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Netflix's The Puppet Master Shows The Human Toll of a Brazen Con Artist

Posing as a British spy, one man isolated, controlled, and fleeced several people over the course of decades.
  • Sarah Smith describes how she was manipulared by notorious conman Robert Freegard  in The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman. (Photo: Netflix)
    Sarah Smith describes how she was manipulared by notorious conman Robert Freegard in The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman. (Photo: Netflix)

    Our entry point into The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman is an ongoing case that's thus far unresolved. In November of 2011, Sandra Clifton, a divorced mother of two in England began dating a man named David who said he worked in media sales. Within two years of dating, David had isolated Sandra from her parents, her friends, and her two children. Eventually, the kids, daughter Sophie and son Jake, as well as their father, Mark, would discover that "David" was actually notorious con artist Robert Hendy-Freegard, who has, over the course of decades, duped multiple people into believing he was a British spy and who used that deception to control, isolate, and manipulate his victims, with the goal of fleecing them or their families out of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

    The Puppet Master unfolds on parallel timelines, with Sophie and Jake recounting their mother's story and trying to figure out where she and "David" might be on one timeline, while the second starts all the way back in 1993, when Freegard convinced a university student that he was an agent for MI5 gathering intel on an IRA cell on campus. Going by Rob then, Freegard "recruited" this student, John, as a British spy and then got him to rope in his girlfriend, Sarah Smith, and another friend to go on a road trip under the guise of John having terminal cancer (he didn't), a trip which turned into the four being "on the run" from pursuing IRA assassins. Sarah Smith wouldn't see her family again for ten years, during which time Freegard isolated her, kept her locked up in various "safe houses" and had her extort tens of thousands of dollars from her parents, all under the guise of this MI5 mission she couldn't tell anyone about.

    As a documentary, The Puppet Master poses some unique challenges, as its filmmakers don't have access to most of the central participants. Freegard and Sandra Clifton are elusive and unreachable, and of his many victims, only Sarah and John are there to tell their stories. Regardless, The Puppet Master tells an involving and often terrifying story, unfolding over the course of three episodes, as Freegard's web of lies goes from incredible to abominable.

    Con artists in popular fiction are depicted differently from other criminals. You rarely see, say, murderers depicted as incorrigible charmers the way that conmen are in movies like Catch Me If You Can and TV shows like Lost. The Puppet Master could have told Robert Freegard's story as that of a wannabe James Bond fabulist, with his tall tales of IRA terrorists and secret MI5 missions. But it's the terrible human cost that Freegard imposed opon his victims that stands at the center of The Puppet Master. The teenagers who had their mother drawn away from them by a manipulative man. The victims who not only fell prey to Freegard themselves but who in turn were contorted to manipulate their own family and friends.

    Sarah Smith stands out as a particularly compelling subject. When she talks about how she got caught up in Freegard's spy web, it's not the story of a starry-eyed woman falling for an unscrupulous man. She ends up neck-deep in the quicksand of Freegard's lies almost before she knows it, and from her present-day perspective, she's able to articulate quite well how a smart, rational young woman ended up disappeared for ten years because of one man's lies.

    Like Smith, both of Sandra Clifton kids,and the investigators who begin following Freegard are equally compelling interview subjects. Mark Clifton, Sandra's ex-husband and father to her kids, is the only one who feels maybe a bit too TV-manicured for the proceedings, as he seems to be writing his own dramatic limited series where he stars as the macho hero who rescues his family from the clutches of villainy. The series only indulges him in this briefly, but it's long enough to stick out like a sore thumb.

    Not unlike cult docs like The Vow and Wild Wild Country, The Puppet Master tells an often chilling tale about how ordinary people can lose themselves to the most insidious of psychological manipulations. The biggest gasps come when the title cards remind us how many years certain people were gone and how completely off the map they were for that time. Yes, it's remarkable how someone like Freegard could have spun this story of spies and safe houses for so long, but the show continuously shows the grim reality: dingy hotel bathrooms and hopeless children left behind. There might have been a way to tell this story that was more "fun," but it would have robbed these victims of their truth. As it stands, The Puppet Master is a frightfully ordinary horror story. One that hasn't yet ended.

    The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman drops on Netflix January 18th.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: The Puppet Master: Hunting the Ultimate Conman, Netflix, Robert Hendy-Freegard

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