Tuesday 26 September 2017

7 unexpected moments we couldn't have prepared ourselves for as we binge-listened to S-Town

By Zaina Alibhai

We just emerged in a bit of a daze after listening to the whole thing in one go.

Have you listened to S-Town yet? The new podcast from the team behind Serial offered an intriguing murder-mystery which turned out to be so much more.

The premise was to follow an alleged murder and cover-up in a small town in Alabama, brought to the attention of the team by one local who’d begrudgingly called Woodstock his home.

However, as host Brian Reed delved deeper into the bizarre case that had led him on a three-year investigation, what he uncovered was a long way from what he expected.

Naturally, we binge-listened to the seven-chapter series in its entirety as soon as it dropped – and here are seven moments we could’ve never expected.

A word of caution: there are spoilers galore to come, so please don’t read if you haven’t finished the series.

1. The non-murder

S-Town was born from an email sent by John B McLemore, a Woodstock local who was convinced there’d been some shady goings-on in his town.

The antique clock restorer insisted the team investigate a young man from a wealthy family who’d allegedly been bragging about getting away with murder, after a fight broke out between three young men at a party.

As Brian delves deeper into the case he struggles to find any trace of the murder – no police reports, no newspaper articles, no obituary – that many people in town seem to know of.

Brian soon learns the alleged murder didn’t actually happen, and while many of the rumoured events of that night were indeed true, all three involved were still alive to tell the tale.

And so what began as a murder-mystery soon turns into the story of the complex yet compelling life of one man: John B McLemore.

2. John B McLemore’s suicide

John, the eccentric character who harbours an intriguing disdain for his hometown, leaves an impression on Brian – and listeners alike – from the subject line of his very first email: “John B McLemore lives in Shit Town, Alabama.”

As the series unravels, John’s combative relationship with Woodstock is apparent, though through his scathing ramblings, it is clear the 49-year-old clock restorer is deeply intelligent, highly astute and perhaps not at all as contemptuous as he first appears.

Some time after the murder is revealed to be bogus – and weeks since Brian last spoke to John on the phone – he receives a text message from a friend of John’s requesting a phone call.

Brian learns the devastating news of John’s suicide, as the story hurtles down the second of many twisted paths to come.

3. The treasure hunt

It came as a surprise to all those who knew John that he had taken his own life without having written a will, leaving behind his elderly mother with no arranged care, his treasured clock workshop unattended and his apparently large collection of assets unaccounted for.

There were rumours John – despite leading a pretty humble life – had a secret stash of money and gold which he dished out to friends in need, preferring to live “unbanked”.

Brian pays a visit to John’s lawyer who confirms there was no will but speaks of John’s extensive assets, revealing he’d once mentioned hiding his treasures from prying hands.

Furthermore John had left instructions with a Woodstock town clerk advising her what steps to take following his death, also including the location of several gold bars.

John’s death sparks a treasure hunt, as members of his family and friends scramble to uncover the hiding spot of his treasures.

4. Scathing family feuds

John treasured his friendship with local 20-something Tyler Goodson. He would work on John’s garden under the sweaty summer heat, help take care of his elderly mother and drink with him in the evenings on his porch.

Before his death, John speaks extensively about Tyler – of his troublesome childhood, his list of petty crimes, his three daughters – even talking about writing Tyler and his brother Jake into his will, leaving them 20 ounces of gold each.

After John’s suicide, Tyler finds himself embroiled in a feud over John’s estate, with the clockmaker’s cousins who live in Florida.

Tyler lets himself into John’s home to retrieve items he believes John wouldn’t want his family to have – including his laptop and every last bit of paperwork – as well as taking his vehicles.

Among John’s paperwork is a document, with the coordinates to various locations including some on his property, which Tyler uses to scour his land looking for the hidden treasure.

The cousins, whom Tyler is adamant are trying to take advantage of not only John’s mother but his assets, file numerous police reports against him, including trespassing and theft.

The hunt for John’s treasure sees numerous fingers being pointed: at Tyler, at the cousins, and even at the police, yet ultimately the whereabouts to the coveted assets are never revealed.

5. John’s sexuality struggle

Not much is mentioned of romantic relationships in the early chapters of the series yet John’s sexuality is thrust into the limelight when the host tracks down an old friend of his.

It seems Tyler is not the only apprentice John had taken under his wing, years before he had forged a friendship with Michael, another 20-something-year-old who lived down the road from him.

John had offered Michael a safe haven from his wild lifestyle, was a saviour when he needed help, yet Michael suggests he may have wanted more than friendship, a romantic relationship.

Brian also speaks to another friend of John’s who he met on a men’s singles dating line. As their friendship blossomed over the years, they discussed their experiences coming out to their families, their previous relationships and current conquests.

The conversations lead Brian to speculate whether John had hoped one of his friendships would develop into a romantic one, as Michael suggests. He wonders whether John – having witnessed Tyler’s relationship with his girlfriend grow deeper, with the pair moving in together weeks before his suicide – struggled to deal with the overwhelming feelings of loneliness and lack of love.

6. Mad Hatter disease

John was open about the depression that consumed him, and while his sentences were often punctuated with laughter, it did little to hide his weariness.

While Brian says depression is something John struggled with from his teens until his death, we’re left wondering if something else contributed to John’s low mood – heartbreakingly, one of the things he loved most in the world.

Friends recall John often fire gilded his clocks: an outdated and highly dangerous process of melting mercury and gold, then coating surfaces with the amalgam to leave a rich and textured layer of gold.

With no ventilation in his workshop and no safety equipment, it seems John often exposed himself to dangerous fumes over the years, and was even known to have done so up until the years before his death.

Mercury poisoning – or Mad Hatter disease – carries symptoms of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts, all of which John expressed feelings of.

Could John’s lifelong passion have contributed to the decline of his mental health?

7. The suicide note

Of all the dark twists and turns throughout S-Town, the most haunting are the last words left behind by John in his suicide note.

The Woodstock local, a character who appeared a cynical misanthrope on the surface, possessed an undoubted antagonistic view of his home town – a town of “proleptic decay and decrepitude” in his own words.

Yet his parting words paint a bittersweet picture of contentment, contrary to everything heard throughout the podcast.

John talks of his fond memories of Woodstock, reminiscing on all he’d achieved in his lifetime there: his literary pursuits, his musical talent and, of course, his beloved trade.

He ends: “I’ve lived on this blue orb now, for about 17,600 days, and when I look around me and see the leaden dispiritedness that envelopes so many persons – both young and old – I know that if I die tonight, my life has been inestimably better than that of most of my compatriots.”

Press Association

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