Lehane adapts the non-fiction book In With the Devil: A Fallen Hero, a Serial Killer, and a Dangerous Affair of Redemption by James Keene, played here by Egerton. A petty criminal, Keene is arrested with enough drugs and weapons in his possession to serve ten years behind bars, a sentence that likely means he won’t see the final days of his ailing father, a well-known ex-cop. under the name Big Jim (Liotta). When a detective named Lauren McCauley (an excellent Sepideh Moafi) makes him a proposition, he listens. It’s an incredibly dangerous idea that will take Keene from a minimum-security detention center to a maximum-security center for the criminally insane, where he’ll be surrounded by murderers and career sociopaths. But it won’t just lead to Keene’s release, but potentially save lives.
McCauley works with another detective named Brian Miller (Kinnear) on the case of a suspected serial killer named Larry Hall (Paul Walter Hauser). They’ve had it for now, but Hall has a call waiting that looks like it could work, so they need more. Hall has been a suspect in several murders in the Midwest, but he’s one of those guys who never tells the same story twice. His twin brother Garry (a phenomenal Jake McLaughlin) and other detectives think Hall is just a broken storyteller, one of those guys who confesses to things he didn’t do. Miller thinks he’s a real freak who plays games and that Hall committed those horrible rapes and murders. While investigating recent disappearances that may be Hall’s crimes, Jimmy Keene is moved to a cell near the would-be monster, left in an incredibly dangerous situation where almost no one in the prison knows why he’s there. When he’s not dodging a corrupt guard or navigating the convict power structure, Keene must slowly open Hall, knowing that what he finds inside will be absolutely horrific.
Lehane’s dialogue is crisp from the first scene to the last of “Black Bird’s” six episodes, and the entire ensemble comes to life through her lyrics. Egerton strikes the perfect balance between courage and vulnerability. He’s just an opportunistic criminal, not someone who wants to discuss the rape and murder of children. Egerton captures the emotional stakes of having to listen to a monster in a way reminiscent of Netflix’s excellent “Mindhunter,” which also seems to have a bearing on the procedural stuff going on with McCauley & Miller. Kinnear has a flint intellectualism that fits the character perfectly, someone who pushes a little harder than the cops who seem too willing to believe Hall is a serial confessor. Hauser is a bit more of a mixed bag. Probably true to the real guy, he plays Hall with a high-pitched effect that can sometimes feel like a crutch or even a distraction. He’s best when he’s not delving into the scale of Hall’s physique and vocal tics, especially in the fifth episode, which is almost a double between Hauser and Egerton. Finally, there’s the heartbreaking work of Liotta, who was actually sick on set. He imbues his worried and dying father with a truth that serves as an emotional backdrop to everything that happens on the show.