The first episode of “The Keepers,” Netflix’s latest true crime docuseries, is all about focus. From the murder victim at the series’ center to a dedicated group of women and men determined to uncover decades-hidden truths, Ryan White’s seven-part investigation into the 1969 murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik begins with a meticulous layout of the relevant details, bouncing between the perspectives of those who lived through it and those charged with piecing the story together years later.
This metaphorical search for focus in its opening installment often becomes literal. With the camera hovering over tables in living rooms and sports bars and as handheld shots of dimly lit attics try to find relevant details among stacks of news clippings, that focus wavers, in constant search of clarity.
It’s an effective stylistic opening for a series that constantly eludes an easy characterization. Save for the aerial drone footage over this Baltimore neighborhood and the wooded areas that hold their share of secrets, this is a show that is guiding its audience to reexamine everything (and everyone) involved with each unfolding detail. By the time “The Keepers” zeroes in on the enduring legacy of this chapter of life at Archbishop Keough High School in the late 1960s, it arrives at a conclusion that encompasses far more than a single cold case.
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As the entry points for the various discoveries that lie within “The Keepers,” White profiles two intrepid researchers, Abbie Schaub and Gemma Hoskins, whose deep, personal connection to the story as former Keough students manifests itself in a passionate, dogged pursuit of the various suspects surrounding Cesnik’s murder. Though Schaub and Hoskins’ independent investigation — complete with Facebook Messenger-cultivated sources and hand-crafted evidence grids — runs throughout the series, “The Keepers” undergoes a seismic shift in its second episode: the Cesnik case gives way to an examination of a meticulous and brutally detailed history of alleged sexual abuse on Keough grounds, perpetrated and facilitated by members of the school’s faculty.
By investigating those two simultaneously, the show becomes a statement on power and fear and how the two can feed each other when manipulated for evil ends. Sometimes, that fear is perpetrated through personal intimidation, as recounted by numerous women who suffered at the hands of Keough staff members during their days as students. In other instances, as detailed by journalists who covered the case during its various legal developments over the intervening decades, the restricted level of access afforded by law enforcement and religious authorities becomes another way that these horrors reverberate through the lives of those directly affected by Cesnik’s death.
“The Keepers” also becomes a treatise on memory and the stories we keep as a community. Even in recreations, White and his team focus on tiny details: obscured, shrouded faces and hallways and rooms that, through their emptiness, feel like skeletons of a life remembered. While those sequences get at the haziness of those memories, that elusiveness raises questions about how the other characters in this drama are introduced.
By opening this series with a blank slate, “The Keepers” is tinged by a standard “whodunit” problem. Though there are individuals that the series directly deems culpable for the actions described by its interview subjects — the allegations brought against Father Joseph Maskell are somehow more horrific than the eventual gruesome details of Cesnik’s autopsy — there’s a general sense that these crimes and cover-ups could ensnare anyone, even those being interviewed on camera who were not directly victims.
What the show chooses to put forward as likely possibility and what its leaves to the viewer to decide will likely be a hotly contested debate as various audiences discover the show. But as a document of this group investigation, the greatest value of “The Keepers” is in giving these women a platform for discussing the events of the past while not letting them be defined by victimhood.
At times, White captures moments of vulnerability so raw and unfettered that they seem almost too personal to be given over to the public to dissect. But those brutal retellings of buried traumas are balanced with the lives that these women have led in the wake of tragedy. That these women have endured to nurture families of their own and now have the growing support of a network of independent researchers pursuing their justice is a valuable part of an evolving cultural conversation around how sexual violence perpetuates.
Its blend of color-tinted recreations, on-camera interviews, and archival photographs may not reinvent the format, but “The Keepers” understands that one crime does not exist in a vacuum. By acknowledging and documenting the environment that could lead to a brutal murder, the seven-part series says more about the power in being able to tell your own story.
“The Keepers” premieres Friday, May 19 on Netflix.