[Spoilers for “Aquarius” Season 1 below.]
This summer, NBC’s “Aquarius” blended police procedural, family melodrama and the story of real-life cult leader Charles Manson (Gethin Anthony) and his “Family” into an engrossing thirteen hours of television. Series director and executive producer Jonas Pate has said that “Aquarius” is not historically accurate, but “inspired by the truth” of the Manson Family, who committed one of the strangest and most infamous murder sprees in Los Angeles history. But when looking forward to the second season ordered by the network, Charlie Manson’s life is a great blueprint for the series.
Let’s take a brief look at Charles Manson and his “family.” Manson was born in 1934 to an unwed teenage mother. By 1967, he was a career criminal who had spent more than half his life in jail and institutions. He requested to remain in prison, as it had become his “home,” but he was released and immediately went to San Francisco, where he embraced the hippie ideal of the “Summer of Love.” He started his “family” with Mary Brunner, whom we met in “Aquarius” when she birthed Manson’s son. (This would actually be Manson’s third and final child.) Manson used a mix of sex, love, music, drugs, and New Age religion to bring followers to him. There was no shortage of cultish “gurus” in San Francisco around this time, but he left with a dozen or so of his Family members before the summer was over. It is shortly before “Aquarius” begins, in the fall of 1967, that Manson and his followers take up residence in various suburbs of Los Angeles.
Manson believed that a race war was inevitable, due in part to his reading of the book of Revelations in the Bible, and, more importantly, The Beatles’ “White Album.” The song “Helter Skelter” was a particular obsession of Manson’s, which he believed contained various coded references to the inevitable, apocalyptic race war that would decimate two-thirds of the world’s population.
On August 8, 1969, Manson put “helter skelter” into motion. At Manson’s direction, Charles “Tex” Watson, Susan “Sadie” Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkle went to the house that actress Sharon Tate had rented while her husband Roman Polanski was directing “Rosemary’s Baby” in London. Tate, who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant at the time, had four friends over when Watson and the girls broke in and spent nearly a half-hour beating, stabbing, and shooting the inhabitants. Afterwards, the killers wrote “pig” in Tate’s blood on the front door. A fifth young man was shot as the killers approached the house; he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The following night, Manson himself went out with Watson, Atkins, Kasabian, Krenwinkle, Leslie Van Houten, and Steve Grogan to “show them how it’s done.” After driving around for hours, they finally settled on a house that belonged to Leno and Rosemary LaBianca. Manson went inside and tied the couple up, then sent Watson, Krenwinkle, and Van Houten inside to commit the actual murders. “Rise,” “Death to pigs,” and “Healter [sic] Skelter” were written on the walls in blood. The bloody graffiti at the two murder scenes were meant to implicate the Black Panthers in the murders, thus starting Manson’s imagined helter skelter race war.
Arrests weren’t made until December of that year, with the trial commencing June 15, 1970. Charles Manson, Susan Atkins, Leslie Van Houten, and Patricia Krenwinkel were tried and convicted on January 25, 1971 in the “main” Manson trial. Van Houten was only convicted of the LaBianca murders, as well as a conspiracy charge; the others were each convicted on seven counts of murder and one of conspiracy. All four were sentenced to death, which was later commuted to life in prison when the death penalty was briefly abolished in California. Tex Watson was convicted on the same charges in a later trial. Atkins, along with fellow Family member Bobby Beausoliel, was later convicted of the murder of Gary Hinman, which occurred a week before the Tate killings, a kind of “warm-up” to helter skelter.
The Manson Family trial was the longest (nine-and-a-half-months), most expensive (over $1 million), and most highly-publicized murder trial in United States history. Manson and his Family claim to have committed thirty-five to forty-five additional murders, but one additional murder was conclusively linked to the family. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme was in charge of the Family during the trial, and tried to keep it going after the convictions were handed down, but despite her devotion to the group, she didn’t have the same power as Manson. Those Family members who weren’t in prison for any number of lesser crimes either joined other cults or attempted to lead quiet, normal lives. Fromme, while not charged with any Family murders, earned her prison sentence by attempting to assassinate President Ford in 1975. Charles Manson currently resides in Corcoran State Prison in California. He has been denied parole twelve times and won’t be eligible again until he is ninety-two years old.
When “Aquarius” wrapped Season 1, it ended in the spring of 1968, roughly a year and a half before the infamous Tate-LaBianca murders. Season 2 could thus see Manson and his followers setting up at Dennis Wilson’s house, where they stayed a few months before moving to Spahn Ranch, one of the Family’s two isolated hideaways. Arriving at Spahn would be a good way to end Season 2, then Season 3 could focus on the Family’s time at Spahn and Barker Ranches. A great cliffhanger could be seeing the Family head out to Sharon Tate’s house, followed by Season 4 opening on the murders, or even the aftermath.
But first things first. How will “Aquarius” fill the time and flesh out its characters while leading up to one of the most transformative events of the generation?
A good place to start seems to be Manson’s involvement with Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson. It looked like Season 1 was going to touch on this part of Manson’s history when Emma and Sadie were “given” to that record producer, but it didn’t last more than a couple of days in the show, and happened a year too early. In reality, Dennis Wilson became involved with Manson when he picked up two of his girls, Ella Jo Bailey and Patricia Krenwinkel, who had been hitchhiking. He brought them home and went to a recording session. When he returned around 3 a.m., he was greeted outside by Manson, who bowed before the Beach Boy, then brought him inside, where a dozen Family members – mostly girls – had moved in. Manson and his followers stayed several months, and nearly doubled their numbers. Wilson enjoyed talking with Charlie, and having the girls service them. The novelty wore off after a few months, and Manson and his girls were evicted from Wilson’s home in August 1968, after which Wilson got numerous death threats.
Since Manson is well-known for his stable of young girls, let’s bring more of them into the series. We already have Susan “Sadie” Atkins, who was the only Family member besides Manson to be convicted of the all eight Tate-LaBianca-Hinman murders. At the beginning of Season 1, we met Katie, who, along with Sadie, was one of Manson’s favorite girls. After a few episodes, Katie faded away and was never mentioned. Patricia Krenwinkel’s Family nickname was Katie, so it makes sense to make her a bigger part of Season 2. Leslie Van Houten joined the family around the summer of 1968, so it seems fair to assume we will see her. Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme joined Charlie’s “family” when they moved to Spahn Ranch, as did Tex Watson, both of whom deserve a place in the series.
Of course, Charles Manson is not the sole focus of “Aquarius.” The end of Season 1 showed detective Sam Hodiak (David Duchovny) murdering a suspect in a string of homophobic murders; he then admits to the murder, but his superiors sweep it under the rug and grant him a medal anyway. An internal affairs investigator shows up, suggesting that they are going to investigate Hodiak. This seems to be leading into a much broader investigation of corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department. LAPD has long suffered a reputation of rampant corruption at all levels, and since “Aquarius” is as much a Los Angeles noir as it is about Charles Manson, this seems like a more interesting path to take than a cookie-cutter “bad cop” story.
Though “Aquarius” is not “wholly accurate” to what is known about Charles Manson’s life, it is surprisingly close, and honestly, the real story doesn’t really need any embellishment. As the old saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction, and nowhere is there a better example of this than with Charlie Manson and his Family. This combination of historically almost-accurate events, along with the historically representative backdrop of racial and sexual tensions lend a gritty realism to “Aquarius” that is lost in even the most grounded police shows.