If Childish Gambino’s song “This is America” and Boots Riley’s film Sorry to Bother You perfectly distill the absurd comedy and violent hell of the United States circa 2018, then Madeleine Baran’s In the Dark does the same in podcast form. The audio-documentary series dropped the haunting final episode of its second season earlier this month, and, like Donald Glover’s and Riley’s works, Baran’s opus lays bare the nexus of racial anxiety, guns, criminal “justice,” and capitalism in our nation.
In the Dark is produced by APM Reports and hosted by lead reporter Baran, who helms an investigative team of a half dozen journalists who work on a single story for a year. Season 1 investigated the 1989 abduction of 11-year-old Jacob Wetterling in rural Minnesota. Wetterling’s fate went unsolved for almost 27 years, during which he became the poster child for dangerous misconceptions about child kidnappings. But unlike the purveyors of many true-crime series, Baran and her team do not hype hysteria. Rather, they reveal how those in positions of power—like the local sheriff, politicians, and huckster John Walsh of America’s Most Wanted—were incompetent and exploitative of the Wetterlings. (Danny Heinrich, an early but largely unpursued suspect, confessed in 2016 as part of plea deal over child-pornography charges.)
Baran dispels American anxieties about “stranger danger”—the fear that someone unknown will run off with a child “in the dark”—and she critically examines the exceptional ways alleged sex crimes have been regulated since Wetterling’s abduction. As sociologist Trevor Hoppe has written, the number of people on sex registries in the United States is surging toward 1 million. In the Dark shows the problems this has caused: People who’ve completed their sentences are often consigned to a lifetime of forced homelessness; individuals are placed on such registries for public urination; and the US State Department is planning to mark passports of people who have been convicted of sex crimes (even though the United States has never before marked passports for any offense, including murder). In one of Baran’s most amazing interviews, Jacob’s mother, Patty Wetterling, says she regrets her role in allowing sex-offender lists to flourish and that the possibility of rehabilitation should trump desires for revenge. After meeting a teen convicted of a sex crime for exploring sex with his cousin, she said, “We need as a culture to protect our children better, not to arrest a child for inappropriate sexual conduct and put them on a registry.”