Charles Manson isn't something that happened 40 years ago, but something contemporary and genuinely scary.
I'll keep watching Aquarius because it is ambitious despite its flaws, but I'll also keep hoping that perhaps one day a filmmaker or TV network will capture the creepy crawly feeling Ed Sanders did in his 1971 book on Manson, The Family.