By its sixth episode, Dahmer — Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story has established a pattern for itself. The series often shows Jeffrey Dahmer (Evan Peters) brutally murdering yet another innocent man before the camera pulls away, using either flashbacks or scenes with surviving family members to humanize this lost life. That’s not the direction “Silenced” takes. By taking great care to present Tony Hughes (Rodney Burnford) as a person first and a Dahmer victim second, the episode rewrites not only how people should understand his story but how all stories like it should be understood. It’s not just the strongest episode of this entire series; it’s one of the most heart-wrenching TV episodes of the year.
Directed by Paris Barclay and written by David McMillan and Janet Mock, “Silenced” starts not with Jeff, but with Tony’s birth. In fact, the first third of the episode feels more like an indie movie than an episode of a crime thriller. Tony spends time with his family, teasing them in ASL. He dances with his friends at the club. After another guy brushes Tony off for being deaf, the trio commiserate over pizza, making jokes about being slutty and revealing what they’re actually looking for in a relationship. We see Tony in pain. One fateful night, he learns that his friend Rico (Jared DeBusk) was found murdered. We see how that needless death tears him apart, and we also see how it forces him to rebuild. Shortly after learning about Rico, Tony vows to take his future into his own hands and really pursue his dream of modeling.
Most of these scenes are audibly muffled, mimicking the way Tony experiences the world. Yet aside from that directorial flourish and a conversation shortly after his birth about his disability, the episode rejects most of the cliches that come with portraying a deaf character. Similarly, there are no heavy-handed speeches about his race or sexuality that other series may have attempted. Instead, Tony is simply allowed to be a person. He confidently shuts down men who try to sleep with him without wanting a relationship. He’s optimistic and polite even as he’s rejected for job after job. He clearly loves his family. By the time Jeff enters the episode, Tony has morphed into a hero you want to succeed.
And for a moment after meeting Jeff, it seems as if that very thing is going to happen. The two go on multiple dates together, nervously bonding about how it’s hard for both of them to be understood by other people. But it’s when “Silenced” is at its sweetest and most romantic that it’s also at its most tragic. From minute one, we all know how this story will end. The only difference is that “Silenced” makes sure that we’ve fallen in love with Tony before his inevitable murder at the hands of Jeffrey Dahmer.
Burnford’s performance in particular is crucial to casting this spell. Whether he’s joking with his mom, processing the tragic death of his friend, or facing rejection at a club, Burnford excels at every big emotional swing. Because of this, within minutes of meeting Tony, he feels like he could be your friend.
It’s the intense care and love infused into this portrayal that makes “Silenced” so powerful. Monster has several scenes devoted to showing Dahmer’s victims as people. But Tony Hughes is the only name on that depressingly long list that gets a portrayal that fully breaks away from the term “victim.” It’s a level of respect that other true crime dramatizations would do well to keep in mind.