Jeffrey Dahmer’s life story is filled with details that’d get you laughed out of any decent writers’ room. He snuck into the yearbook photos of clubs he didn’t belong to; the school responded by manually blacking out his face. After flunking out of college, he joined the army; they trained him to be a medical specialist, and he learned how to drug people. After getting booted from the military and moving back home, he went to work at a deli, where he made living by carving meat and stuffing sausages. After getting fired from the deli for exposing himself at the state fair, he went to work as a phlebotomist at a blood plasma center and, well, you know.
Dahmer shows you all this and more. But co-writers Ian Brennan and Ryan Murphy aren’t above adding black-comedy flourishes of their own in the form of foreshadowing dialogue, some of which almost come off like the sick schoolyard jokes about Dahmer heard across the country after his arrest and trial.
When Jeff’s neglectful dad Lionel and his new girlfriend Shari (Molly Ringwald) come to visit him the summer after his high school graduation, they discover that Jeff’s even more neglectful mother Joyce has disappeared for three months, leaving him alone, and Lionel frets about Jeff’s health: “God knows what you’ve been eating.”
When Jeff applies to work at the deli, its proud Polish owner tells him this isn’t like the job he got simply making sandwiches when he lived in Miami: “It’s an art to be a butcher.” (“Never thought about it like that,” Jeff replies in his usual monotone.)
When his grandma (Michael Learned), with whom he’s moved in after his discharge from the army, tastefully hints that he might be gay (the kind of thing church could fix up for him, she feels), he denies it: “I’d never bring shame on the family like that.”
When he visits the Wisconsin state fair at his grandma’s encouragement and gets arrested for masturbating in a drunken stupor, he’s sporting an Old Milwaukee t-shirt — one of the city’s most famous exports, advertised by its most infamous.
Directed by Jennifer Lynch and titled “The Good Boy Box” for reasons which, in the episode’s final scene, become dreadfully apparent, this episode is essentially an hour-long litany of Jeff’s many failures — “failure” being a self-applied label. An outcast and poor student in high school, he becomes even more of both in college. His alcoholism gets him booted from the army and, to the extent that it spurred the hallucination of his slain hitchhiker that inspired him to jerk off at the fair, from the deli. He gets fired from a later job too, and while it’s not specified why, his habit of pulling all-nighters in the city’s bathhouses with men whom he eventually starts drugging and leaving behind when they fail to regain consciousness probably had something to do with it.
And while his family supports him in terms of ensuring he has a roof over his head, they can’t give him the love he needs, let alone the kind he really wants. His dad is an asshole, to put it plainly. His mom is MIA. His stepmom seems nice enough, but there’s only so much she can do for a kid who’s not nuts about having a stepmom to begin with.
Only his grandmother puts in the real time and effort to show him TLC and congratulate him on his off-and-on sobriety, but she’s too old-fashioned and religious for him to really relate to. Church can’t fix what’s wrong with Jeff (any more than the prison psychiatrist who explains that his paraphilia for exposed, shiny, wet organs may be a malfunction of the alleged innate hardwiring that attracts men to women’s vaginas). It’s painful to hear his grandmother recount what a good boy his father was, too, given all that we’ve seen of how his father has treated him. She forgives him for blowing up at her (the first such blowup we’re aware of since the one he directed at himself after killing the hitchhiker) after she discovers and throws out his stolen mannequin, which is not something you can picture Lionel or Joyce so readily doing, but she’s just not equipped to handle him. I mean, who is?
But there are further failures ahead of Jeff too, as we learn during the back half of the episode. It’s here, circa 1987, that Jeff begins to involve himself in Milwaukee’s largely underground gay community. After getting used to the club scene, he starts frequenting bathhouses where you can rent a room to stay in for a night of sex…and before long gets himself blacklisted from every such joint in town after one of his roofie victims nearly dies.
And even his second murder is a failure of sorts. After he’s been banned from the bathhouses, he’s still frequenting the clubs, and he picks up a handsome dude who’s great at dancing. (Slim, muscular, dancer-style male bodies are his perpetual fascination.) Jeff buys them a room at a fancy hotel and immediately slips the guy a mickey…only to discover that he mixed up the glasses and drank the drugged booze himself.
Struggling to stay conscious, he loads up a second drink and manages to get the guy to drink enough of it to pass out too, or at least so it would appear. It’s not like Jeff remembers any of it…or remembers beating the man to death in the night. Even the pleasure of killing, to the extent he ever took pleasure in the act rather than the aftermath, has been denied him.
But there is still that aftermath to consider. Dahmer shrewdly packs the body into a large suitcase he purchases for the purpose, waits till his grandmother leaves, and deposits it in her basement. He dismembers the body while she’s at church but saves the severed head, which he wraps in plastic, kisses, and stores in the box that contained the old photos of his father — not unlike what he did with the hitchhiker nine years earlier, whose bone fragments he scattered all over his backyard so there’d always be pieces of him close by.
There are three shots from this episode that are going to stay with me, I think. The first is Jeff in the bathroom mirror, covered in blood, accompanied by a menacing sting from the excellent score by art-rock musicians Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The second is the moment where a drunken Jeff raises his cup of beer in a toast to the test of strength at the fair, emblazoned with phrases like “HE MAN” and “GOOD BOY,” phrases that mean more to him than anyone could have ever known. The third, probably obviously, is when he kisses the severed head through the plastic at the end of the episode. The man he murdered is now his keepsake, his secret. And many more men and boys will die before the secret is out.
Sean T. Collins (@theseantcollins) writes about TV for Rolling Stone, Vulture, The New York Times, and anyplace that will have him, really. He and his family live on Long Island.