Ben Watches Television : Evil Genius (2018)
On August 28, 2003, a pizza delivery guy named Brian Wells walked into a bank in Erie, Pennsylvania with a bomb locked around his neck. He handed the teller a wordy note claiming he wanted $250,000. They put $8,000 (all they had in the drawers) inside his bag and sent him on his merry way. Wells was arrested by the police soon after, claimed he was coerced into doing this by "black people" and before the police could sort it out, the bomb exploded and killed him.
The entire community was left with its collective dick in its hands, wondering what the fuck had just happened. This is what Netflix's new true crime television show Evil Genius: The Truth Story of America's Most Diabolical Bank Heist aims to find out. Spoiler: it's not that diabolical.
Evil Genius is primarily the story of Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong and Bill Rothstein, two highly intelligent yet dysfunctional people who have known each other for most of their lives. Marjorie is bipolar as fuck and whatever Bill has (or had, he died of cancer soon after the heist) was undiagnosed, but the dude clearly has issues. Whoever claims to be highly intelligent and chooses to do nothing constructive and live as a hoarder recluse is not well.
Until he decided to rob a bank to show Marjorie how intelligent he is. Evil Genius is, perversely enough, an American tragedy in its own right.
Crime and intellectual superiority
A common trait for criminals is that they believe they're smarter than everybody else. There aren't any official stats for repeated offenders who don't get caught, but the sheer amount of them rotting in prison seem to indicate that belief is not exactly true. I don't think Bill Rothstein was anywhere near as brilliant as he claimed to be. His heist didn't function (he didn't get any money out of it), his patsy died right in front of the cops and he got bailed out of a decade of investigation by cancer. And he knew he was dying. He wouldn't have had the courage to follow through if he didn't.
I'm not sure what Evil Genius tried to accomplish, but it spent a lot of time trying to set up an incoherent and theatrical Marjorie as the main protagonist of the show and she clearly wasn't. I mean, she took part in the heist and suffered from the same inferiority complex Rothstein did. People dismissed her because of her psychological condition and she used that to her advantage to murder what could be up to three people, but she wasn't the one strapped for cash. Marjorie killed her boyfriends and actually got paid for it. That's another level of evil genius if you ask me, but it's not the story the show is telling.
So, Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong and Bill Rothstein weren't exactly supervillains. They weren't underdogs and anti-heroes either. They were dysfunctional people trying to prove their intellectual superiority. It's not that uncommon of a criminal impulse, but it's the way they went about it that was twisted and cartoon-y. At the end of the day, though, the heist wasn't successful and they killed a man for $8,000. So, what is Evil Genius about, really? Two broken people taking a shot at being gangsters and having to deal with a never-ending investigation as a consequence? Marjorie and Rothstein might've been evil geniuses in their daily lives, but it didn't show in that heist.
True Crime television and catharsis
I don't want to lecture you for watching Evil Genius. I've watched the entire thing myself and I can't accuse it of anything, except maybe fit a square peg in a round hole. While Marjorie took part in the heist, I have little doubt that it was actually Bill Rothstein idea and that it was meant to be his romantic magnum opus. He wanted to prove he was a badass to the woman who strategically kept her love from him all these years. This is the conclusion I (and probably most people) took from Evil Genius. There's an angle problem, but... the crime was indeed fascinating.
What was particularly brilliant about the show is that it deconstructed the most romanticized real life iteration of the most romanticized crime. There were countless fictions written about bank heists. Banks are the most protected strongholds of capitalism and there's a sense of victory over the system when a protagonist can get away with robbing it. But heist fiction has become obsolete in the surveillance age we're living in and the events of Evil Genius were right on the edge of it. Bank heists were romantic enough to work before the computer era, but they've become just romantic enough to remain in the realm of romance ever since. They have become the forbidden fruit of broken and frustrated intellectuals.
That, Evil Genius illustrates well. It does what true crime does best: deconstructing the real life implications of a crime shrouded in mystery and romance. Having the medical examiner saying he has to surgically decapitate Brian Wells is probably the least romantic thing to ever be said about a bank heist. Evil Genius doesn't necessarily tells the story as it should. At least, I don't believe so. But it offers a responsible catharsis, runs you through this improbable crime without sparing you the aftermath of it. It's only four episodes long. Hard to tell you not to watch. But I'm going to leave you with a question. I haven't found a satisfying answer to this one: Why did Bill Rothstein call the police on himself?