Jeffrey Dahmer’s life story is packed with details that would make you laugh out of any decent writer’s room. He sneaked into the yearbook photos of clubs he didn’t belong to; The school responded by manually blacking out his face. After leaving college, he joined the army; They trained him to be a doctor and he learned how to drug people. After being fired from the military and returning home, he worked at a deli where he made a living carving meat and stuffing sausages. After he got fired from the deli for exposing himself at the state fair, he went into a blood plasma center as a phlebotomist and, well, you know.
dahmer shows you all this and more. But co-writers Ian Brennan and Ryan Murphy don’t hesitate to add their own black comedy in the form of implied dialogue, some of which almost feels like the sick schoolyard jokes about Dahmer that were heard around the country after his arrest and trial are .
When Jeff’s neglectful father, Lionel, and his new girlfriend, Shari (Molly Ringwald), come to visit him the summer after he graduates from high school, they discover that Jeff’s even more neglectful mother, Joyce, has been missing for three months, leaving him alone, and Lionel resents Jeff’s Health: “God knows what you ate.”
When Jeff applies for the deli, the proud Polish owner tells him that this isn’t the job he got when he was just making sandwiches in Miami: “There’s an art to being a butcher.” (” I’ve never thought about it that way,” Jeff replies in his usual monotony.)
When his grandma (Michael Learned), who he drafted in after he got out of the army, tastefully suggests he might be gay (something the church could arrange for him, she thinks), he denies it: “I am I would never bring shame on the family like that.”
When he attends the Wisconsin State Fair on his grandmother’s advice and is arrested for masturbating while drunk, he’s wearing an Old Milwaukee T-shirt – one of the city’s most famous exports, promoted by the most notorious.
Directed by Jennifer Lynch and titled “The Good Boy Box” for reasons that become horribly apparent in the episode’s final scene, this episode is essentially an hour-long litany of Jeff’s many failures — “failure” is a self-imposed label . An outcast and poor student in high school, he becomes even more of both in college. His alcoholism gets him thrown out of the army and, to the extent that he fueled the hallucination of his killed hitchhiker that inspired him to jerk off at the county fair, out of the deli. He is also fired from a later job, and although it’s not exactly stated why, his habit of spending the nights in the town’s bathhouses with men he ends up drugging and leaving behind if they don’t regain consciousness, probably something to do with it.
And while his family supports him in getting him a roof over his head, they can’t give him the love he needs, let alone the kind he really wants. His father is an asshole, to put it bluntly. His mother is MIA. His stepmom seems nice enough, but there’s only so much she can do for a kid who isn’t crazy about having a stepmom.
Only his grandmother really puts the time and effort into showing him TLC and congratulating him on his occasional sobriety, but she’s too dated and religious for him to really relate. Church can’t figure out what’s wrong with Jeff (nor can the prison psychiatrist, who explains that his paraphilia for exposed, shiny, wet organs could be a malfunction of the supposed innate hardwiring that attracts men to female vaginas). It’s painful to hear his grandmother talk about what a good boy his father was given what we’ve seen how his father treated him. She forgives him for blowing her up (the first such explosion we know of since the one he turned on himself after killing the hitchhiker) after discovering his stolen mannequin and throwing it away , which you can’t imagine Lionel or Joyce doing so willingly, but she just isn’t equipped to deal with him. I mean who is?
But there are other failures ahead of Jeff as well, as we learn in the back half of the episode. It’s here, around 1987, that Jeff begins to get involved in Milwaukee’s largely underground gay scene. After getting used to the club scene, he starts frequenting bathhouses where you can rent a room to have a night of sex… and soon gets blacklisted from every one of those venues in town after one of his roofie victims nearly died.
And even his second murder is kind of a failure. After being banned from the bathhouses he still frequents the clubs and he nabs a handsome guy who is a great dancer. (Lean, muscular, dancer-style male bodies are his constant fascination.) Jeff buys them a room in a fancy hotel and promptly slips the guy a Mickey…only to find out he mixed up the glasses and drank the drug alcohol himself.
Struggling to stay conscious, he loads a second drink and manages to get the guy to drink enough of it to pass out as well, or at least it seems like he does. It’s not like Jeff remembers it…or remembers beating the man to death that night. Even the joy of killing, to the extent that he ever found joy in the act and not in the consequences, was denied him.
But there are still those after-effects to consider. Dahmer deftly packs the corpse into a large suitcase that he buys for that purpose, waits for his grandmother to leave, and deposits it in her basement. While she’s at the church, he dismembers the body but saves the severed head, which he wraps in plastic, kisses, and puts in the box with his father’s old photos – much like he did with the hitchhiker nine years earlier, whose bone fragments he had scattered all over his garden so that pieces of him would always be nearby.
There are three shots from this episode that I think will stick in my mind. The first is Jeff in the bathroom mirror, covered in blood, accompanied by a menacing jab from the excellent score by art rock musicians Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. The second is the moment when a drunk Jeff raises his beer mug to toast the showdown at the carnival, adorned with phrases like “HE MAN” and “GOOD BOY,” phrases that mean more to him than anyone ever would ever have known. The third, probably obvious, is when he kisses the severed head through the plastic at the end of the episode. The man he murdered is now his memory, his secret. And many more men and boys will die before the mystery is revealed.
Sean T.Collins (@theseantcollins) writes about TV for Rolling Stone, vulture, The New York Timesand anywhere that will have him, Yes, really. He and his family live on Long Island.