The Watcher Ends Realistically (And That’s Bad)
Ryan Murphy’s The Watcher miniseries on Netflix takes many creative liberties with the Broaddus family’s story, yet has an inexplicably realistic ending that harms the series. In 2014, the Broaddus family (named Brannock in the miniseries) bought a home at 657 Boulevard in Westfield, New Jersey, but after receiving creepy and threatening letters, they never actually moved in. The letters had no return address or identifying marks and were simply signed « The Watcher. » Given all the changes Ryan Murphy made to the story in dramatizing this case, it is surprising that he chose to end the series the way he did.
Overall, Ryan Murphy creates a gripping mystery, but not a satisfying one. The first five episodes deftly explore the major theories about who the Watcher might be through fictionalized characters and scenarios. Unfortunately, episodes 6 and 7 of the series are a mess of fake-outs and hastily resolved storylines. The Watcher’s ending closes with a final title card that says, « The Watcher case remains unsolved. » This is true; the actual case has never been solved. The family moved away and is currently trying to move on without the closure that an arrest could bring. However true to life it is, though, it creates an ambiguous and anticlimactic ending that is lacking in resolution.
The Watcher is the terrifying true story of a family who had their dream fall apart in a traumatic and terrifying way. The series is at its best when it focuses on this fact. The idea of an unknown menace watching the Broaddus family at 657 Boulevard is a genuinely frightening premise, primarily since this story occurs in the 21st century when such things supposedly can’t happen. While it was admirable for Ryan Murphy to attempt to work with the facts of the case in The Watcher, how he did it made for a muddy story with an unsatisfying conclusion. In other words, he made it too realistic to deliver the closure crime TV viewers expect.
The show is trying to have it both ways. On the one hand, the miniseries heavily implies a neighbor, John Graff, is The Watcher’s letter writer but stops short of saying so. John Graff is based on the real-life murderer John List, who died in 2008, six years before the Watcher wrote the letters. Therefore, he would have been a good fictional scapegoat for the crime. On the other hand, in the last few years, viewers have started to discuss the morality of true crime and crime dramas. So it makes sense the show implies that Graff is the Watcher while stopping short of actually declaring him so as it is now considered ethically dubious to solve an unsolved case for entertainment.
There are moments when the Brannocks’ terror at 657 Boulevard in The Watcher is explored well, such as the subtle gaslighting by the police. But the show wastes the tension these scenes build with a series of repetitive confrontations. Angrily accosting the potential suspect is a standard trope of crime drama TV series. But that trope is most useful when it elicits a confession from the actual criminal, which doesn’t happen in The Watcher. No perpetrator is ever arrested. Instead, the Brannocks increasingly separate themselves from the neighbors they can’t trust until they finally return to New York.
The Watcher case may still be open, but a TV show ends. Even though it is based on actual events, the miniseries presents itself as a crime drama. It needs to deliver a story, including a real ending. There are ways to create an ambiguous ending to a mystery that still feels complete. The miniseries could have built on the themes of The Watcher characters’ American dream turning into a nightmare in order to deliver an ambiguous but solid ending. Unfortunately, in trying to split the difference, The Watcher delivers nothing of impact at all.