The editor-in-chief of the daily newsletter Best Evidence, Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. Her weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime TV.
At first glance Epstein's Shadow: Ghislaine Maxwell has a problem that's not uncommon to true-crime documentaries about ongoing cases. As of this writing, Maxwell is facing a laundry list of federal charges related to her involvement in the late Jeffrey Epstein's trafficking and assaults of underage girls... but Maxwell's trial isn't scheduled to begin until November of this year, and until those proceedings get underway, there's only so much a docuseries about her can say.
Epstein's Shadow decorates as best it can around this figurative hole in the floor; over the course of the Peacock original's three hour-long episodes, viewers who haven't already read themselves nauseous about Maxwell's rise and fall in longform magazine articles get a crash course in her childhood, her headline-grabbing bully of a father, and why the entitled and despicable Epstein might have seemed like a psychological homecoming of sorts for Maxwell.
This crash course is very watchable and relatively tasteful in its construction (no small feat, given the subject matter). Series director Barbara Shearer's past work includes trashy-sounding titles like Pretty Dangerous and Outlaw Bikers, but she's sure-handed and unintrusive at the helm, and Epstein's Shadow gets excellent access to various commentators, as well as contemporary news reports and photos. The section on Maxwell's father Robert in the first episode is particularly well-edited and visually compelling.
The series does make a handful of unusual choices, like including interview subjects' cocktails or glasses of wine in shots of their interviews; that decision is okay, but the segment in which former "It Girl" and Maxwell friend Lady Victoria Hervey both-sideses the question of whether Maxwell is guilty is less successful. And at times the series seems to lose focus, like when it's rubbernecking at Prince Andrew's horrific BBC interview trying to hand-wave his relationships with Epstein and Maxwell... or scoring a montage of Maxwell clumsily trying to explain her goofy save-the-ocean charity, Terramar, with comedic music cues. Overall, though, Epstein's Shadow is well assembled and paced, and it does go some distance towards explaining how Ghislaine Maxwell might have gone from spoiled youngest child of a controversially larger-than-life father to boon companion and procurer of children for a not-dissimilar con man from Brooklyn.
But that hole at the center persists. It's not just the absence of information — Epstein's dead (by whatever means), and Maxwell hasn't talked — but also the inability of civilians in the audience (and in the editing suite) to truly comprehend monstrous actions like Epstein's and Maxwell's. Epstein was a con man whose motivations aren't accessible to non-sociopaths, and to its credit, Epstein's Shadow doesn't get bogged down in analyzing him the way other projects have; Shearer et al. seem to understand that that's a pointless exercise.
Epstein's Shadow spends several minutes in its final episode handicapping the chances that we'll ever know what, or how much, Maxwell knows. Survivor Maria Farmer notes acidly that "there's only one way [the rich and powerful] DON'T get away with anything, and that's if they get killed" — and more than one talking-head interviewee implies that Maxwell may not live to see her trial, which would leave survivors again deprived of the chance to face the monsters who continue to haunt them. In a way, it's the strongest and most interesting part of the series, that pessimistic commentary on what "justice" looks like in the Epstein case now that Epstein himself is out of reach.
Many true-crime docs with the same void of the unknown at their centers can't quite bring themselves to face that space, the profoundly unsatisfying idea that sometimes — if not often — neither truth nor justice is available. What seems in the early going like a premature overview of an ongoing case is perhaps something else: a rare realistic accounting of everything we know and everything we don't (and likely won't).
Epstein's Shadow: Ghislaine Maxwell drops on Peacock Thursday June 24th.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.