That the case is still referred to as ‘Tate/LaBianca’ is a misnomer that more accurately should read Tate/LaBianca/Parent/Hinman/Folger/Shea/Frykowski/Sebring without factoring in the semi-associated-mayhap crimes for which Charles Manson and co. were not prosecuted.
It may be because no one is sure –or willing to say- exactly why or how it happened that it remains a wide source of fascination forty-six years on.
Peripheral theories that Charlie was trying to inspire a race war, alternately enraged that his musical career stalled at the starting gate, or that the Beatles, inspired his psychosis, may have helped to arrest him, but the reality is far more unwieldy.
Confounding motives abound for the murders, having to do with bad drug deals, fame/animal/child porn, mob hits, cults, and government agencies.
That the bad drug deals, fame porn, and sadomasochistic cult activities had seemingly more or as much to do with the victims at Cielo Drive as it did with Manson himself is one of the thornier aspects.
To start reading books on this topic -or hyperactively Googling- is to disappear down a complex rabbit-hole of interconnecting, never-ceasing threads that raise new questions and confuse the preceding ones.
Assorted linkages -some tenuous, some not- can be made between Manson and persons/groups as disparate as Doris Day; Jane Fonda; The Church of Scientology; The Beach Boys; The Mamas and the Papas; The Church of Satan; The Process Church of the Final Judgement; the CIA; Elvis Presley; Warren Beatty; Neil Diamond; Neil Young; Paramount Pictures; The Beatles; the Mafia; the Hells Angels; Jack Nicholson; Roger Vadim; The Zodiac Killer; Roman Polanski (for less than obvious reasons); Tina Turner; Phil Spector; Mick Jagger –to name just a few.
Despite the efforts of almost everyone vaguely associated to distance themselves in the aftermath of what happened, Charles Manson remains an inseparable and inexplicable spectre of late 1960’s Hollywood; a pimping, drug-dealing, guitar-playing, free-loving Mephistopheles omnipresent by varied degrees of separation.
Because this industry town is, as Joan Didion puts it, ‘traditionally organized, like a mob family, around principles of discretion and unity,’ it is not surprising that NBC’s new series Aquarius eschews all of those purported affiliations, either out of loyalty or threat of libel.
What it does not reject is the idea of Charlie’s omnipresence, instead choosing to distil that essence into what producer John McNamara calls ‘historical fiction’. It is a choice that makes Charlie’s presence in the series simultaneously incidental and inevitable.
Aquarius is less a TV series about Charles Manson than one where other plot threads inexorably cross his path in their progression over a landscape upon which he is bizarrely a fixture. It is a detective show, an LA noir about the seedy underbelly of late 1960’s California, not dissimilar in its thematic environment to Chinatown or Mullholland Drive, where everything that seems right on the surface is wrong just beneath it.
As one character says to another: ‘You think this town was just built to throw cash and fun at your pretty face, but it will rape you and stab you and disappear you.’
It is a statement of intent for a show which, for network television, is surprisingly brutal: one person is hacked to death with a shovel in the trunk of a car; others are crucified; women beaten; criminals pummelled to death by the supposed-to-be good guys; and one scene in which an enraged Charlie dopes his mother with acid and strangulates her before inviting some Straight Satans bikers to gang-bang her inert carcass.
This is problematic not in its gratuity but more in its single-mindedness. Charlie’s great con was ingratiating himself into a supposed peace-and-love culture as a guru for teenaged misfits. So the characterization of him as so transparently psychotic is misleading, given how he was able in so short a time to amass a harem of devoted women, male hangers-on ready to do his bidding, and celebrity acquaintances like Denis Wilson of The Beach Boys, who referred to him as ‘The Wizard’, or Neil Young, who went in to bat for Charlie at Reprise for a record contract. For all the societal monster he became in hindsight, Manson charmed the pants off a whole lot of people before things went pear shaped.
Gethin Anthony (lately Renly Baratheon in Game of Thrones) excels at psychotic-mode Charlie, and that his power over a budding harem of young girls is inexplicable isn’t necessarily his failing as much as it is the script. For that matter, that the real Charlie amassed a harem is equally as befuddling, but what Anthony -or the characterisation- lacks is Manson’s chameleon sense of being able to persuade people that he was more prophet than psychotic: he was, after all, able to convince people he was Jesus Christ, even if it did take coaxing with acid to cement the point.
Still, given that Aquarius is ostensibly a fiction, you could consider this a mild gripe. Similarly, if Anthony’s Charlie comes across as sometimes cartoonish, that’s a reasonable approximation of the real Manson: since incarcerated, Manson has developed the gift of turning simple prison interviews into bizarre performance art often replete with interpretive dance.
Unlike the frequently manic Anthony, David Duchovny, who plays detective Sam Hodiac, is like a tree. All you notice at first is that it’s wooden, until you look closer and see the varied shades of the leaves, the contortions of the branches, and the curious way crevices in the bark resemble genitalia. Like the tree, Duchovny has made a career of making his inherent woodenness work to his benefit. It takes him a few episodes to settle into the role, and then you realise that his mumbling sense of understatement is concealing a range of subtleties. His sense of emotional intelligence and humour is one of the things that made The X-Files work so well, and it works here too, transmuting what could be a totally unlikeable character into someone affable.
Grey Damon -a narcotics officer on the same force- who is neither a madman nor any species of deciduous flora – represents an issue of aesthetic inaccuracy that plagues much of this series. Having nothing to do with his acting -just fine- is his styling as a circa 2006 emo hipster, with hair and designer stubble that are bluntly incongruous for a 1968 setting.
All the hippies, in fact, are far too clean when they should more rightly be hygienically lacking. This includes Charlie –notably- who ought to look oily, grubby, and unwashed, but looks routinely bathed instead, as do his girls. The whole cast is TV pretty, which in the case of the Manson family -notoriously plain- belies that they were living on desert ranches, eating out of dumpsters, and riddled with STD’s.
The series’ main concessions to period feel are instead occasionally anachronistic, with sixties soundtracks and washed out colour palettes, coupled with requisite social issues: racial tensions; sexual discrimination; draft dodging, and so forth. It mostly works, though occasionally those things seem to be arbitrary signifiers of the time period rather than organic plot points.
Aquarius, unlike Mad Men say, is not a show that sweats the small details of period accuracy, and despite its flaws, neither should the audience. The show -which has been renewed for a second season out of an intended six- is potentially epic in scope, the plot and its characters are intricately layered, and the narrative arc is compelling. There is enough in it that it could have worked with or without Charlie, but his presence lends a sense of perpetual ominousness and ends up being that which is most compelling, a train crash about to happen from which one cannot turn away.