Each week, Terry and Joe discuss HBO’s true-crime docuseries Last Call.
Spoilers follow for Episode 3…
We’re into the back half of Anthony Caronna and Howard Gertler’s docuseries Last Call and there’s still new victims to be introduced. After spending the first episode on Thomas Mulcahy and Joe Anderson, the 1991 and 1992 closeted victims of the “Last Call Killer” (the name of the perp coined by Daily News reporter Mike McAlary), episode two profiled Anthony Marrero, the sex worker victim from 1993. Just a few months after Anthony’s murder, another body is discovered, and the profile has changed again: this time the victim is Michael Sakara, an out man who was a fixture of New York’s gay scene courtesy of his presence at 5 Oaks piano bar.
Episode three is the busiest of the three episodes of Last Call we’ve seen so far. Like earlier episodes, Caronna and Gertler seek to honour Sakara’s life via testimonials from those who loved and knew him, including his much younger lesbian sister Marilyn (and her partner Karen), his former partner of 10 or 11 years, Jim Griffith, and 5 Oaks bartender Lisa Hall.
I actually felt that these three made for a really powerful 1-2-3 punch, perhaps even moreso than the family testimonials from other episodes. I’m willing to bet it’s because Sakara was so visible within the community that there were simply more stories about him, but also because as an out gay man, there are more pictures (and even video!) of his life. Seeing pictures of him with Jim, hearing about him doing his “last call” song, and even seeing pictures of Marilyn’s visit to NY to visit her much older big brother, Sakara felt somehow…more real?
The episode also dedicates significant screen time to the new task force formed by the various police agencies in an effort to coordinate their investigations. This occurs in large part thanks to activists like Bea Hanson and Matt Foreman of the Anti-Violence Project and gay TV reporter Andy Humm, all of whom publicly criticized homophobic Police Commissioner Ray Kelly into stepping up to protect the community.
Again, not knowing the history or where this is going, I believed talking heads Stephen Colantonio, Former Detective Rockland County and Nick Theodos, Former New Jersey detective, when they state that they believed they would have the case wrapped up in a few weeks. And yet, despite all of the coordination, the case spins its wheels and eventually even goes cold, to the point that by the end of the episode, we’re leapfrogging over the years, highlighting significant queer events like Clinton’s refusal to lift the ban on gays in the military (1994), Ellen DeGeneres’ coming out on her TV show (1997), and the murders of Brandon Teena (1993) and Matthew Shepard (1998) until fingerprint technology catches up in 1999, allowing investigators to finally lift a print off the CVS bag tied to the crime scenes.
Terry, I wonder how you felt about the balance of all of these different storylines in episode 3 – was it successful or did it feel a bit overwhelming? Were you surprised that even though the fingerprint breakthrough occurs in ‘99, it’s not until 2 years later that it’s matched to a name in Maine? And did you find the testimonials from Marilyn, Jim and Lisa more affecting than previous ones?
This definitely was my favorite episode so far, Joe, probably because it was, as you said, very busy but it also crammed so much life and humanity into the latest victim. But it also gave us a lot of background information on the 5 Oaks and its members. I loved the very human moment when Lisa was brought on to be interviewed and she saw herself on the screen and worried about her appearance. The way she described the 5 Oaks, it made it feel like a real place compared to the Townhouse, which was given a more hazy description. The Black woman piano player who reminded me of my high school music teacher. The way it was described as a “Cheers kind of bar.” Of course, as you mentioned, the photos and videos. The fact Sakara was a scotch guy.
But also this episode dipped into the resilience the queer community is used to embracing. AVP member Bea mentions that they were “super concerned” the serial killer would strike again. But Foreman makes note that this is coming on the tail end of AIDS and HIV and states, “Do not allow this to take away more joy from our lives…we don’t need another thing to bring us down.” So they focused on safety tips, passing around flyers and providing queer partiers ways to protect themselves while they were at the bars. Introducing the person you’re taking home to a friend, for instance, and letting the bartender know/others know what your plans are. I liked these moments because, yes, they are still focused on the killer but it gave agency to the queer people living in NYC. The community kind of came together in the face of institutional apathy and the threats of violence.
This also accounts for the testimonials and the interviews with family and lovers. I loved that Michael’s sister is also queer and their story hit home harder than the other family stories. When Marilyn talks about how Michael grounded her and protected her but then left when she was five devastated me. The subtle suggestion that their parents were abusive (“combative”) to each other (and probably to the kids) quickly explained the situation that made him leave as well as the unspoken suggestion that life wasn’t easy for Marilyn after he left. But she also said that Michael’s coming out softened the blow for when she eventually came out. All combined, these brief moments tell a whole story and one that a lot of queer people faced in the 90s.
You mentioned it but I also had a visceral reaction to the way Last Call blasts through the years with various headlines affecting the queer community. The stark contrast of the horrors assigned almost on a yearly basis mixed with some of the strides the queer community made really brought into relief how fucked up the 90s were. It was a visceral reaction to me, and maybe you, too, as an elder millennial who went through this decade: no wonder I was closetted for a good portion of my life. The headlines made being gay seem like a death sentence.
Since I had a portion of the killer reveal spoiled for me (at least I think), I have been wondering how exactly they got their suspect, so seeing how it took until 1999 and how a TV show sparked interest in the case again had me glued to the TV. We’ve discussed a number of times how poorly the police are made out in Last Call while also kind of surprised and happy that they agreed to be interviewed. But if there’s anyone I would want to buy a drink for, it’s Nick Theodos. The revelation that he was watching an episode of The New Detectives and learned of the vacuum metal deposition process as a new technological way of getting fingerprints and it became the break in the case he needed was wild. And the fact that, 6 years after the murder of Michael Sakara, he was still thinking about the case showed me he, at least, cared. Of all the heterosexual talking heads on the show, he is the one that comes out looking really good. And I’m thankful that the case lingered in his head for so long.
I’m not actually surprised it took 2 years to match the prints with someone in Maine, though. The technological changes from the late 90s into the early aughts was immense and created a lot of disconnects. I remember the office job I worked at in 2000 that was transitioning a lot of their paper files into digital ones and the trouble a lot of the older coworkers had transitioning into the digital space. And that doesn’t take into account the disconnects from other offices who were either going through the same thing or it hadn’t come to them yet. So while two years is absolutely a long time to be waiting with bated breath for a break in the case, it doesn’t surprise me.
I’m incredibly impressed with how Last Call has unfolded. As someone who kind of cringes when the discussion of True Crime comes up, I didn’t have a lot of expectations. I was honestly afraid it would be more salacious and I appreciated how Last Call even brings up the way the case has been salaciously discussed before diving into the stories of the queer community in NYC.
So I’m very excited to see how it all comes together in next week’s final episode. We’ll be heading back to Gayly Dreadful to find how how the case finally came together.
Last Call airs Sundays on HBO