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S-Town: the mystery at the heart of this cult podcast is not the one you think

The story of John B. McLemore and a small town in Alabama is wonderfully strange - and totally unnerving. 

In the pre-credits sequence of the first instalment of S-Town, producer and presenter Brian Reed tells us about the difficulty of fixing an antique clock – one so old that no plans exist for it, leaving its repairer dependent on the dents or scratches left by previous work or lost machinery.

“I’m told fixing an old clock can be maddening,” Reed tells us:

You’re constantly wondering if you’ve just spent hours going down a path that’ll likely take you nowhere, and all you’ve got is these vague witness marks that might not even mean what you think they mean. At every moment along the way you have to decide if you’re wasting your time. Or not.

Anyway. I only learned about all this because years ago an antique clock restorer contacted me, John B. McLemore, and asked me to help him solve a murder...

It’s an incredibly clever introduction. Because the new podcast, all seven chapters of which were released simultaneously last week, comes from the same people as 2014’s runaway hit, Serial – and at first hearing, Reed’s opening lines suggest we’re in for another true crime drama.

But that’s not what S-Town is at all. Those witness marks don’t mean what you think they mean.

******

It’s impossible to talk about what S-Town is actually doing without spoiling its two big twists, both of which come in episode two – so in a moment, I’m going to do just that. If you don’t want to know what they are, close the window now, and come back when you’ve finished listening.

Just so you don’t see them accidentally, here’s a map of Bibb County Alabama, home to Woodstock, the S-Town – a R-rated abbreviation of “Shit Town” – that John B. McLemore loved and hates so much:

Okay, so those twists. The smaller is that there was no murder: Reed spends the first chapter and a half of the podcast investigating a crime that never, in fact, took place. By that point, though, the murder already feels pretty incidental, and it’s clear that the real story is about other things.

One of them is Shit Town itself. Woodstock is a rural southern community of the sort that rarely gets more than the most cursory attention. It’s a place where a local business goes by the name K3 Lumber, and its owner laughingly declines the opportunity to deny that it’s a reference to the Klan; the sort of place where a young guy is happy to talk on the record to a New York radio producer about the time he thought he’d beaten some guy to death, but, luckily, it turned out he hadn’t. I don’t know where you are as you’re reading these words, but the odds are it’s not somewhere like Woodstock.

The other point of the story is John B. McLemore himself: a gay, intellectual horologist who doesn’t quite seem to fit in Alabama, a 48-year-old man who hates his town and everything it stands for yet has always refused to move out.

We’re just getting used to him being our guide to this alien world – he may be convinced that civilisation is on the verge of collapse, but he is, ostensibly, a liberal – when the second twist comes. At the close of chapter 2, Reed receives a call telling him that McLemore has killed himself. There are five episodes left, there’s no crime to solve, and we’re now immersed in this alien world without a guide.

The episodes following McLemore’s death are packed with incident: his funeral, and the feud over his property which follows, which makes it as far as the courts; an exploration of his past and his sexuality; some discussion of the various, terrifyingly real apocalyptic events which he saw coming down the track towards humanity.

But the podcast isn’t exactly about any of those things, and none of them really get resolved. The argument about McLemore’s legacy is still ongoing; the stuff about the past still speculative. The apocalypse, while looming, has yet to take place.

Yet despite this almost complete lack of denouement, the whole thing feels like a more compelling and satisfying story than I’ve encountered, in any medium, in a long time.

***

It’s several days since I finished listening to S-Town and I’m still not exactly sure how to explain or describe it. It’s not just that it isn’t like Serial: it doesn’t really conform to any of the conventions of serial storytelling that I’m used to.

Whenever I’ve tried to explain to anyone what it’s about and why someone should give it a go, I’ve struggled, and fallen back on, “Oh just listen. Trust me.” That’s obviously not enough here, though, so I’m going to try to distil its appeal.

Part of it, I think, is the world it explores. Woodstock is exactly the sort of proverbial southern shithole that most other Americans look down on, and which most self-respecting Europeans would be terrified of. The police are mildly corrupt; the people are hugely racist. Last year Donald Trump won Bibb County by 77  per cent to 21.4, and I’m genuinely surprised to find that Hillary did that well. This place is exactly what you think it is.

Except, S-Town reminds us that it’s not just what we think it is: time and again, it shows us a stereotype, then reveals a human being. John’s friend Tyler is the kind of redneck who genuinely sees locking someone in a shed and threatening to cut their fingers off as a legitimate way of settling a dispute. He’s also one of the most kind and loving and sympathetic characters in the whole thing, and once the feud about John’s legacy kicks off we find ourselves desperately rooting for the guy.

The other half of that feud is a money-grabbing McLemore cousins, who swoops in from Florida the moment she scents a legacy. Except it turns out she’s not really like that either, and suddenly we don’t know how we want this thing to turn out. S-Town is like one of those huge Victorian social novels or, more recently, J.K.Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy: one of those books that constantly persuades us to sympathise with people we might otherwise dismiss.

The other part of S-Town’s appeal is a literary one, too: the various conceits it uses to illuminate character and theme. The idea of horology, that’s there at the start, runs throughout. So do ideas of place, and family, and legacy, and the sheer fragility of human existence. The result is like a novel – not a thriller, like Serial was, but something altogether deeper, more literary and more haunting. It may be significant that it comes in “chapters”, rather than “episodes”.

There’s been some debate about whether S-Town should ever have been made at all. The murder it begins with may not have been real; but the suicide at its heart was, and many of its central characters are still walking around. Some have argued that repackaging real lives as entertainment may be crossing some line.

But the media does that all the time: as news, as reality TV, as other podcasts. At least S-Town turns those lives into something truly new and original. John B. McLemore is still dead; but now, he gets to be art, too.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Credit: Arrow Films
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The Affair's Ruth Wilson: “All this is bringing women together... I hope it doesn’t end”

The actor on her new role as an abused sheep farmer in Dark River, the response to gender inequality and playing her own grandmother.  

At least part of the credit for Ruth Wilson’s extraordinary performance in Dark River is owed to a red-haired Border Collie. While she was in Yorkshire training to be adept at country life – shearing sheep, skinning rabbits, shooting guns and ratting houses – she worked with a sheepdog who seemed somehow as traumatised as the character she was preparing to play. “She was very skittish with humans,” Wilson recalls, “and wouldn’t look them in the eye. Her haunches would go down as if she’d been abused. And then on the field, she was focussed, aggressive, in control. So I based my character on her.”

The inspiration worked. As Alice, a skilled sheep shearer who returns to the farm she grew up on after her father dies, Wilson is tense and brittle, as though she might crumble to dust at any moment. For the past 15 years, Alice has been working around the world – New Zealand, Norway, “anywhere there’s sheep”, anywhere far away from the sexual abuse she was subjected to at the hands of her father (Sean Bean) as a child.

Her brother Joe, played with both tenderness and rage by Mark Stanley, has never left. He hasn’t forgiven Alice for leaving either, though neither of them is capable of articulating the potent mix of shame and resentment they feel. Just like in previous films by Clio Barnard, the heir to the gritty realist throne of Ken Loach, Dark River is driven as much by what isn’t said as by what is. “It’s sculpted,” says Wilson, “It feels like a held moment. There’s hardly any dialogue, but it just feels so full.”

We’re in a small office room in Covent Garden. Wilson’s been here most of the day, surrounded by pastries that she’s tried, and mostly failed, to foist on to journalists. When I turn down her offer too, she looks forlorn. “I ate half of one earlier, and they’ve brought a load of new ones,” she says with faux indignation. Doing press doesn’t usually fill Wilson with delight ­– even an endless supply of croissants can’t make up for the toil of being asked, again and again, about her personal life – and since she broke out as the psychopathic scientist Alice Morgan in BBC’s Luther, before landing starring roles in Anna Karenina, Saving Mr Banks, and on the hit Showtime series The Affair, she’s had to do a lot of it. But today, she says with a tone of surprise, is a little different. “I’ve sort of been looking forward to talking about this film.”

There’s certainly a lot to talk about. Dark River is a powerful but understated examination of abuse, and the psychological damage done when a person’s protector is also their abuser, their home also the site of their trauma. Alice is determined to fix the farm – which has fallen into disrepair while her father and brother have been in charge – but she can hardly stand to be there. The memories cling to it as stubbornly as the rats that have overrun it. “She can’t step a foot in that house,” says Wilson, “but she feels it’s what’s owed to her, so it’s that constant fight she has within herself. It’s a past, it’s a grave, it’s a memorial, but she has to come back and reclaim it in some way.”

Alice is also trying to reclaim the farm on behalf of her mother and grandmother, who once ran it. “She’s having to stand up to these men in every area,” Wilson says. “Whether it’s [the men] selling the sheep, or it’s her brother, or the guy coming to buy the land, everyone is a man that she’s having to kind of negotiate. She’s this woman struggling to have her own space and her own voice in a very male world.”

Wilson in a scene from Dark River. Credit: Arrow Films.

Through this film, Barnard wanted to explore objectification – both of the land and of the female body. “The way we objectify the countryside, and make it all seem beautiful and glorious, that’s what patriarchy has done to women for so long,” says Wilson, “objectify it, put it on a pedestal, [without seeing that] it’s much more complex than that, and it’s much more interesting and whole and full. Patriarchy has oppressed women and reduced them or undervalued them. It’s the same with the land, it’s much more brutal and complex than the beautiful countryside that we put on our posters.”

Wilson returns to the word “complex” throughout our conversation – in relation to the land, to the nature of victimhood, and to the relationship between Alice and her brother  –  but she rolls her eyes when I recall a quote from a recent profile: “Complex women are becoming something of a calling card for Wilson.” “People are complex aren’t they?” she says. “That’s what’s so annoying. Everyone is complex. We’re all a bit mad.” She thinks for a moment. “I suppose a lot of female parts are two dimensional. It’s not that there’s a certain brand of ‘complex woman’ to be played, [it’s that] so few people give female characters the time of day.”

The Affair, which made Wilson’s name in the US (after a potentially star-making turn alongside Johnny Depp in The Lone Ranger turned out to be a flop), lends equal weight to the inner workings of its two leads – a man and a woman, both battling demons, who cheat on their respective spouses with each other. But has Wilson seen progress, over the past decade, when it comes to the industry’s willingness to tell female-centric stories? The kind of stories that would pass the Bechdel test? “Uhh, no not really,” she says. “I mean that show fails the Bechdel test in every scene. If women do talk to each other, it’s about men.” A week or so after we speak, she reveals another of the show’s gender parity issues – that her co-star Dominic West earns more than she does, despite their equal billing.

Wilson in 2015 with her co-star from The Affair, Dominic West. Photo: Getty

Nevertheless she does hold out some hope that movements like Time's Up will finally accelerate the rate of progress, particularly when it comes to women's voices being heard. “Actually what is happening is that there’s a community of women now that are talking to each other. We haven’t had the opportunity to do that before; we’d be in competition with each other, or were made to feel that we were anyway. A consequence of all this stuff is that it’s actually bringing women together who are very talented, and they’re gonna support each other to make stuff for each other. I’ve never been in so many groups of women, and actually it’s been glorious. The piece I’m doing now is my own family history, but it’s all from the female point of view.”

That piece is The Wilsons, which Wilson is executive-producing and starring in as her own grandmother, Alison, who discovered on her husband’s deathbed that he was a spy in the inter-war years, had four wives whom he never divorced, and children with all of them. It’s a truth stranger than fiction. Last week, Wilson was auditioning boys to play her character’s son. So he’d be playing her real life father? “Yeah!” she laughs. “It’s so weird. I might have a breakdown at the end of it. If you never see me again, that’s why.”

Potential breakdown aside, Wilson is palpably excited about the project – particularly as it gives her the opportunity to centre women’s stories on screen. It’s the kind of work she’s confident this newly discovered support network is leading towards. “I hope this whole community just drives forward the female lens and the female experience,” she says. “I hope it doesn’t end, you know?”